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.
On 25 November 2002, the Libyans passed MI6 a list of 79 Libyan opposition activists, who they referred to as “heretics”, living in the UK. Most, if not all, were said to be members or supporters of the LIFG.
An underground group formed in 1995 by Libyans who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the LIFG was dedicated to the overthrow of Gaddafi and the establishment of an Islamic government in Tripoli. It had announced its existence through a series of clashes with Gaddafi’s forces in the east of the country. For many years it had two leaders: Belhaj was its military commander, while another man, Sami al-Saadi, was its spiritual leader.
While the LIFG leadership never condoned al-Qaida’s attacks on the west, and insisted it was concerned only with the overthrow of Gaddafi, hundreds of its members joined al-Qaida in Afghanistan following a failed assassination attempt on the dictator in 1996, and after 9/11, the US government listed it as a terrorist organisation. It was not proscribed in the UK at this time, however. Many of its members had fled to Britain, as well as to China and Iran. Al-Saadi, his wife, Karima, and four children were among those who settled in London briefly, before moving to Tehran.
Abdel Hakim Belhaj instructs anti-Gaddafi troops in Triploi in 2011. Photograph: Getty
In the UK, the LIFG was tolerated by the government. They were able to regroup and raise funds. From late 2002, however, as the rapprochement between London and Tripoli warmed up, Libyans resident in the UK were stopped and questioned at airports, and there were police raids on family homes in London and Manchester. When the UK-based Libyan author Hisham Matar – whose father, a noted member of a different dissident group, had been disappeared by the Gaddafi regime in 1990 – dined out in London, he began choosing seats that faced the door of the restaurant. “None of us felt safe,” he later wrote.
In early 2003, as US and UK forces mustered on the borders of Iraq, Gaddafi was afraid they would target Libya. According to one diplomat, he called the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, begging him to “tell them I will do whatever they want”.
In March, Blair secured the backing of the Commons for war against Iraq, and two days later the invasion began. Three weeks after that, Baghdad appeared to have fallen to the US and the war was thought to be all but over: on 1 May, on board the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush gave an address in front of a large banner declaring: “Mission Accomplished.”
The secret papers show that by then Allen was regularly meeting with a senior CIA officer, Stephen Kappes, to discuss ways they could make sure Gaddafi abandoned his ambitions to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry. During their conversations with Koussa, no sanctions were threatened; there was little need, as all three men knew Gaddafi was terrified of being invaded by the US.
At meetings in Tripoli, MI6 officers discussed not only the WMD programme, but ways of targeting Libyan “heretics” around the world. British intelligence officers told the Libyans they had intercepted Sami al-Saadi’s telephone calls from his home in Tehran.
At one meeting between the ESO, MI6 and MI5, the British passed over a briefing paper that MI5 had prepared. “Greetings from the British Security Service,” it read. “We … wish to share with you information that we have that may be of interest.” It contained details about the whereabouts and movements of Gaddafi’s opponents in London, Brighton, Peshawar and Los Angeles. MI5 also passed on details of “UK-based Libyan extremists”. British intelligence was starting to track the LIFG leadership. ESO asked the British if they could help capture Belhaj, who was in China with his Moroccan wife, Fatima Bouchar. MI6 replied that they must first sound out the Chinese.
British intelligence officers were not unaware of how this activity would be viewed at home. In advance of another meeting, Sadegh Krema, the deputy head of the ESO, passed around an internal note in which he warned that the British were particularly anxious that the meeting should remain “confidential”, because the “domestic political and legal situation [in Britain] is complicated”.
In Iraq, meanwhile, it was dawning on the US and its allies that the mission was very far from being accomplished. On 7 August, a car bomb exploded outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing 17 and injuring dozens. Twelve days later, a massive bomb packed into a cement lorry blew apart the United Nations HQ at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, killing UN special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others. A determined insurgency was underway.
Confidence in the case for going to war was evaporating in London and Washington. The head of the Iraq Survey Group, a multinational body set up to find Saddam’s WMDs, announced that there was little evidence he possessed any.
If the US and UK could successfully disarm Gaddafi – and link that success to the war in Iraq – the invasion would not appear to have been such a ruinous miscalculation. Then, on the Mediterranean, north of Libya, the allies got a lucky break.
The BBC China, a German-registered cargo ship, left the Suez Canal on 4 October 2003 and sailed west towards Libya. Italian naval vessels intercepted the ship and forced her into the port at Taranto, where a search established that five shipping containers labelled “used machine parts” were packed with thousands of centrifuge components for Gaddafi’s uranium enrichment programme.
The components had been tracked from Malaysia, where they had been manufactured on behalf of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who is credited with fathering not only his own country’s nuclear bomb, but also with providing the expertise and equipment that became the seeds for the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes. Libya had also turned to Khan’s one-stop proliferation shop.
Allen invited Koussa back to the UK. This time it was for a 90-minute meeting on 20 November at the Bay Tree, a wisteria-clad five-star hotel in the Cotswolds, just 10 minutes’ drive from the RAF base at Brize Norton. The Libyan minutes of the meeting explain that Allen and Kappes passed on personal messages for Gaddafi from both Blair and Bush, before coming to the point: they knew the Libyans were pressing ahead with their nuclear weapons programme, while pretending to dismantle it.