On the night of Jan. 4, about 50 unarmed cadets ― many of them teenagers ― were practicing drills at a military academy in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Suddenly, a missile landed in their midst. Twenty-six cadets died, with some of their bodies split into two.
The missile’s origin: a Chinese drone operated by the United Arab Emirates ― the country that is now trying to buy its first armed American drones with President Donald Trump’s blessing.
“We were witnessing our colleagues dying, breathing their last breath, and we couldn’t do anything … it was an awful crime, a crime that has nothing to do with humanity,” Abdul Moeen, a 20-year-old survivor of the attack, later told the BBC.
The UAE denies involvement in Libya’s civil war. But U.S. intelligence proves that’s a lie ― and that the Emirates carried out the strike on the academy, a U.S. official familiar with the assessment told HuffPost.
That intelligence confirms the BBC’s conclusion in August that the UAE was to blame for the killings. Human Rights Watch has found other evidence tying the UAE to a November 2019 attack on a biscuit factory that killed eight civilians. Months earlier, a similar strike killed 53 migrants in a detention center, and United Nations officials reportedly concluded that the UAE was responsible, though they would only publicly describe the tragedy as evidence of the “dangers and direct consequences on civilians of foreign interference.”
As Congress debates Trump’s massive $23 billion arms deal with the UAE, which includes America’s most advanced fighter jet and thousands of bombs and missiles in addition to the drones, lawmakers have a chance to prevent shipments that will almost certainly be used to kill innocent people, aggravate civil wars and boost the global perception that the U.S. has little regard for human rights.
“Opposing these arms sales should be an absolute no-brainer for any senator who champions human rights and opposes atrocities against civilians.”
The Senate will likely vote Wednesday on one or all of a set of bills to block those weapons transfers. The outcome depends on the decisions of a few Republican senators.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is helping lead the charge against the sale, and the 48-member Democratic caucus will almost certainly jointly vote against the deal, meaning the question now probably hangs on whether two more Senate Republicans will oppose the arms sale. One may be Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whom anti-deal activists expect to vote against the transfer now based on private conversations. She has not yet publicly indicated how she will vote.
The congressional fight pits human rights and humanitarian groups, anti-war advocates and prominent mainstream voices on foreign policy against the sizable lobbying operations of the UAE, the defense industry, allies like former Trump Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump aides and hawks who view the arms deal as a way to deter Iran.
The politics of the dispute are hugely significant. Voting to block the deal would serve as a final rebuke to Trump, despite his near-certain veto, and signal to the Biden administration that Congress would support the next president in stopping shipment of the weapons down the line. More broadly, the vote will signal how much Congress is thinking about exerting influence on foreign affairs after it’s no longer dealing with Trump, whose views differed from those of most lawmakers.
But the implications beyond Washington are even more important.
As the world’s largest arms exporter, the U.S. helps fuel almost every conflict on the planet. Most Americans spend little time thinking about how those weapons are actually used. In the case of the deal with the UAE’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi ― the biggest such sale under Trump, who has behaved as an arms-dealer-in-chief ― the prospects for devastating consequences are very clear.
“Opposing these arms sales should be an absolute no-brainer for any senator who champions human rights and opposes atrocities against civilians,” Erica Fein of Win Without War, one of the groups opposing the deal, told HuffPost, listing instances in which the Emirates has defied international law. “Continuing to sell weapons to the UAE knowing about these and other violations only continues U.S. complicity in these wars and the suffering of the people caught in them.”
The UAE Embassy did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Libya’s Little-Noticed Pain
Competing forces in Libya have been fighting to control the country, including assets like its substantial oil reserves, since 2014. The UAE has supported one side, led by militia leader Khalifa Haftar, throughout, prolonging the fighting between Haftar and his rivals, an assortment of forces loyal to the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord, or GNA. Some of the UAE’s top regional competitors, namely Qatar and Turkey, back the GNA ― as does the United States.
Though the Emirates’ role in Libya has received far less attention than its behavior in Yemen, the UAE’s actions there illustrate many of the reasons some lawmakers, activists and analysts say the U.S. should not be sending the country more weapons.
The UAE has launched airstrikes against Haftar’s opponents without consulting Washington. It’s worked closely with Russian mercenaries ― including potentially financing them, according to a recent Pentagon report ― while using advanced Chinese equipment.
Meanwhile, the UAE has established proxy forces of its own, comprising hundreds of Sudanese men who were not told where they were being sent. And it has used its stocks of Western weaponry to commit dozens of war crimes while violating an international embargo on arms transfers into the country.
Top U.S. officials are growing increasingly worried about the yearslong conflict getting worse. Last month, the House passed bipartisan legislation demanding a report from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the impact of foreign powers’ influence in Libya. The fear is that Libya’s continued collapse will fuel extremism there, force people to become refugees and spill over into fragile neighboring countries.
“The Emirates’ role has been especially destructive — its drones and fixed-wing aircraft have conducted hundreds of strikes, according to the United Nations, causing scores of civilian deaths,” Frederic Wehrey, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote earlier this year.
He urged the U.S. to pressure the Emirates to rein in its intervention.
“In the meantime, it’s Libyans who suffer: from the constant fear of shelling or airstrikes, 16-hour blackouts and the sense that their fates are being decided from abroad,” Wehrey argued.
Congress has repeatedly condemned the UAE’s meddling in Yemen, where it has, since 2015, helped a hodgepodge of local forces, Saudi Arabia and other nations fight an Iran-backed militia called the Houthis. The U.S. has supported the Saudi-led coalition as well, through weapons and support for bombing missions ― even as the civil war created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and the coalition hit schools, hospitals, markets and other nonmilitary targets.
The Emirates has maintained a substantial presence in Yemen, carrying out airstrikes that killed civilians and strengthening Yemeni militia forces it saw as useful proxies while targeting figures it viewed as potential critics, including through a secret assassination program involving former U.S. soldiers, which BuzzFeed News revealed in 2018.
And the country transferred arms it had bought from the U.S. to militia fighters ― some of them ending up with hard-line anti-American organizations. In 2019, a bipartisan group of House Foreign Affairs Committee members described that move as posing “a clear national security risk to the U.S. and our interests and a serious violation of existing bilateral agreements pursuant to the Arms Export Control Act.”
The UAE successfully reduced criticism stateside by pulling out most of its own troops from Yemen last fall. The government presented that step as the end of its intervention in Yemen, going so far as to decline to promise any aid to the international appeal for Yemen in 2020 despite its years of helping devastate the country.
But U.S. intelligence continues to describe the UAE as involved in Yemen, two U.S. officials told HuffPost.
The UAE remains closely connected to powerful, often vicious armed fighters in Yemen ― up to 90,000 of them, the U.N. recently estimated ― and sees it as strategically useful to have influence in the country. It’s been particularly focused on controlling the strategically located island of Socotra, which Yemenis say now almost feels like it’s entirely been given over to a foreign power.
It’s also helped drive fresh fighting between various Yemeni political forces that has complicated the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and is currently seeking new U.S. steps against Iran-linked forces, which would prolong the civil war and drive millions more people into famine-like conditions.
Aisha Jumaan, a humanitarian expert who runs the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, dismissed the suggestion that the UAE is out of Yemen, saying the Emiratis are impossible to miss during visits to the country. She described the Emirati regime as “calculating and malicious,” more strategic and careful in its efforts than its widely criticized ally Saudi Arabia, but also extremely damaging.
“They go for inflicting the most harm, even if it is not warranted or needed,” Jumaan said.