While a renegade Libyan army bombed an airport in government-held Tripoli in early June, American lobbyists were waging a proxy war in Washington. Pressured by unpredictable U.S. policy, both belligerents—the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA)—are now shelling out millions to win favor in the capital.
The LNA, led by former Libyan army general under Muammar Gaddafi Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, hired its first American lobbyists in mid-May. The Decision Support Center of Libya—the army’s diplomatic wing—signed a $2 million contract with Linden Government Solutions, paying the firm $350,000 upfront to cozy up to American lawmakers, according to State Department filings.
In the other corner, the GNA employs two high-profile American lobbying firms—Mercury Public Affairs and Prime Policy Group—as its agents in Washington. This frenzied reach for foreign backers was catalyzed by the LNA’s ongoing assault on Tripoli.
Strike and Pivot
Hoping to rapidly seize his opponent’s capital city, Haftar stormed its southern suburbs on April 4, the day before the UN peace talks were to be held. A coalition of Islamist, GNA-aligned militias, restrained his ambitions and have since kept the LNA at bay. The battle grinds on, having already left over 600 dead, more than 3,000 wounded, and forced 90,000 residents from their homes.
U.S. President Trump called Haftar by telephone on April 15 in support of the offensive, effectively reversing his government’s pro-GNA policy. Trump praised “Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” and asserted that the two have a “shared vision” for Libya’s political future.
GNA Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Maiteeq said that the phone call, which the White House kept secret until April 19, sent a “confusing message,” since the U.S. has been the GNA’s “main ally.” One week after Trump’s pivot, the office of Maiteeq’s boss, Prime Minister al-Sarraj, signed a $2 million-per-year contract with Mercury Public Affairs.
The firm had proposed a partnership in 2016, but it was the threat of losing U.S. backing—and the reminder that Trump’s whims sway national policy—that convinced Tripoli to accept. Mercury, which also lobbies for GNA allies Qatar and Turkey, put 17 agents on the account, including Bryan Lanza, the former communications director for President Trump’s transition team.
Trump’s impulsive policy also appears to have triggered the office of Deputy Prime Minister Maiteeq to contract with Prime Policy Group (though the firm is working pro bono). Prime’s chief is Charles Black, who formerly ran a powerful lobbying firm with Paul Manafort, an imprisoned Trump campaigner, and Roger Stone, a former Trump advisor facing federal prosecution. The trio represented Republican political candidates and brutal foreign dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now Congo).
“[Maiteeq] struck me as someone we ought to get around in the U.S, “ Black told Mother Jones. Tripoli seems to be counting on the high profiles of Mercury and Prime to lure Trump back to its side.
Game of Thrones
Turmoil has gripped Libya since a NATO-assisted rebellion removed strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, leaving a power vacuum that was soon filled by warring factions.
The relatively weak GNA has been at war with Haftar since the UN installed it in 2016. Turmoil has gripped Libya since a NATO-assisted rebellion removed strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, leaving a power vacuum that was soon filled by warring factions.
Haftar was a general under Gaddafi for decades until a botched military operation upended their alliance in the ‘80s and drove him into exile. For 20 years, he agitated from suburban Virginia, gaining U.S. citizenship and allegedly aiding the CIA’s attempts to overthrow and assassinate Gaddafi.
Returning to Libya shortly before Gaddafi was killed, Haftar built up the LNA as a state army before going rogue in 2014. His forces now are aligned with a legislative body competing with the GNA, but his past suggests that any alliance will only survive if it props up his personal ambitions for power.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are throwing their weight behind Haftar, while Qatar and Turkey back the GNA
Like the chaos in Yemen, Libya’s conflict has become an arena for regional rivals to wage a proxy war—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are throwing their weight behind Haftar, while Qatar and Turkey back the GNA—and for American lobbyists to reap the profits.
Haftar’s new influencers, Linden Government Solutions, operate from a shiny office building in a leafy residential zone of Houston, Texas. Its key players are Stephen Payne and Brian Ettinger, whose other firm, Worldwide Strategic Energy (WSE), “brokers oil and gas deals in unstable countries,” according to the New York Times.
Payne, a veteran lobbyist and former aide to President George W. Bush, has facilitated operations for many authoritarian governments rich in oil or dependent on it—Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and the UAE. To win weapons, pipelines, and influence in the U.S. Haftar claims his assault on Tripoli is needed to revive Libya’s vital oil industry (the country has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa).
Both lobbyists have a history with Libya. Payne told the New York Times in 2011 that he has “deep and wide contacts in Libya, and has a long term relationship with three of [Gaddafi’s] sons,” but “no current business” there. He told the AP that he has communicated with Haftar for the past five years. Their hire may have been driven by increased lobbying pressure from the GNA.
Upping the Ante
Deputy Prime Minister Maiteeq visited Washington on June 6 to drum up support with State Department officials and members of Congress. Afterward, he told NBC that his meetings were encouraging: “The State Department understands the position of our government and the situation in Libya quite well.” During his visit, Prime Policy Group doubled its Libya roster to 12 lobbyists.
Many U.S. lawmakers and officials reject Trump’s support of Haftar, and are becoming more vocal about it. Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-NJ, called Trump’s pivot to Haftar “batshit crazy.” Maiteeq met with U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who wrote a letter with his colleagues to Trump, concerned that the Tripoli offensive could “reignite a more violent civil war.”
“We need to reinforce the message that we’re not picking one group over the others and we reject military force as the solution to the problems in Libya,” Graham told Politico, though Maiteeq said that the meeting confirmed that “the U.S. is standing by GNA as the legitimate government of Libya.”
A bipartisan congressional group requested in May that the FBI investigate Haftar for war crimes. As the heat picked up, Linden added two more lobbyists to Haftar’s account in early June.
As long as U.S. leadership remains divided, and U.S. foreign policy confounding, this lucrative, behind-the-scenes lobbyists’ battle for influence will continue to spiral and the conflict in Tripoli will worsen while the people of Libya continue to pay the price in a country trapped in endless war with no political solution in sight.