The Libyan militia illegally towing back vulnerable refugees

The Tareq Bin Zeyad has been pulling back migrants and refugees to Benghazi.


On the morning of July 7, a Friday, a blue-and-white fishing vessel that had departed from Libya carrying about 250 asylum seekers ran out of fuel amid the vastness of the Mediterranean, putting the lives of its passengers in peril.

At 10:47 CEST (08:47 GMT), an observation aircraft flown by the German NGO Sea Watch located the vessel in distress within Malta’s search and rescue area (SAR).

In this stretch of sea, Malta’s Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) is responsible for rescue operations.

The NGO’s aircraft, Seabird 2, sent an alarm call to a commercial vessel nearby, the San Felix. The Italian oil tanker altered its course to stand by the boat in distress.

At 11:44 CEST (09:44 GMT), the oil tanker contacted Seabird 2. RCC Malta said they will “handle the case", the San Felix reported, but no estimated time of arrival for a rescue vessel was provided.

At 19:40 CEST (17:40 GMT), Seabird 2 spotted a Libyan vessel, the Tareq Bin Zeyad, heading towards the boat in distress.

Seabird 2 informed the Libyan crew boat that Maltese authorities had taken charge of the situation. “La, la, la, la…,” they responded mockingly, as they sang and laughed.

Verbally, the Tareq Bin Zeyad ultimately agreed to wait for Malta’s instructions. But in reality, it kept transferring the asylum seekers onto its deck.

At 20:11 CEST (18:11 GMT), Malta’s RCC made contact with the Tareq Bin Zeyad.

“Any intervention or interception is not being conducted on behalf of the competent authority,” they said. “You are requested to contact the competent authorities and stop intervening.”

Pullbacks from Eastern Libya

The 250 passengers were taken to Benghazi, in the eastern swathe of divided Libya, where General Khalifa Haftar runs parallel institutions to the UN-recognised government in Tripoli.

According to testimonies collected by Alarm Phone, a grassroots hotline for refugee boats in distress, those on board were detained upon arrival and robbed of their belongings.

Interceptions at sea by eastern Libya’s army have so far rarely made headline news compared to the western-backed Tripoli government, which patrols the Libyan SAR with logistic and financial support from the European Union.

But since May, pullbacks - or pushbacks as they are also referred to - carried out by the Tareq Bin Zeyad in Maltese SAR have become a regular occurrence, with the latest incident involving 300 asylum seekers taking place on July 26.

These events raise questions about the Libyan vessel and the conduct of Maltese authorities.

In the aftermath of the incident on July 7, Jakob Fruhmann, coordinator at Sea Watch, condemned the “illegal interception”. He demanded to know who was behind it and why Maltese authorities did not launch a timely rescue operation.

NGOs including Sea Watch and Alarm Phone accused Malta in May of coordinating “criminal pushback[s] by proxy” through the Tareq Bin Zeyad.

“This vessel was named by a well-known Libyan militia, operating in that area,” they said, without providing evidence of the link.

Maltese institutions did not confirm facilitating any pullbacks. In the radio communication from the July 7 incident, RCC Malta made a point of clearly stating that the vessel was operating without its approval.


Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesperson for the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM), told Al Jazeera that intercepting a refugee boat in Malta’s SAR without the approval of the relevant authority “constitutes a breach of international law”.

He added that “migrants should be immediately rescued” under the coordination of the relevant authorities and “disembarked in a safe port”.

Libya, where human rights abuses have been widely documented, is not considered a safe port of disembarkation by the UN and other international organisations.

Haftar’s militia behind the Tareq Bin Zeyad

Al Jazeera was able to confirm that the homonymous Tareq Bin Zeyad brigade – an armed group linked to a catalogue of horrors including unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearance, rape and forced displacement – is involved in manning the vessel.

According to evidence gathered by Amnesty International, it is led by Saddam Haftar, a son of the general, under the umbrella of the Libyan National Army (LNA) that controls the eastern stretch.

Since late 2021, the brigade has forcibly deported thousands of people from southwestern Libya, loading them into trucks destined for the border with Niger to “rid” the country of “irregular migrants”, Amnesty International found in a 2022 report.

