(Bloomberg) -- Libyan security forces have arrested two men accused of working for a Russian troll farm seeking to influence elections in the oil exporter and other African countries.
A letter from the state prosecutor of the internationally-backed Tripoli government to a Libyan security chief said the men were involved in “securing a meeting” with Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the fugitive son of the ousted dictator and a potential presidential candidate who enjoys the backing of some officials in Moscow.
Russia’s foreign ministry said it was aware of the reports and was seeking to verify them. “We haven’t received an official notification from the Libyan side regarding this matter,” the foreign ministry’s press service said.
Laptops and memory sticks found with the suspects showed that they worked for an outfit identified as Fabrika Trollei, Russian for Troll Factory, that “specializes in influencing elections that are to be held in several African states” including Libya, the letter, stamped by the attorney general’s office and obtained by Bloomberg, stated. Two Libyan government officials with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed the authenticity of the document.
Fabrika Trollei was the moniker given to a network of media and political outfits connected to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who’s been accused by the U.S. of funding and organizing operations to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Prigozhin has been in contact with representatives of Saif al-Islam over his future political role, according to three people familiar with the situation.
Libya had planned to hold elections this year as part of a UN-sponsored roadmap to heal the divisions that have plagued the OPEC member since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that ended Moammar al-Qaddafi’s four-decade rule. That initiative has been upended since eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar launched in April a military assault to capture Tripoli.
Haftar himself has presidential ambitions and is fighting to seize the capital from the United Nations-backed government led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, which carried out the arrests. The offensive has descended into a proxy war with each side accusing the other of inviting foreign interference.
Haftar is supported by the U.A.E and Egypt, and had received Russian assistance, though Russia has also tried to cultivate other partners in Libya, including Saif al-Islam, as it looks to expand its role in North Africa and build its geopolitical might.
Saif al-Islam’s aides have previously said he had the clout to rally disparate Libyan tribes with a promise to restore stability. Others say his influence is over-stated in a country where the rebels and dissidents who ousted his father now vie for power.
“Russia is trying to increase its influence across Africa, it is trying to play its game. And this game is very diverse, it differs from country to a country,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Sometimes it is via private actors, sometimes it’s through state actors. Prigozhin is one of Russia’s proxy agents.”
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One of the Libyan officials said the detained Russians had met Saif al-Islam twice between their arrival in Libya in March and their arrest in May. They had also confessed to taking part in a campaign to influence elections in Madagascar, he said. Three Libyans, including the son of a Qaddafi-era foreign minister, had also been arrested. The men have yet to be charged.
The prosecution document, dated July 3, named one of the men detained as Maxim Shugalei, a Russian political consultant who works for the Moscow-based Foundation for the Defense of National Values and whose head until recently ran a news website linked by the U.S. to Prigozhin.
Shugalei’s employer confirmed that he and an unspecified number of other employees were detained in May by Libyan authorities. It said in a statement on its website that they didn’t intervene in the country’s electoral process and were just carrying out sociological studies. The other man detained was Samer Hassan Seifan, identified by a colleague as an Arabic speaker who was acting as their interpreter.
Alexander Prokofiev, named in the Libyan document as a third Russian man who escaped arrest, said he was working with Shugalei in Libya on research commissioned by the foundation and confirmed that they interviewed Saif al-Islam. “This is a wild and absurd situation,” he said by message. “The topic of meddling in elections that don’t exist is complete nonsense.”
Known as “Putin’s chef” for his Kremlin catering contracts, Prigozhin has previously denied any role in U.S. election meddling. He didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment via his Concord Catering company.
Shugalei is a political consultant from St. Petersburg who has experience in Africa and is known to work for Prigozhin, said Petr Bystrov, a senior member of the Russian Association of Political Consultants. “He’s a fairly highly-qualified expert,” Bystrov said by phone.
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Alexander Malkevich, the head of the Foundation for the Defense of National Values, was previously editor-in-chief of USA Really news website, which has been named by the U.S. Treasury department as one of the outlets linked to Prigozhin and engaged in efforts to post content on divisive political issues. Malkevich said he had left USA Really in February and denied any link to Prigozhin.
Saif al-Islam, one-time Libyan heir apparent, was held by the Zintan militia in western Libya after his capture in the 2011 war that toppled and killed his father. The rebels freed him in 2016 but he’s been in hiding ever since and his whereabouts are unknown. An aide did not immediately respond to a call for comment.
Qaddafi’s son remains wanted by The Hague-based International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity relating to a violent crackdown on demonstrations against his father’s rule and it wasn’t clear whether he’d be eligible to run for president given the ambiguity over his legal status.
(Updates throughout Russian comment, details from paragraph 3.)
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