By Ian Cobain
Secret papers show how far MI6 went to please Libya’s ruthless intelligence agents – including helping to kidnap the dictator’s enemies.
Five days after 9/11, early on a Sunday evening, a small group of senior CIA officers drove from their headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to the British embassy at 3100 Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington DC, in order to brief MI6 on the agency’s planned response to the attacks.
Leading the delegation was Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s counter-terrorist centre. Black was still wearing the same suit he had put on five days earlier, and looked shattered: he had been working day and night to draw up a cogent plan to protect his country from any further attacks.
Inside the embassy, Black and his colleagues gave a three-hour presentation on their plans. The CIA had been running a kidnap-and-interrogation project on a small scale since the mid-90s, targeting jihadists in Bosnia. It was known as the rendition programme. The plan was to dramatically increase the scale and scope of the programme.
According to Tyler Drumheller, then head of CIA operations in Europe, the MI6 officers listened quietly as Black detailed his plan, which involved the identification, abduction and interrogation of al-Qaida suspects around the globe. At the end of the presentation, Mark Allen, head of counter-terrorism at MI6, observed rather dryly that “it all sounds rather blood curdling”. Drumheller noted that the MI6 officers appeared very worried. Some of his fellow CIA officers, with less experience of dealing with the Brits, mistook their slightly insouciant manner for a sign of approval.
Allen wanted to know what the CIA and MI6 would do after al-Qaida was scattered across the world. He asked: “And what are we going to do, once we have hammered the mercury in Afghanistan?” The CIA officers looked at each other. According to one account of the meeting, Black said: “We’ll probably all be prosecuted.”
The death toll of the 9/11 attacks was still rising and President George W Bush was eager to take a tough stance. The day after the Pentagon briefing, Bush gave a press conference in which he offered a glimpse of what was to come. “I want justice,” he said. “There’s an old poster out west that says: ‘Wanted – Dead or Alive.’”
The implications of this would be thrashed out early the following year by the heads of the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. At a meeting at Queenstown, a ski resort in New Zealand, CIA director George Tenet insisted they could only understand and defeat al-Qaida if they worked closely with intelligence agencies across the Muslim world, and if they agreed to do whatever it took to hit back against terrorists. “The shackles, my friends, have been taken off,” Tenet is said to have declared.
One of the most pressing imperatives was to create close ties with the intelligence agencies of the Arab world. With this aim, in 2002 the CIA and MI6 began co-operating with the Libyan External Security Organisation (ESO), Col Muammar Gaddafi’s notorious overseas intelligence agency.
The stated agenda was to learn more about militant Islamism, but that would change the following year once Allen and his British political masters saw an opportunity to enter into negotiations with Gaddafi over his programme to develop weapons of mass destruction. Gaddafi had been trying to develop nuclear capability since the early 1970s, initially by trying to acquire Indian-made weapons, and then by attempting to gain access to uranium ore and enrichment technology.
From the late summer of 2003, as the war in Iraq began to go badly for the US and its allies, it became increasingly clear that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction – the WMD programme that officially justified the invasion of Iraq – did not exist. But if Gaddafi could be persuaded to abandon his own nuclear plans, those who had pressed for war against Iraq could claim the invasion had been vindicated.
As the CIA and MI6 built relationships with Libya, the two agencies assisted Libyan spies in the kidnapping of Gaddafi’s enemies. Two leading figures in the Libyan opposition who had fled the country were kidnapped, one from Hong Kong, one from Thailand, and flown back to Tripoli along with their wives and children. Both men were tortured. MI6 gave their Libyan counterparts questions for the prisoners, who, under extreme duress, led them to other Libyan dissidents in exile.
Opponents of the Gaddafi regime who had been living legally in the UK for years were detained by British police, and the British government made a determined attempt to have them deported to Tripoli. Asylum seekers and British-Libyan nationals in Manchester and London were menaced by Gaddafi’s agents, who were invited into the UK and permitted to operate on the streets of Britain alongside MI5. British intelligence handed over details of the targets’ telephone calls to the ESO, and their relatives and friends in Libya were arrested and threatened.
Details of the dark arrangements made by the intelligence agencies of the US, UK and Libya have been gleaned through interviews with government officials and victims of rendition, British government documents disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, and material that emerged during a lengthy Scotland Yard investigation and a number of civil trials. In large part, however, what follows is based on several extraordinary caches of secret British, American and Libyan intelligence documents that were discovered amid the chaos of the Libyan revolution in 2011, scattered around abandoned government offices, prisons and officials’ private residences.
Many of the most intriguing documents were found by Libyan civilians and human rights activists in September that year inside ESO’s offices. Others came to light in various government outposts after Gaddafi was captured and killed the following month. All together, they amount to many thousands of pages.
These papers show that the post-9/11 rapprochement between the Gaddafi regime and the west – and Tony Blair’s government in particular – went far deeper than was previously known.
