The Libyan government released a suspected Russian intelligence agent, Maxim Shugaley from prison, in part because someone paid actors Dolph Lundgren, Charlie Sheen, and Danny Trejo to endorse his release on video app Cameo.
Per Business Insider, U.S. security researchers with Facebook and Stanford University’s Internet Observatory suspect Shugaley was connected to the Internet Research Agency, an infamous “troll farm” associated with Russian intelligence services’ efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. The suspicion is that Shugaley is a Russian agent of some kind running propaganda operations in Libya. The Libyan government arrested Shugaley and his interpreter, Samir Seifan, in May 2020, claiming they were secretly working for a private military contractor called Wagner Group. The Russian government has insisted the two worked for the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, an obscure, shady Moscow think tank.
The Russian government apparently responded to Shugaley’s arrest with a pressure campaign relying heavily on propaganda. According to Business Insider, Russian state-owned network Russia Today released a wildly popular action thriller titled Shugaley dramatizing the situation. It looks fun, to be honest.
The propaganda effort also, naturally, included a social media campaign. Facebook told BI that at least 5.7 million accounts followed one of 125 pages suspected to be run by Russian interests in Libya, which spent a cumulative $186,000 on ads. The suspected Russian propaganda network also involved 211 Facebook accounts as well as 17 accounts and 16 groups on Instagram, according to Stanford research.
It’s not clear who paid them, but several Hollywood stars including Sheen (the creep from Two and a Half Men), Lundgren (the Swede who played a Soviet monstrosity from Rocky IV), and Trejo (Machete from Machete) recorded videos on Cameo, a service which allows anyone to order custom messages from celebrities.
“Do not give up,” Sheen said in his Cameo appearance, according to BI. Lundgren said in his video that “You’re a great guy. You have our support. Never give up, and remember—freedom is the only way.”
News of the actors’ involvement in the odd campaign to free Shugaley was first broken by Foreign Policy, which noted that other efforts to raise the profile of Shugaley’s detention by Libyan authorities included the suspected agent’s election “to the regional parliament in the Komi republic in northwestern Russia.” Foreign Policy detailed numerous other suspicious incidents casting doubts on the Russian government’s claim he was a mere academic, including his alleged involvement in a purported plot to interfere in Madagascar’s 2018 elections. The magazine also contacted several celebrities involved in the Cameo campaign; an agent for one of them, English actor Vinnie Jones, told Foreign Policy that the $300 payment for the video was from an anonymous client.
As BI noted, few of the celebrities involved in the campaign seemed to know who Shugaley was or appeared to be in it for anything but the money. Cameo has become rather notorious for enabling celebrities focused on the bottom line to embarrass themselves (not that Sheen in particular needs the help). Previous incidents have included former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie being tricked into taunting Republican candidates, former Green Bay Packers star Brett Favre unknowingly parroting anti-Semitic material, and rapper Flavor Flav being duped into wishing disgraced Catholic cardinal George Pell, an accused child abuser, a happy retirement. In another example, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was bamboozled into telling a fictional child “you’re doing a great job with your poopies—congratulations” (by a Redditor) and quoting the “work sets you free” slogan on the gates of Auschwitz concentration camp (by a fake group called Alpha Freedom Friends).
Libya fell into chaos after NATO forces used air strikes and naval bombardment to support rebels against autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, terminating his regime but triggering a disastrous and ongoing civil war that has led to massive civilian casualties. Russia, along with various other nations including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and France have backed a rebel faction led by Khalifa Hifter, with Russia allegedly supplying him with Wagner Group mercenaries. Turkey has backed the UN-recognized government in Tripoli. Both sides agreed to a ceasefire in October aiming to establish a unified government and election in 18 months.
“The people behind this activity posted primarily in Arabic about regional news and events, including misinformation; supportive commentary about Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army, the Libyan army, and Saif Islam Gaddafi; and criticism of Turkey, Muslim Brotherhood, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and the peace talks at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunisia,” Facebook head of security policy Nathan Gleicher and global threat disruption lead David Agranovich wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “... Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identity and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency.”
Shugaley and Seifan were eventually released on Dec. 10 and, according to the Moscow Times, were each paid the equivalent of 18 million rubles (roughly $246,000) by a firm linked to both the producers of Shugaley and the Wagner Group. The Times noted the firm’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is widely considered to be a sort of fixer for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Cameo didn’t respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.