By Jamie Merrill
Libyan spy Mohammed Ismail’s involvement in 2003 plot did not prevent UK diplomats meeting him as the Gaddafi government fell.
British officials held a secretive meeting with a Libyan spy who had plotted to assassinate a former Saudi king, Middle East Eye can reveal.
Mohammed Ismail, a colonel in the Libyan military intelligence agency and key fixer for Muammar Gaddafi and his sons, acted as the bagman for a 2003 plot to assassinate Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s then crown prince, by firing a missile at his motorcade.
Despite his conviction for his role in the conspiracy, senior British diplomats and security officials met Ismail in late March 2011 after he arrived by private jet to Luton airport in the dying days of the Gaddafi government.
Nonetheless, he was granted a temporary visa and a meeting with British officials despite his history.
‘It was well known that Ismail was the same character who had plotted to kill the Saudi crown prince in 2003’
The senior diplomatic source, who has knowledge of the 2011 meeting, told MEE: “It was well known that Ismail was the same character who had plotted to kill the Saudi crown prince in 2003, but he was part of the Libyan military intelligence apparatus and was in a very powerful position.
“He was right-hand man to Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam and controlled access to him. Everyone who dealt with the Gaddafi family had to deal with him.”
The source added that Ismail was thought to have come to Britain as part of a European trip to “buy arms, supplies and support for Gaddafi”, but was sent back to Libya with a firm message from the British foreign office that Gaddafi needed to be removed from power.
The end of the Gaddafi clan
The London meeting, which was carried out with the blessing of then foreign secretary William Hague came amid reports that British officials were trying to reach out to members of Gaddafi’s inner circle to encourage them to defect or at least disassociate themselves from the regime.
At the time British forces were involved in multinational air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces and then prime minister David Cameron was leading calls in the international community for “regime change” in Libya.
The rush to weaken Gaddafi’s hold on power saw British officials in urgent talks with up to 10 senior figures in Gaddafi’s creaking government about defection following the dramatic departure of the Libyan leader’s chief henchman, Moussa Koussa.
However, in the drive to attract defectors it appears that British officials overlooked that Ismail had been central to the plot to kill the then Saudi crown prince. Saudi Arabia has long been a controversial ally of Britain in tackling global terrorism.
Ismail’s visit to London was first reported in 2011 and further details were revealed in government documents released in June last year. But now, for the first time, MEE can report the full background to the meeting which saw the bagman in a plot to kill a Saudi crown prince fly to London on a private jet and meet senior British diplomats.
The 2003 assassination plot, which was ordered by Gaddafi after a public row between the Libyan leader and Abdullah at a 2003 Arab summit, saw Ismail approach two Saudi dissidents in London to recruit them to exact his leader’s revenge.
According to US court documents seen by MEE, Ismail then travelled to Saudi Arabia in November 2003 and delivered $2m in cash in bags to a hotel room in Mecca where they would be collected by the would-be assassins.
The US court documents, which cover the conviction of co-conspirator Abdurahman Alamoudi, an American Muslim leader, for his role in the plot, include information on how Gaddafi was personally involved in signing off details of the plot.
Alamoudi pleaded guilty to his role in July 2014 and admitted pocketing nearly $1m to pay conspirators in the plot, which sources said came close to reaching the implementation phase before it was broken up by Saudi intelligence officers.
The Saudi embassy in London did not respond to requests for comment.
The audacious assassination plot made global headlines and the diplomatic ramifications were considered so grave that the names of two British-based dissidents allegedly involved in the botched attack were suppressed in US court documents for more than a decade.
To the surprise of many Libya-watchers he was able to return to Tripoli, where he went on to act as a key fixer, spy, arms buyer and negotiator with the West for the Gaddafi clan.
Welch was the man who brokered the deal to restore diplomatic relations between the US and Libya in 2008. Ismail met him at the Four Seasons hotel in Cairo, just a few miles from the US embassy, Al Jazeera reported.
During that meeting Welch advised Ismail on how to win the propaganda war over rebuilding ties with the West led by former British prime minister Tony Blair, suggesting several “confidence-building measures”, according to the documents seen by the broadcaster.
By mid-March 2011 Ismail was firmly back in the embrace Gaddafi’s inner circle and met former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to negotiate the release of journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who had been seized reporting on Libya’s civil war.
In his book charting his time of editor of the paper, Rusbridger describes Ismail has being “handsome” with “intelligent eyes” but “overweight”. He described how his laid out four phones on the table in front of him during the negotiations.
Ismail’s renewed role as a negotiator and envoy for the Gaddafi family culminated with the secretive visit to the UK at the end of March 2011, which saw him meet Richard Northern, the former British ambassador to Libya, and foreign office official Christian Turner.
Turner is now Britain’s deputy national security adviser and a key aide to Prime Minister Theresa May. According to government correspondence, officials stressed to Ismail that they did not “want any publicity” surrounding the visit.
High-end hotels and secret messages
According to local media reports he was stopped by officials and his diplomatic passport was examined, but he was allowed to travel on to London, where he was known to have family, including a wife thought to be studying at a British college or university.
Ismail’s current whereabout are unknown, but MEE reported on Monday that Gaddafi’s son al-Saadi claimed Ismail has lived in UAE and was close to the Abu Dhabi ruler, contradicting Saudi claims of Qatari involvement in the assassination plot.
Other sources suggest he is or has been based in Cairo.
What is known is that Ismail remained active on behalf of Saif al-Islam after the fall of the Gaddafi government. It was reported that he attempted to smuggle secret messages to his former spymaster Saif in 2012 when he was being held by Libyan forces in Zintan southwest of Tripoli.
They said: “Like many members of Gaddafi’s circle he had money in Cairo and moved there to access it.
“We known he was active in Cairo from 2012 and that he stayed on contact with Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam.”
Jamie Merrill is a freelance news journalist based in London. He was previously a senior news reporter at The Independent newspaper