Torture, murder, humiliation: Meet the militia carrying out pullbacks in Maltese SAR zone

Overcrowded detention centres, beatings and ransom, and the occasional killing out at sea – meet the Libyan militia pulling back refugees in the Central Mediterranean

TikTok screenshots of the TBZ boat crew having a barbecue and posing with a Playstation remote in hand
TikTok screenshots of the TBZ boat crew having a barbecue and posing with a Playstation remote in hand

By Nicole Meilak, Mahammad Bassiki, Bashar Deeb, Maud Jullien, Tomas Statius

This article is part of an investigation by MaltaToday, Lighthouse Reports, Al Jazeera, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and SIRAJ

The Tareq Bin Zeyad (TBZ) brigade is a military force in Eastern Libya led by Commander Saddam Haftar, the son of military leader Khalifa Haftar – and it has been carrying out pullbacks in or near the Malta search and rescue zone.

Using a large blue vessel, the brigade has been locating migrants at sea and taking them back to Libya.

The TBZ is the largest brigade of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) in Benghazi. According to confidential EU documents seen by journalists, the brigade is supported by Wagner and Sudanese mercenaries. Political scientist Wolfram Lacher said Wagner doesn’t play a role in the migration business in Libya, but it remains the TBZ’s most important partner. 

“Everything comes together at Saddam Haftar, including the coordination with Wagner. Saddam Haftar is the most important player in eastern Libya today, more important than Khalifa. The TBZ is the most important unit, and Wagner is the most important partner.”

The brigade itself is known for its aggressive behaviour and human rights abuses. Amnesty International published a research briefing last year documenting the many crimes and abuses of the TBZ, which include torture, rape and hostage-taking.

Ahmed* has seen all this first-hand. Speaking with journalists, he recalled staying in warehouses with up to 600 people between boat trips. The guards would enter the warehouses carrying weapons, insulting and beating the people  living there. “They would do whatever they wanted without fear of any repercussions.”

When he was pulled back to Libya by the Tareq Bin Zeyad brigade, he and the other passengers on board were taken to a large prison and beaten with sticks and irons. The guards also confiscated their passports, mobile phones, and any other belongings. 

“There was no water available in the prison. We drank from the bathroom, and they fed us rice, soup, or pasta in small quantities. We were detained for 20 days by the TBZ brigade,” he said. 

“When you go out on the road, you are constantly threatened with weapons and robbery. […] You are at risk of being killed and no one will hold the killer accountable. Many of my friends who I got to know during this time have been kidnapped and robbed. I know some people who have drowned in their migration journey.”

“I do not advise anyone to come here because they will suffer. There is a lot of what I went through that I cannot describe or talk about because of how bad it is.”

TBZ out at sea

Hasan* was a teenager when he left his home country and bought a flight ticket to Benghazi through the Cham Wings airline. The flight, visa, and passport cost him around $2,500 US dollars.

When he first went to Benghazi, he had no intention of travelling to Europe. Indeed, he spent months living and working in Tripoli. Eventually, he started to hear about trips available from Libya to Europe, and after thinking it through, he coordinated a trip with a smuggler in the east. 

On one trip he took in May 2023, he and 500 other people on board were arrested by the Tareq Bin Zeyad after they reached Malta’s SAR zone. 

“[The vessel] came from the direction of Malta, and with them was a foreigner who did not speak Arabic,” Hasan said. “We had a refugee on board our boat who spoke English, and he went to talk to them.”

“They told him: we are from the Red Crescent, and we want to send you to the Red Cross. The warship had the Libyan flag on it and the word ‘Tareq Bin Zeyad’ written on it. I saw that with my own eyes.”

Hasan said they knew they were lying to them by claiming they were from the Red Crescent. “In order to calm us down, they tied our ship to the warship with a rope and took us back towards Libya.”

When the migrants realised they were being returned to Libya, the ship captain cut the rope and started the engine to try and escape. But the Tareq Bin Zeyad quickly caught up to them.

“They told us to turn off the engine or else they would drown us. We didn’t respond to them, so they started deliberately hitting our ship with theirs in an attempt to sink us. Our boat was about to sink as it tilted and then turned, so they took out machine guns and started shooting at us and the boat randomly, as well as in the air.”

Hasan made several attempted crossings from Libya, with each trip costing thousands of dollars. The boats kept getting intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, and Hasan kept getting sent to detention centres. Here, smuggler representatives would come and secure deals with the detention guards to release some migrants against payment.

Indeed, one attempted crossing was cut very short after the 2020 battalion, which forms part of the TBZ brigade, arrested the people on board just two hours after they set sail from Tobruk. 

The members of the battalion were asking who was the captain of the boat.  “The Coast Guard asked the first person of Egyption nationality: who is the driver? He replied that he did not know, so the soldier shot and killed him, then threw him into the sea,” Hasan said. 

Hasan and the other people on board spent a week in a detention centre in Benghazi after this trip. They were released after a smuggler negotiated their freedom.