Those expelled are denied the right to lodge an asylum claim or challenge their deportation. Some are left in the desert without food or water, the organisation found.

Until recently, the militia had not been known to operate at sea.

But social media accounts reviewed by Al Jazeera point to its involvement in multiple pullbacks in the Mediterranean since May.

Facebook and TikTok posts linked to the group and verified by Al Jazeera feature its members aboard and around the Tareq Bin Zeyad vessel.

In one image, a man in camouflage military attire donning Tareq Bin Zeyad badges poses in front of the distinctive blue hull, with a curved red stripe along its flank.

In the background, the vessel’s previous name, Charlie 4, can be seen behind a layer of blue paint. It had been registered as such until February 1.

TBZ man

The 42-metre-long crew boat was built in 2020 by Grandweld Shipyards, a company registered in the United Arab Emirates, and shipped to eastern Libya on February 14. It arrived in Benghazi on March 4, according to marine tracking data.

In one video, posted two days after the July 7 pullback, Syrian men on a Tobruk beach can be seen praising the group for having “rescued” them from the rough seas.

Casting doubt on the sincerity of their words, however, are the background images of people kneeling in a captive-like pose, as armed men patrol the area.

Al Jazeera found the Tareq Bin Zeyad to normally be on duty only in the area of Benghazi port. However, the militia also posted multiple videos on its social media channels featuring people rounded up in Tobruk, suggesting the group may also be operating other vessels.

The LNA, of which the Tareq Bin Zeyad is a part, did not respond to Al Jazeera's requests for comment.

Emadeddin Badi, senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said the LNA is known to intercept or pull back migrants from sea to Libya.

“It does so through a sort of hybrid ecosystem,” he said, which includes “official Libyan coastguard units from eastern Libya, but also maritime units operating under the Tareq Bin Zeyad brigade.”

“So even there, there's a bit of duality in terms of how these pullbacks are orchestrated and which entities they're affiliated to," he added.

Illegal pullbacks in the Mediterranean

Eastern Libyan groups returning asylum seekers by sea may be looking to profit from European funds or backdoor agreements, analysts said.

Jalel Harchaoui, an expert on Libya and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said blatant pullbacks were aimed at obtaining “recognition as a law enforcement actor – and financial support.”

“These operations are orchestrated to project an anti-crime image internationally,” Harchaoui told Al Jazeera.

Since 2015, the EU has allocated 700 million euros ($769m) to the Tripoli-based government - Haftar's rivals - through various funding instruments to “support” the country on migration, according to figures from the European Council. Between 2017 and 2021, 88,000 asylum seekers were “rescued”, the Council estimated.

United Nations’ human rights experts have repeatedly raised alarms - saying those brought back to Tripoli are transferred to unknown places of detention, where they are allegedly tortured and disappeared.

Recently, the EU also signed a 100-million-euro ($110m) "strategic partnership" agreement with Tunisia that aims to combat irregular migration and strengthen economic ties.

The aid package included a 10-million-euro ($11m) programme to boost exchanges of students and 65 million euros ($71m) to modernise schools.

According to RUSI analyst Harchaoui, Haftar may be looking to position himself as a partner akin to Tripoli's government and that of Tunisian President Kais Saied on migration.

Or, he may have already reached an understanding with Italy or Malta and operating the pullbacks as a result of these informal agreements.

“We do not know,” Harchaoui concluded. “But the latter is a distinct possibility.”

Before July 7, the Tareq Bin Zeyad vessel was spotted conducting pullbacks on two separate occasions.

On June 12, a boat with around 50 people on board was intercepted in an unknown location in the Mediterranean. It was spotted by an aircraft operated by Sea Watch as it was being towed back.

A boat carrying around 50 people is towed back to Libya by the Tareq Bin Zeyad [Courtsey of Sea Watch]

On May 23, Alarm Phone informed Maltese authorities of a vessel in distress carrying around 500 people within their SAR zone.

Water sept into the hull as they tried to bail it out with buckets and their bare hands. The engine was broken. They had no life jackets on board, they said.

“The people on the boat are very afraid and urgently asking for help,” Alarm Phone wrote in an email to RCC Malta at 4:04pm CEST (14:04 GMT).

