The tale of the lost tablet BBC investigation sheds new light on Russian mercenaries’ presence in Libya

A demining operation in a district south of Libya’s capital, Tripoli. June 15, 2020. Mahmud Turkia / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Journalists from the BBC published a new investigation (available in English and Russian) about the operations of the Russian mercenary group Wagner in Libya. The report is largely based on information obtained from an electronic tablet that was allegedly retrieved from a battlefield in western Libya. A local contact handed the device over to the BBC back in February. Upon gaining access to the information on the tablet, the journalists discovered that it contained dozens of files, including maps indicating Wagner positions, fighters’ codenames, and the locations of mines. The BBC also obtained a separate 10-page document from a Libyan intelligence security source that allegedly “hints” at who could be funding the Wagner group.

The lost tablet

The authors of the BBC investigation believe that the electronic tablet retrieved in Libya belonged to a Russian mercenary who fought in support of rebel general Khalifa Haftar against the Government of National Accord (GNA), which has the backing of the United Nations. After a local contact passed along the device, a BBC team brought it to London. The journalists put the tablet in a “signal-blocking bag” to prevent it from being tracked or wiped remotely. 

The BBC reporters don’t specify how they managed to gain access to the information on the device (though they said it “was easy to access”). The tablet contained dozens of files, including Russian-language instructions and diagrams of mines and artillery shells, as well as guides for installing explosive devices and reconnaissance footage from drones. It also contained a number of books, including Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a Game of Thrones novel, and how-to guide for making wine. 

Most importantly, the maps app included “layers of military maps of the front line, all marked in Russian.” Some of the red location dots on the maps were accompanied by what is presumed to be the codenames of Wagner group fighters. Cross-referencing these callsigns with available databases of Wagner mercenaries’ information led the BBC journalists to believe that the dots labeled “Metla”referred to Fyodor Metelkin, a 36-year-old Russian national from the North Caucasus. 

According to the BBC, black dots on the maps indicate the locations of mines. They are either labeled in reference to a specific type of mine or with the codenames of fighters (including the aforementioned “Metla”). The maps included 35 mine positions in total, all of which are in a residential district of Ain Zara, a town south of Tripoli. The BBC shared the locations of the Wagner mines with a charity carrying out demining work in Libya. 

One of the maps indicated the Libyan village of Espiaa (located 45 kilometers, about 30 miles, south of the capital) as another Wagner position. The BBC spoke to a local man there who said he and his relatives were kidnapped and shot at by a group of Russian-speaking men in September 2019. Three of his family members were killed and the Libyan authorities are actively investigating the murders as a war crime. The man recognized one of his kidnappers from a photograph of Wagner fighters taken in the area. The BBC identified the abductor as Vladimir Andanov, codename “Vakha” — a Russian national “suspected of involvement in possible extra-judicial killings of prisoners of war during the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

“Ukrainian activists have identified his [Andanov’s] most recent location as North Africa. But some of those claiming to be his friends have denied on social media that he went to Libya with Wagner. They say he’s at home in Russia,” the BBC noted.

The secret documents

In addition to the information from the tablet, the BBC received another 10-page document from a Libyan intelligence security source in Tripoli, who had been investigating the Wagner group’s involvement in the country. The BBC described the document as “essentially a ‘shopping list’ of weapons and equipment” requested by the fighters. “It is dated 19 January 2020, the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin attended a conference in Berlin on a peace process for Libya,” the journalists noted.

Having analyzed the document at the BBC’s request, security advisor Chris Cobb-Smith said, “I very much doubt that any other private military company (PMC) — if Wagner can be termed as such — has anything close to the support that seems to be available to them here.” Cobb-Smith noted that requested weapons and equipment are “state and the art” and currently in service with the Russian military. “This not only implies access to a substantial budget but also the authority for access to the latest sensitive, if not secret, technology,” he said.

A second document obtained by the BBC is addressed to “OOO Evro Polis” — a Russian company reportedly contracted for oil and gas field development in Syria. Evro Polis is rumored to belong to Kremlin-linked catering magnate Evgeny Prigozhin. Media reports have also linked Prigozhin to the Wagner group, but he consistently denies any connection to Wagner or to Evro Polis. Prigozhin reiterated this position in a statement to the BBC. “I have not heard anything about the violation of human rights in Libya by the Russians and I am sure that this is an absolute lie,” he added.

Oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin (second from the right, the only one in civilian clothing) during a meeting with Libyan rebel general Khalifa Haftar at the Russian Defense Ministry in November 2018. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu (fifth from the left) also attended the meeting.Oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin (second from the right, the only one in civilian clothing) during a meeting with Libyan rebel general Khalifa Haftar at the Russian Defense Ministry in November 2018. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu (fifth from the left) also attended the meeting.AP / Scanpix / LETA

For more about Evgeny Prigozhin

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Initials on both documents indicate that they were approved by “DU Ninth”. The BBC believes this “signature” refers to Dmitry Utkin, the Wagner mercenary group’s alleged founder and commander. Utkin is known by the codenames “Wagner” and “Ninth” (both documents include the number “9” and the Russian word “Ninth”). He did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.

In conversation with the BBC, a former Wagner fighter said that during the period of active fighting in Libya from September 2019 to July 2020, there were up to 1,000 mercenaries in the country at any given time. 

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BBC Russian service journalist Ilya Barabanov — who co-authored the investigative report — also wrote on Telegram that the Wagner PMC has had tighter admission requirements since at least April 2021. Among other things, the fighters are now obliged to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

When contacted by the BBC, the Russian Foreign Ministry directed the journalists to its previous statements about the Wagner group. In June 2020, the Foreign Ministry said that information about the presence of Wagner mercenaries in Libya is “for the most part built on rigged data and aimed at discrediting Russia’s policy” toward the country.

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Summary by Alexander Baklanov

Edited translation by Eilish Hart


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