After the May pullback from Malta’s SAR zone, Hasan wanted to join a new trip. However, he missed his chance. But by pure luck, the boat he missed ended up being the same boat that sunk near Pylos in Greece, resulting in over 500 people presumed dead. Hasan’s friend, who had been on the boat in May, died in that shipwreck. 

Torture on land

Bassel*, a 36-year-old father of two kids, is a migrant that tried to depart from Lebanon to Europe by sea, who was eventually arrested by the TBZ. 

Bassel wanted to go to the Netherlands and settle down there. To do so, he sought out a boat trip that was set to leave from the Lebanese city of Tripoli. He joined 110 migrants on a large boat, and they all sailed out of Lebanese waters into the high seas. 

A few days into their voyage, somewhere between Cyprus and Greece, the migrants on board noticed a plane surveilling them. The ship captain told them that it was a Greek plane. 

Two days later, the Tareq Bin Zeyad vessel approached them. The migrants on board told them to leave, insisting that they had children and women with them. 

“They accused us of having weapons and drugs, and opened fire on our boat,” Bassel said. “Later, they hit our boat and it was about to capsize.” The TBZ crew eventually made their way onto the boat, and started hitting the migrants with sticks. 

Eventually, the migrants were moved on board the Tareq Bin Zeyad vessel. “They told us that they would hand us over to the United Nations or European delegations. They gave us juice, and we rested and slept,” Bassel said.

But things took a turn for the worst the morning after. The crew started to interrogate people at six in the morning, and asked to interrogate Bassel directly. 

“At the beginning of the interrogation, one of the crew started insulting me. Then he hit me on the head with a firearm and asked me to tell him who was driving the boat,” Bassel said. 

When they arrived in Libya, the members of the TBZ brigade started to select people randomly. One of them singled out Bassel, who was pulled to the side and forced onto his knees. 

“They got a razor and started mutilating our heads and hair, and they shaved my eyebrows and eyelashes. They would only shave one area just to ruin your hair. The point was to leave a mark on us.”

Bassel was then taken inside a room and beaten up. “We received severe beatings to the point that our bodies turned black from the intensity of the beating. I was beaten by six people,” he said. “After the severe beatings, they would throw us in the salty sea water to burn our bodies from 7pm until 4am.”

Bassel was eventually forced to work in Benghazi. He was subject to ridicule and eventually threatened with execution. ”They asked me to stand on the wall and got out a Kalashnikov rifle. I was faced against the wall, and they stood with their weapons behind me,” he said. “They insulted me badly, and one of them opened fire. I heard the gunfire and fell to the ground. They started laughing, but I did not know if I had been shot or not. I lost consciousness at that moment and did not know if I had died or not. I looked at my body and saw no blood.”

TBZ’s smuggling profits

The TBZ is also known to be knee-deep in east Libya’s smuggling business. Ahmed*said that all smugglers deal with the east Libyan brigades. “They have a contract and don’t leave before TBZ’s approval, and the TBZ gets a share of the profit,” he explained. 

A North Africa expert with extensive knowledge of the situation in Libya confirmed this, explaining that Haftar acts as a ‘protector’ to several criminals in the area. 

“If you’re a criminal operating in the Tobruk/Benghazi area, and you’re making serious money, you’ll be on his radar and you’ll have to partner with him,” he said.

The expert, who was granted anonymity so as to speak freely, added that the TBZ does not run a sophisticated smuggling operation itself, but they’re in a position whereby “you have to either cut a deal with them or be clever enough to dodge them”. 

These ‘protection rackets’ are a common feature of militias across Libya, meaning they protect some departures from Libya, but not others. 

“Let’s say you’re a smuggler, and you pay me a certain amount per month, so I protect your operation. Your competitor is not paying me, so I don’t protect his operation and I intercept whatever vessel they send out,” the expert explained. “Then, those migrants get sent to a detention centre where they get extorted. They’re asked to pay €1,000, €2,000 sometimes. They pay the money and they’re free.”

“Some people have gone through this laundering system where they pay a smuggler, go on a boat, get intercepted, get extorted, pay a smuggler, go on a boat, get extorted, two or three times. Sometimes even more. In this way, what these different players are doing is extracting value at different points of this recycling system.”

In some cases, there might not be a fixed agreement between the militia and the smuggler. The militia may just be extorting money, but the smuggler has an interest in that migrant being let free. It becomes a business whereby militia men free migrants in exchange for money to a set of smugglers. 

“What we see in coastal areas especially is this,” the expert explained. “The smugglers would come knocking on the doors of a detention centre and ask if they’ve detained any migrants recently. The militia would tell them that they detained five guys from Syria, and the smuggler offers $1,000 a head for their release. Then, either these Syrians have the money to pay back the smuggler and buy a trip to Europe, or they don’t have the money and they get extorted. It becomes an extortion business that gets really ugly. They’re tortured, made to call their family, ask for money.”

*All migrant names have been changed for their safety