As the sun rose the next day, Maltese authorities had yet to intervene. Meanwhile, one of the women had given birth and was in urgent need of medical assistance, the passengers told Alarm Phone.

The Tareq Bin Zeyad arrived at the scene shortly after 6am on May 24. The asylum seekers were taken to Benghazi and detained, according to the hotline.


At least four passengers attempted the journey again and boarded the Adriana fishing vessel in Tobruk, Libya.

They died off the coast of Pylos, Greece, on June 14, alongside hundreds of others in the grim shipwreck that caught the world’s attention, according to interviews with family members conducted by the Netherlands-based Lighthouse Reports outlet and a consortium of journalists.

Marine tracking websites positioned the Tareq Bin Zeyad well within the Maltese SAR as it headed towards the boat in distress on May 24, before its GPS signal was turned off.

Marine experts at Atlantic Pacific – an NGO providing training in rescue operations – told Al Jazeera that drift patterns and weather conditions on that day made it “highly unlikely” that the vessel could have drifted into Libyan SAR before being intercepted.

Given that the Tareq Bin Zeyad headed straight towards the boat, which would have been dimly lit and too far to be detected by navigational radars, it was also “highly likely” that it had obtained “external support” in positioning the migrant vessel.


Maltese authorities approached by Al Jazeera did not confirm or deny coordinating with the Tareq Bin Zeyad.

Commenting on the May 23 incident, the interior ministry said: "Malta would like to clarify that following multiple verifications at the reported position through multiple searches, no boat was sighted in the reported position".

The European border agency Frontex told Al Jazeera its aircraft spotted three fishing vessels with more than 500 people on board on May 23, two of which were rescued by Italian authorities. The agency provided no information on the third, but said that “all three events were timely and properly reported to the competent authorities of the Member States concerned [Italy and Malta]”.

Malta’s rescue coordination centre did not respond to requests for comment.

Curbing migration

As the Tareq Bin Zeyad vessel began operating pullbacks in May, Italy and Malta held official visits with Haftar, a non-state actor in the eyes of Western leaders and a rival to the Tripoli-based government.

For the first time, a Maltese diplomatic delegation travelled to Benghazi to meet the military leader on May 29 and 30.

Discussions reportedly centred around Libya’s forthcoming elections, as well as the escalating migratory flows from Africa to Italy.

“The meeting focused on security challenges in the region, particularly that of irregular migration,” Malta Today reported. “The delegations agreed to extend military cooperation between the respective navies and military forces.”

A few weeks prior, on May 4, Haftar travelled to Rome to meet Italy’s far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who put curbing migration flows at the forefront of her agenda.

“Meloni and the 'strongman of Cyrenaica' focused on the unprecedented growth of the migratory phenomenon towards Italy,” the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

Asked by Al Jazeera whether the Maltese government had promised Haftar political support if he curbed arrivals of refugees and migrants, Malta’s interior ministry said: “Concerning Malta’s cooperation with Libya, we would like to stress the fact that Malta will continue to work closely with its Libyan counterparts against human smugglers, to reduce irregular crossings which are resulting in thousands of deaths at sea.”

The ministry did not reply to follow-up questions on what that collaboration entailed and whether the discussions with Haftar had yielded an outcome.


While eastern Libya is considerably further from mainland Europe than the west, Italy’s interior ministry found arrivals from eastern Libya in the first half of this year surpassed those from western Libya, rising almost sixfold compared to the same period last year.

Between January and June 2022, 11,961 arrivals were registered in Italy from western Libya, compared to 2,674 from the eastern part of the country. This year, the arrivals from eastern Libya were 15,296 compared to 11,521 from the west.

Despite the soaring numbers, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said Malta witnessed a marked drop in arrivals this year. In 2022, La Valletta recorded 444 arrivals from the whole of Libya. This year, 92 asylum seekers arrived between January and April. No further arrivals were recorded as of June.

The European Commission told Al Jazeera it was “well aware that there are human smuggling networks operating across Libya”.

“However, in the cases described the European Commission is not mandated to conduct investigations or to conclusively establish the facts,” it said in a statement. “Enquiries should be directed to the relevant authorities.”

Source: Al Jazeera