A Libyan general with ties to Russia’s Wagner mercenary group claims to have recovered 2.5 tonnes of missing uranium.
Khaled Mahjoub, a media officer for the Libyan National Army (LNA), announced on his Facebook page that several drums of uranium had been found near the country's border with Chad.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) first discovered the uranium was missing last week during a routine inspection. “Agency safeguards inspectors found that 10 drums containing approximately 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate were not present as previously declared at a location in the State of Libya,” the IAEA said in a statement on March 15.
The IAEA had said it’s attempting to confirm the LNA’s claim it had found the uranium and did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment. According to Mahjoub’s post on Facebook, the uranium was found “in an area only about 5 kilometers from the warehouse in the direction of the Chadian border.” A video accompanying the post showed a hazmat suited man touching 18 blue barrels, presumably indicating which contained uranium.
The Libyan National Army is run by a man named Khalifa Haftar. Haftar has a long history in Libya as a politician and military leader, with intrigue in both Africa and America. He was once a CIA asset, lived in Langley, Virginia for 20 years, and holds a U.S. citizenship. He was part of the resistance to dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and has since been deeply involved in the ongoing Second Libyan Civil War. He is the de-facto leader of the eastern portion of the country, which is rich in oil reserves.
To help him maintain power in the east, Haftar has employed soldiers from the Russian mercenary group Wagner since 2019. In the summer of 2020, Wagner helped Haftar capture and hold Libya's largest oil field, which produces 300,000 barrels a day. Libyan politics are complicated and the number of extra-national military groups in the country can be hard to keep track of. Hafter and the LNA stand in opposition to the internationally-recognized government and Hafter has gotten help from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt as well as Russia. He’ll work with anyone that will help him maintain power.
The U.S. recently attempted to convince Haftar to stop working with Wagner and expel the mercenaries from the country. The CIA is worried about Wagner tapping into new revenue streams, either being paid out of Libya’s oil profits or by making use of the country’s smuggling networks.
The uranium the LNA supposedly found is not highly enriched and is only mildly radioactive. It’s a kind of concentrated uranium ore called “yellowcake” for its bright powdery appearance. It’s typically used to prepare nuclear fuel and would need to go through a lot of refinement to be turned into material capable of being used in a nuclear weapon. And though Wagner backs the LNA, it likely has no need for uranium itself—Russia’s nuclear weapons program is doing just fine on its own.
Libya pursued nuclear weapons for decades under Gaddafi, but abandoned its weapons of mass destruction projects in 2003.