How a Lebanese company's role in shipping Turkish arms to Libya landed it in the crosshairs of the EU

How a Lebanese company's role in shipping Turkish arms to Libya landed it in the crosshairs of the EU

The statue in Martyrs' Square overlooking Beirut port. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

BEIRUT — The 40-year-old car carrier named Bana that plied the waters of the Mediterranean was unremarkable in almost all ways, except a dramatic one: the Lebanese-flagged vessel’s shipment of weapons from Turkey to Libya in January 2020 placed it squarely in a whirlwind of international intrigue.

After public attention had faded over the Bana’s arms trafficking and following the mothballing of the vessel itself, the European Union on Sept. 21 sanctioned the ship’s operator, Med Wave Shipping SA, a company that L’Orient Today has learned is owned by a Lebanese shipping magnate’s relative who ran for Parliament in 2018. The owner denied culpability in the weapons shipment and said he was fully committed to EU decisions.

In its blacklisting of Med Wave Shipping SA, the EU provided scant information, including two addresses in Lebanon and Jordan, that raised only further questions regarding the company.

International media dubbed Med Wave Shipping SA a Jordanian company, prompting Amman to deny responsibility for the firm. Jordan’s Foreign Ministry said that Med Wave Shipping SA “is not a Jordanian company, is not registered in Jordan and is not present on Jordanian soil.”

While strictly true — L’Orient Today uncovered Med Wave Shipping SA is registered in Beirut — the Jordanian government’s statement failed to mention an Amman-based firm linked to Med Wave Shipping SA. This firm, L’Orient Today learned, played a role in the Bana’s activities when it reportedly moved armored vehicles to Libya in 2017.

Little is as it seems on the surface of the complex world of maritime shipping. A trail of documents, public statements and other information sheds light on the kaleidoscopic history of Med Wave Shipping SA and the Bana, one that is bookended by sanctions, marked by arms shipments and has passed through Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Libya and Italy.

Checkered prelude

Four years before a pair of Turkish Navy frigates escorted the Bana to Libya and onto headlines, Med Wave Shipping SA was quietly established in Beirut by three Syrian businessmen engaged in maritime and gold trade ventures, as well as a Lebanese national.

The company’s Jan. 20, 2016, incorporation documents tip off its connections to the Bana vessel, stating that the firm’s business activities was “owning ships, including the Sham 1,” which was the former name of the Bana from early 2016 into October 2019.

A needle in a haystack, among the dozens of pages of documentation on Med Wav Shipping SA is a reference to the firm’s ownership of the Sham 1, later named the Bana. (Source: L’Orient Today)

Maritime records available on the International Maritime Organization’s database confirm that a company named Med Wave Shipping SA acquired the Sham 1 in early 2016, but the record says the firm is in Honduras. No firm with that name has been registered in Honduras, according to a local contractor for the data provider consulted by L’Orient Today.

Med Wave Shipping SA’s formation was sparked by a controversial set of US sanctions. In October 2015, Washington designated Lebanese businessman Merhi Abou Merhi, several of his relatives and his portfolio of business holdings for alleged money laundering on behalf of a drug trafficker.

Targeted in the sanctions, which were later lifted, was a vessel named the City of Misurata, later to change its name to Sham 1 and then finally to Bana. The US accused Abou Merhi of using the vessel to provide vehicle transportation services for Ayman Joumaa, an alleged Lebanese-Colombian drug kingpin.

In a Feb. 3 interview with LBCI, one of his rare public comments on the vessel, Abou Merhi explained that he sold the ship to Syrians after he was blacklisted by the US Department of the Treasury.

“At the time, I had problems with the Americans and then I was acquitted. During this time I sold Bana and other ships too,” he said.

Abou Merhi did not speak about Med Wave Shipping SA in the interview, though his comments appear to indirectly refer to the three Syrian businessmen and Lebanese man who co-founded the company. The shipping magnate, who was removed from the US sanctions list in March 2017, could not be reached by L’Orient Today for comment.

Med Wave Shipping SA’s acquisition of the Bana vessel, then known as Sham 1, is only the beginning of the story, which takes a turn to Amman as the vessel first popped up on the radar of UN investigators.

The Amman connection

A maritime cargo company with a self-described “strong presence in Libyan and Syrian ports,” the Amman-based Legend Logistic Shipping started advertising the services of Sham 1 in the summer of 2016.

“Unloading and loading of our ship Sham 1 has finished and it is heading to the ports of Tobruk, Alexandria and Tartous,” the company posted June 16 on its Facebook page. Legend Logistic Shipping’s Facebook page featured numerous other references and media of the Sham 1 through Aug. 9, 2018.

During this time, the vessel made deliveries to Tobruk for groups affiliated with the Libyan National Army under the command of Khalifa Haftar in the eastern part of the war-torn country, according to UN investigators.

A 2017 UN Security Council report detailing violations of the arms embargo in effect for Libya said that the Sham 1 delivered 300 Toyota pickups and armored Land Cruisers to Tobruk on Jan. 16 of that year before making another shipment on April 14.

“For armed groups in Libya, Toyota pickup trucks (primarily single-cabin HZJ79) seem to be even more important than armored vehicles, because of the ease in mounting various infantry support weapons,” the report said.

Legend Logistic Shipping shared a connection with Med Wave Shipping SA beyond the Sham 1, according to corporate documents reviewed by L’Orient Today. Mohammad al-Zoughbi, a shareholder in Legend Logistic Shipping since 2013 and the firm’s chair and CEO, was one of the founders of Med Wave Shipping SA in Beirut.

Zoughbi, who was also one of Med Wave Shipping SA’s authorized signatories, exited the Lebanese company in March 2017 — two months after the shipment of vehicles to Tobruk — when he sold his shares.