The most highly publicised result of the renewed dialogue with Libya was the dictator’s announcement that he was abandoning his WMD ambitions, both his nuclear and chemical and biological programmes. Another coup was the signing of multimillion dollar gas and oil exploration deals. Quietly, however, the relationship also bore a more bitter fruit: the kidnappings, detention and beatings carried out and assisted by the CIA and MI6.
These hitherto-secret documents offer a unique glimpse of a realpolitik that would be unimaginable had it not been detailed on one page after another. They show that, in their eagerness to get close to Gaddafi and influence the dictator’s future conduct, Britain’s intelligence agencies were prepared to commit serious human rights abuses on his behalf.
On 20 September 2001, four days after the CIA briefing on the revved-up rendition programme, MI6 spy chief Mark Allen was sitting face-to-face with a senior Libyan intelligence officer. It was well known to western intelligence agencies that Gaddafi was in a panic after 9/11. Libya’s record as a state sponsor of terrorism was established: Gaddafi’s government had been behind the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people.
It was suspected of involvement in the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin nightclub frequented by US servicemen, and the downing the French UTA Flight 172 over Chad in 1989 with the loss of 170 lives. Furthermore, Gaddafi had made no secret about supplying arms to the IRA.
The dictator, aware of his reputation for supporting terror, had quickly condemned the al-Qaida attacks, but was far from certain this would be sufficient to save him from the wrath of the US. According to a cable from the US ambassador in Cairo, David Welch, Gaddafi had been trying to “call every Arab leader on his Rolodex”, begging them to set up a summit to discourage the US from launching an attack on his country. When he called King Abdullah of Jordan, he had sounded hysterical, Welch wrote.
On 13 November 2001, Bush signed a military order authorising the widespread use of rendition and torture. A few days later, ESO and MI6 met again. By now, the Libyans noted, MI6 were “determined to experiment with recruiting sources”.
Britain was wading into the war on terror. In mid-November, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act gave the home secretary the power to detain individuals without trial – and the intelligence agencies more power to target suspects.
By August 2002, relations between Britain and Libya were tentatively restored, with the goal of what Blair would later call the “huge prize” of security co-operation with Libyan intelligence. Gaddafi’s son Saif was admitted to the London School of Economics at his second attempt.
During a preliminary telephone conversation, Blair and Gaddafi exchanged pleasantries. Junior foreign office minister Mike O’Brien visited Gaddafi at Sirte, the dictator’s birthplace, and delivered a letter from Blair. It was the first British ministerial visit since 1984, when the UK had severed diplomatic relations after a police officer, Yvonne Fletcher, was murdered by shots fired from inside the Libyan embassy in London.
No matter that Gaddafi was regarded across the Middle East as dangerously insane. He may be a madman, those in the higher reaches of the British government appear to have concluded, but at least he’s our madman.
Much of the work involved in building the partnership was done not by ministers, or even by diplomats, but by intelligence officers, particularly Allen and Koussa. They met frequently over the course of 2002 and appear to have become firm friends. Gifts of dates and oranges from Tripoli began to appear at MI6’s headquarters on the south bank of the Thames, while on 20 September 2003, on the first anniversary of the two men’s initial meeting, Koussa was invited to “a banquet dinner at the Goring”, a luxury hotel.
It was Koussa’s first visit to the UK in decades. In June 1980, as head of the Libyan People’s Bureau, as his country’s embassy in London was then known, he had given an extraordinary interview to the Times in which he admitted having given his personal approval for the murder of two Libyans resident in the UK. Lord Carrington, then the foreign secretary, had barely permitted Koussa’s feet to touch the ground as he was bundled out of the country.
And here he was, 23 years later, being wined and dined a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. “The head of the British delegation warmly welcomed his guest, expressing his happiness,” according to the Libyan minutes. There does not appear to have been any discussion about the murders Koussa had authorised in London two decades earlier. Nor was there any mention of the 10 bomb attacks that were aimed at Gaddafi’s opponents in Manchester and London in March 1984, injuring 29.
Instead, there were talks about “bilateral and international issues”, intelligence sharing, and about MI6’s desire that Saif Gaddafi should be safe and comfortable while living in London. The conversation then turned to the dictator’s political opponents living in the UK. “What we need to deal with these individuals who reside in the UK,” a senior MI6 officer is reported as saying, “is tangible evidence to take instant actions against them.”
Emboldened by the new spirit of co-operation, in October 2002 Blair wrote to Gaddafi, suggesting that the sanctions that were holding back his country’s oil industry and placing an enormous burden on its economy might be lifted, if he would agree to abandon his WMD programme, which had long been a matter of great concern to the west.
To be continued
Top Photo: Sir Mark Allen, former head of counter-terrorism at MI6.
Ian Cobain is a senior reporter for the Guardian and author of Cruel Britannia and The History Thieves.