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.
After five days, the pair were taken to Tripoli on a flight that took 17 hours. On arrival they were driven separately to Tajoura prison, east of the city. Belhaj says Koussa greeted him in person. Then he was chained to a wall, he says, and beaten.
Almost immediately, MI5 and MI6 began sending questions that they wanted the Libyans to put to him. Many concerned the lives of other Libyan dissidents around the world. And the questions would keep coming. They are all there, in the secret papers discovered in Tripoli: more than 1,600 questions.
Nine days after the couple’s arrival at Tajoura, Allen sent to his friend Koussa what is perhaps the most remarkable fax of the entire series. He started by expressing his gratitude to his friend for arranging a visit by Tony Blair to Gaddafi – or “the Leader” as he put it.
Blair, he explained, would be travelling with journalists, and would like to meet the Leader in his tent. “The plain fact is the journalists would love it,” Allen wrote.
He then congratulated Koussa on the “safe arrival” of Belhaj. “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years.” He added that “amusingly”, the CIA had asked that MI6 channel all requests for information from Belhaj through them. “I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence … was British. I know I did not pay for the air cargo. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this.”
Blair visited Libya for the first time on 25 March 2004, six days after Allen sent his “safe arrival” fax. After being photographed shaking hands with Gaddafi, he announced that Libya had “found a common cause, with us, in the fight against extremism and terrorism”.
At the same time, in London, it was announced that the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell had signed a £110m deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast.
Two days after that, a second UK-US-Libyan rendition operation was underway. The LIFG spiritual leader Sami al-Saadi had also moved to China with Karima and the four children. The family had travelled to Hong Kong after al-Saadi approached MI5 via an intermediary to ask if they would be allowed to return to London.
He was under the impression he was to be interviewed by British diplomats in Hong Kong. Instead, the entire family was detained by Hong Kong immigration authorities.
Al-Saadi’s eldest child, Khadija, then aged 12, recalls how she and her younger brothers, Mostapha, 11, and Anes, nine, and six-year-old sister Arowa, were separated from their parents before they were all taken aboard an Egyptian airliner, which was empty but for a small number of Libyan men.
“After a while I was allowed to go into the next compartment and see my mother,” she says. “She was crying. She told me they were taking us to Libya. Initially, I didn’t believe it. Then I realised it was true, and I was very scared. I thought we would all be killed. Then I was told to go and say goodbye to my father. He was handcuffed to a seat in another compartment and had a drip in his arm. I fainted.”
After the aircraft landed in Tripoli, Khadija watched as her parents were taken off and hooded, and then their legs bound with wire. Mostapha and Anes were blindfolded. The family was then driven in a convoy of vehicles to the prison at Tajoura.
Al-Saadi says he was beaten, threatened and subjected to electric shocks. Khadija knew her father was being tortured: every few days he was brought to see his family for a few minutes before being taken away again. “I think they were doing it to increase the pressure on him.” The children decided to embark on a hunger strike, “but they didn’t care whether we ate anything or not”.
The children were released, along with their mother, after 10 weeks, and allowed to enrol in school. Al-Saadi, like Belhaj, would spend six years in Gaddafi’s prison.
Later that summer, Allen left MI6 and was appointed as an advisor to BP. At the end of the year he was knighted.
In 2005, the LIFG was banned in the UK. Three members were prosecuted for providing it with funds and false passports, and sentenced to between 22 and 45 months in prison.
A number of other LIFG supporters in the UK were detained on the basis of information they say was extracted under torture from Belhaj and Al-Saadi. They were subjected to British control orders – detained pending deportation to Libya. Some of them had been granted asylum from the Gaddafi regime, and had been living peacefully in the UK for years. But now, it seemed, control orders were being used as instruments of international diplomacy.
The UK government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Gaddafi regime under which the Libyans pledged not to execute, torture or mistreat anyone who was forcibly returned. At one point, the British government suggested – in all seriousness – that Libyan compliance with the Memorandum could be monitored by a body called the Gaddafi Foundation, which was run by the dictator’s son, Saif. Such was Libya’s appalling human rights record, however – with opponents of Gaddafi facing murder, torture and arbitrary detention – that the government was never able to deport its detainees: in one judgment after another, the courts ruled that anyone returned to that country would have no chance of a fair trial.
In April 2007, Blair wrote a personal letter to Gaddafi. “Dear Mu’ammar,” he began, “I trust that you, and your family, are well. With regret, I should let you know that the British Government has not been successful in its recent Court case here involving deportation to Libya.” Blair thanked Gaddafi personally for the help he had given the British government in its attempt to secure deportation, and for the “excellent co-operation” between the two countries’ intelligence agencies. “Best wishes,” he signed off, “yours ever, Tony.”
Chastened, perhaps, by the courts’ verdict, the British side was anxious that their joint operations with Libya should never be made public. MI5 warned that steps should be taken jointly to “avoid being trapped in any sort of legal problem [and] to avoid also that those joint plans be discovered by lawyers or human rights organisations and the media”.
Meanwhile, in Tripoli, Belhaj and Al-Saadi were interrogated by two British intelligence officers. On one occasion, when left alone with his British visitors, Belhaj says he indicated that they were being covertly recorded, displayed the scars on his arms, and indicated through sign language that he was being suspended by his arms and beaten. The British clearly understood, he says: one gave a thumbs-up sign, while the other nodded her head.
