Wagner is a Russian mercenary group whose operations have spanned the globe, from front-line fighting in Syria to guarding diamond mines in the Central African Republic. But it is notoriously secretive and, as such, difficult to scrutinize.
Now, the BBC has gained exclusive access to an electronic tablet left behind on a battlefield in Libya by a Wagner fighter, giving an unprecedented insight into how these operatives work.
And another clue given to us in Tripoli – a “shopping list” for state-of-the-art military equipment – suggests Wagner has probably been supported at the highest level despite the Russian government’s consistent denials that the organization has any links to the state.
Remarkably, the information on it was easy to access. I discovered dozens of files – ranging from manuals for anti-personnel mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), to reconnaissance drone footage. A number of books had been uploaded – including Mein Kampf, A Game of Thrones, and a guide to making wine.
But it was a maps app that stood out – layers of military maps of the front line, all marked in Russian. Most of the location dots were clustered in the suburb of Ain Zara in south Tripoli, where Wagner fighters had battled with the GNA between February and the end of May 2020.
The maps corresponded with drone footage of Ain Zara, also on the tablet. The video showed the suburb deserted – its residents having fled.
Looking through the files and apps on the tablet, there is nothing to identify the owner – but zooming in closer on the maps, words can be seen written next to some of the red dots.
My BBC colleague Ilya – who has been investigating Wagner for the past four years from Moscow – realised they were code names, possibly comrades of the tablet’s owner. Ilya cross-referenced them with a database of Wagner fighters set up by Ukrainian volunteers, and a leaked UN report listing Wagner fighters in Libya.
The tablet does not give clues about the identity of other mercenaries, but the BBC has since gained rare access to two former Wagner fighters – on condition of anonymity – who confirmed that many of those who started out in Ukraine went to oil-rich Libya.
One told the BBC that there were as many as 1,000 fighters in Libya at any one time over the 12-14 months of active fighting in the country from September 2019 to July 2020.
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.
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