Legend Logistic did not respond with comment to L’Orient Today’s questions regarding its ties, as well as those of Zoughbi, to the Sham 1 and Med Wave Shipping.

While Legend Logistic Shipping’s social media heavily featured the Sham 1 until the summer of 2018, its ties to the ship afterward remain in question. During this time, the activities of Med Wave Shipping SA remain shrouded in mystery, with the firm appearing to exist only on paper. Starting in 2019, the story of Med Wave Shipping routes back through Lebanon, where Abou Merhi entered the scene once again.

All in the family

“I bought the vessel again and named it Bana,” Abou Merhi told LBCI after the vessel was detained by Italian authorities in February investigating its weapons delivery to Libya.

Maritime records don’t show that the vessel itself changed hands, per se, as Med Wave Shipping SA remained the registered owner and operator of the car carrier from 2016 onward. Instead, it was Med Wave Shipping SA that changed hands.

Med Wave Shipping SA was owned by two businessmen brothers from Homs, one of whom holds a Turkish passport, when Abou Merhi’s nephew moved to acquire the company. In Jan. 2019, the brothers agreed to sell 70 percent of their combined shareholdings in the company to Samir al-Bizri, who assumed administrative authority over Med Wave Shipping SA.

Bizri told L’Orient Today that he purchased shares in the firm as part of his work in the maritime and shipping industry — in which he has 20 years of experience — and that he set a regular trading line from Genoa to Libya over three years ago.

The businessmen said that he acquired the Bana to service trade with Libya, adding that his uncle, Abou Merhi, was not involved in Med Wave Shipping.

Bizri was coming off a defeat in the 2018 parliamentary elections he contested in Saida as a candidate of the Ability to Change list backed by the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb and the March 11 Gathering, a small political group co-founded by Abou Merhi in 2007.

The Ability to Change list, which was supported by Abou Merhi, ended up garnering slightly less than 10 percent of the vote in the South 1 district, not enough to land a seat in Parliament. Bizri received 1,198 votes out of the total 65,738 cast in the district on May 6, 2018.

From Mersin to Tripoli

The recently renamed Bana sailed the waters of the Mediterranean and Red seas as normal — calling to port in Misrata, Aqaba, Benghazi and Istanbul among others — before its fateful late January voyage to Libya.

On Jan. 24, the Bana, which was still registered to Med Wave Shipping SA at the time, left the Turkish port of Mersin for a journey ostensibly to Tunisia; however, it turned off its location transponder off the Libyan coast before calling to port in Tripoli, according to a forensic investigation by the BBC Africa Eye unit.

Using satellite imagery, open source data and exclusive photos, BBC Africa Eye confirmed that two Turkish Navy G-Class frigates escorted the Bana across the Mediterranean as it transported armored combat vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, cannons and an anti-aircraft gun to Tripoli. While the vessel had previously supplied forces allied with Haftar, on this trip, it delivered arms to the general’s rivals in Tripoli.

After delivering its cargo, the Bana proceeded to sail for Genoa, where Italian authorities arrested its captain, a Lebanese national, and launched an investigation into its arms smuggling activity. One of the Bana’s sailors told Italian police that 10 Turkish military and intelligence personnel guarded the weapons onboard the vessel on its trip from Mersin to Tripoli.

French President Emmanuel Macron referenced the shipment on Jan. 29 when he harshly criticized Turkey for what he called the country’s “broken promise” to stop sending military material to the Government of National Accord in Libya. France, meanwhile, has denied its backing of the Libyan National Army rivaling the GNA.

Amid this growing international firestorm and overwhelming evidence, Abou Merhi denied on LBCI that the Bana had transported weapons or even sailed to Turkey before reaching Tripoli in late January.

Bizri, for his part, said that the vessel was chartered to a Libyan firm, United Shipping, at the time, adding that he was not aware of the cargo onboard. “We have highlighted this issue to the concerned parties that have reached out,” he said.

L’Orient Today was unable to reach United Shipping for comment, while Bizri said that the last time he spoke with the company was 11 months ago, after which he had no contact with the Libyan firm.

Mediterranean sunset

Back in Beirut, the Bana set sail for one last time on July 3 to the Turkish port of Aliağa, which hosts ship-breaking yards for dismantling vessels. There the Bana met its end, capping off four decades of service in which it navigated the rough waters of international sanctions, conflict and high diplomacy.

Med Wave Shipping SA, for its part, has not acquired any other vessels. The company sits dormant within the Beirut offices of Lebanon’s Commercial Register as a thick stack of papers, an obscure file that managed to find itself in the middle of Macron’s diplomatic troubleshooting in the eastern Mediterranean.

Macron on Sep. 10 called on the EU to rally against Turkey’s “inadmissible practices” and supported the European bloc’s Sep. 21 sanctions, which included Med Wave Shipping SA as well as a Turkish firm operating another cargo vessel that was involved in a naval incident between France and Turkey in June.

By a twist of fate, these Macron-backed sanctions involving Turkey included a Lebanese firm, without identifying it as such, just as the French president ramped up his diplomatic role in Lebanon and reportedly threatened the country’s political leaders with sanctions of their own.

If implemented, these sanctions could target corruption among Lebanon’s elite. Given the multiplicity of their regional and international connections, the country’s poor data infrastructure and its strict banking secrecy law, the range of potential targets could be as deep as the sea.

BEIRUT — The 40-year-old car carrier named Bana that plied the waters of the Mediterranean was unremarkable in almost all ways, except a dramatic one: the Lebanese-flagged vessel’s shipment of weapons from Turkey to Libya in January 2020 placed it squarely in a whirlwind of international intrigue.After public attention had faded over the Bana’s arms trafficking and following the mothballing...