Not that British intelligence believed the detention and interrogation of these men had made the UK – or indeed the world – a safer place.
Among the papers discovered during the revolution was an MI5 memorandum prepared in advance of a visit to Tripoli in February 2005 marked “Secret, UK/Libya Eyes Only”, which contains a remarkably candid assessment.
The detention of Belhaj and Al-Saadi had resulted in the LIFG being “cast into a state of disarray”, the memo states, before adding that these men had always jealously guarded the group’s independence from the worldwide jihadist movement, but in their absence, it was now falling under the influence of others who may be pushing it towards al-Qaida’s agenda.
Tony Blair’s “Dear Mu’ammar” letter was one of the first of the secret papers that came to light when the Libyan revolution exploded four years later.
On 16 February 2011, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrators gathered in the eastern Libyan town of Bayda, calling for the overthrow of Gaddafi. A police car was attacked and set ablaze at a road junction that is now known as The Crossroads of the Spark.
It took more than eight months of vicious fighting, however, before the rebels, aided by Nato, toppled the regime. Belhaj played a role in the revolution, and was appointed leader of the militia that took control of the capital.
On 20 October, wounded and surrounded by rebels in Sirte, Gaddafi hid inside a drainage pipe. Grainy, jerking footage shot on a mobile phone captured the last moments of the despot whose friendship the UK had done so much to cultivate. He was dragged out, beaten, stabbed in the backside, and died. Three of Gaddafi’s sons died during the revolution, while Saif, captured by rebels, was abandoned by his friends in London and spent six years in jail.
Documents showing co-operation between the CIA and Muammar Gadaffi’s intelligence agencies found at the offices of Moussa Koussa. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex
One senior servant of the regime survived unscathed. Moussa Koussa had left the country after telling Gaddafi he needed medical treatment in Tunisia, where he boarded a private jet and flew to the UK. He immediately met with MI6 officers. Shortly afterwards, he left Britain, and settled in Qatar.
By then, the first secret cache of Tripoli intelligence documents had already been discovered, and some of their contents reported. With the role that MI6 played in the kidnap of Belhaj, Al-Saadi and their families now laid bare, Sir Richard Dearlove, the agency’s chief at the time, made a rare public statement in defence of MI6’s conduct.
Government ministers had approved their actions, he said: “It was a political decision, having very significantly disarmed Libya, for the government to co-operate with Libya on Islamist terrorism.”
As a consequence of the discovery of the papers, Belhaj, Al-Saadi and several of the men who were detained and subject to control orders in the UK, or had their assets frozen on the basis of information being extracted from Gaddafi’s prisoners, brought damages claims against the British government and MI6 for the mistreatment they had suffered.
Al-Saadi settled his claim in 2012 when Britain paid him £2.23m in compensation, without admitting liability. Belhaj brought proceedings against not only the British government, but also against Allen and Jack Straw, who had been foreign secretary, and responsible for MI6, at the time that the agency assisted with his kidnap. Belhaj said he would settle for just £3 – £1 each from the government, Allen and Straw – providing both he and his wife received an unreserved apology.
That was unlikely to happen, however: Scotland Yard had embarked upon a criminal investigation of the intelligence agency’s role in the Libyan rendition operations, and to make an admission of liability would be to invite arrests.
The investigation, codenamed Operation Lydd, ran for more than three years. Straw, who has always denied being complicit in unlawful rendition or detention, was questioned as a witness. Allen, who has declined to comment publicly, was the suspect.
He faced potential charges of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring kidnap, false imprisonment, assault or torture, and misconduct in public office.
The police report contained evidence that Allen had been in contact with Koussa about the two rendition operations. However, in June last year, the CPS decided that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against Allen.
The Libyan renditions were also examined during a short-lived inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the mistreatment of terrorism suspects after 9/11. It had been set up by the coalition government following the 2010 UK general election, but was shut down once the police investigation began.
Instead, its work was handed to Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee. Four years later, the committee has yet to report.
Belhaj’s British lawyers are currently seeking a judicial review of the CPS decision to not prosecute Allen, and the couple’s damages claim is yet to be heard in the high court. Government lawyers fought for years to have the claim struck out, finally losing at the supreme court earlier this year. A hearing is expected next year.
In 2011, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, who was director general of MI5 from 2002 until 2007, asked “whether the UK supped with a sufficiently long spoon” in dealing with the Libyan dictator. Indeed, the story of Britain’s attempt to make an ally of Libya has an uncomfortable postscript.
At a remote depot in the south east of Libya, the National Transitional Council that was established after the death of Gaddafi discovered that the dictator had concealed large stocks of chemical weapons. They found mustard-gas artillery shells and precursors for the creation of other chemical weapons. Gaddafi, it turns out, had never really shut down his weapons programme. The UK and the US had done a deal with one of the worst dictators of the last century, and he had fooled them.
Top Photo: Abdel Hakim Belhaj instructs anti-Gaddafi troops in Triploi in 2011. Photograph: Getty
Ian Cobain is a senior reporter for the Guardian and author of Cruel Britannia and The History Thieves.