TRIPOLI -- A Samsung tablet with a cracked screen recovered by the BBC from a battlefield in Libya shines new light on the Wagner Group's destabilising efforts in the country and beyond.
Data stored on the tablet illuminate the Russian mercenary army's movements, evidence of its placement of land mines in residential neighbourhoods and clues about the money behind the shadowy group, according to a BBC report on Thursday (August 12).
An unknown member of the group abandoned the tablet after Wagner forces retreated from battlefields south of the capital Tripoli in the spring of 2020.
Wagner first emerged in Ukraine in 2014. Since then, its mercenaries have been involved in conflicts around the world, including in Syria, Mozambique, Sudan, Venezuela, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Chad.
Sources differ on when Wagner fighters first appeared in Libya, with some saying 2018, while others say 2019.
Their goal was to buoy the Russian-backed Libyan National Army (LNA), led by strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar, according to a leaked United Nations (UN) report that the BBC quoted in 2020.
The 57-page report said Wagner operatives have been in Libya since October 2018, "providing technical support for the repair of military vehicles and participating in combat operations".
Haftar led an unsuccessful campaign to topple the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), and a UN-brokered peace deal last October between the two sides stipulated that all foreign forces leave the country by January 23.
That deadline came and went, and rather than prepare to leave, Wagner mercenaries appeared to be "settling in for the long haul", digging a massive series of trenches across Libya, according to US intelligence sources.
Mounting evidence -- including the data found on the Samsung tablet -- shows how the Kremlin uses Wagner to advance its interests and carry out its hybrid warfare under a cover of plausible deniability.
Up to 10,000 men are believed to have signed at least one contract with Wagner since 2014.
Examining the tablet
The BBC discovered dozens of files on the tablet, including manuals for anti-personnel mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), reconnaissance drone footage, and a maps application that showed layers of military maps of the frontline, all marked in Russian.
The maps also included codenames, possibly of Wagner mercenaries.
In addition to examining the tablet, the BBC spoke to former Wagner fighters who, on condition of anonymity, described the recruitment process, what type of person joins the mercenary group and clues to the funding sources.
"The former fighters explained that men are not recruited to an organisation called Wagner, but instead apply for short-term contracts -- for example as oil rig workers or security personnel -- with numerous shell companies," the BBC reported.
The recruits undergo physical tests and background security checks before starting training at "Wagner's unofficial training ground near Krasnodar in southern Russia, which is next to a Russian army base".
After training, Wagner sends the mercenaries abroad.
The men -- as well as the organisation itself -- are motivated by money, one former fighter told the BBC.
Most of them come from small towns and rural areas with few jobs. Many have criminal records, blocking their induction into the Russian army.
Plus, by signing up with Wagner, they can make up to 10 times the average Russian salary, one of the ex-mercenaries said.
"Whenever there is some kind of armed conflict somewhere, Wagner soldiers talk about it. 'We could go to this one; that could be one for us,'" he said. "Because every contract and every country is money."
Wagner does not issue any code of conduct for its fighters, another ex-Wagner member said.
Trail of murders
The murders of several civilians in the Libyan village of Espiaa -- which is marked on the tablet's maps as a Wagner position -- by Russian-speaking men are under investigation.
Libya is investigating the slayings as war crimes, according to Libyan military prosecutor Mohammed Gharouda, who works for the country's Ministry of Defence.
One of the former Wagner mercenaries admitted that the group kills captives. "No one wants an extra mouth to feed," he said.
About a dozen other civilians may have been killed by Wagner mercenaries during battles in Tripoli, including three men and two women in civilian cars who came under sniper fire, the BBC reported.
Tales of murders and war crimes at the hands of Wagner mercenaries also abound in Syria, where the group is believed to have entered the conflict following Moscow's intervention in September 2015 on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army.
In one particular case, Wagner fighters are believed to have murdered a Syrian man in 2017.
"Two videos uploaded to the internet showed him being tortured and beheaded by men taunting him in Russian, his corpse scrawled with cyrillic writing," the BBC reported.
A legal case has been launched on behalf of the man's family to try to get Russia to investigate the incident.
In 2018, three Russian journalists investigating Wagner's involvement in the CAR were fatally shot.
Moscow has sought since 2018 to exploit the CAR's mineral wealth, especially gold and diamonds.
'Shopping list' of weapons
In addition to the tablet, the BBC obtained a "shopping list" of weapons and equipment, which analysts say could have come only from Russian army supplies.
A Libyan intelligence security source in Tripoli who had been looking into the presence of Wagner in Libya gave the 10-page document to the BBC.
The document is dated January 19, 2020. The same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended a conference in Berlin on a peace process for Libya.
The weapons on the list are "state of the art", according to Chris Cobb-Smith, a security advisor and human rights investigator based in the United Kingdom.
They are "up to date, technologically advanced and equipment currently in service with the Russian military", he said.
"This not only implies access to a substantial budget but also the authority for access to the latest sensitive, if not secret, technology," he said.
"It appears that Wagner are little more than an unofficial element of the Russian military."
One former Wagner fighter described the group and its members to the BBC in Russia.
"It is a structure, aimed at promoting the interests of the state beyond our country's borders," he said.
Follow the money
Another document -- for Wagner forces in Mozambique, dated November 2019 and requesting replacements for damaged equipment -- provides a clue to who could be bankrolling the group on behalf of the Kremlin.
The note is addressed to "OOO Evro Polis", a Russian company reported to be a beneficiary of contracts for oil and gas field developments in Syria.
Evro Polis has been linked to St. Petersburg-based businessman and Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin, the reputed owner of Wagner.
Prigozhin is on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)'s wanted list "for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to defraud the United States".
The US Treasury issued sanctions against Evro Polis in 2018, saying the company was contracted to "protect" Syrian oil fields "owned or controlled" by Prigozhin.
Prigozhin denies having links to Evro Polis or to Wagner.
But the note is addressed to "General Director", which Denis Korotkov, a Russian journalist who has investigated the Wagner Group for years, said refers to Prigozhin.
Both documents are "approved by" the initials "DU", which points to the involvement of Dmitry Utkin, according to another specialist on the Wagner Group.
Utkin is a former Russian paratrooper and is reportedly the founder and overall commander of the Wagner Group. He is also believed to go by the codename "Ninth", and the number "9" and the word "ninth" appear on both documents.
Utkin did not respond to the BBC's requests for comment.
"It's a taboo subject," one former Wagner fighter said of the force's financial backers. "It's not worth talking about, or else you might end up in a metal container with a broken face for two weeks."