While spooks, treasure hunters, and lawyers search for cash, gold, and antiquities, Libya offers a lesson—and 1,001 cautionary tales—about how to recoup loot from kleptocrats.
On an April morning in Vienna in 2012, a body was spotted floating in the Danube.
It did not take long for Austrian authorities to identify the deceased: a 69-year-old Libyan named Shukri Ghanem. Though not a household name, Ghanem was an erudite, enigmatic, and powerful figure who, after earning a doctorate at Tufts, rose to become prime minister, and later oil minister, of a country teeming with black gold and corruption. He was preceded in death by his political patron, Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s longtime leader, who six months earlier had been killed by opposition forces in Sirte, his seaside birthplace.
While the gruesome spectacle surrounding Qaddafi’s death had been preserved for posterity on viral video, little fuss was made over Ghanem’s. An inquest by the Viennese state prosecutor’s office ruled out foul play. Officials quietly concluded that he had suffered a heart attack before falling into the water and drowning. Though the Austrians touted their findings with Teutonic certitude, it is hard to find a diplomat, academic, or spy who buys the benign account of his passing. “When Shukri Ghanem died, the estimate was that he had billions,” said an American investigator who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information surrounding the matter. “As head of the National Oil Corporation, he was both skimming and moving money, with Qaddafi’s blessing. No one thinks Shukri’s death was a coincidence. It was a statement.”
Nestled in a quiet corner of London’s Ham Yard Hotel was the man reputed to lead what many consider to be the world’s biggest and most unruly treasure hunt. His operation involves tracing and helping to freeze, seize, and ultimately recover a mind-boggling array of assets: billions in bank accounts, bonds, cash, gold, and real estate as well as scores of rare antiquities. Most were allegedly looted by Qaddafi and his cronies over four decades. Other riches are believed to have been hauled away by an array of politicians, terrorists, and shape-shifters who have sought to fill Libya’s post-Qaddafi power vacuum. At the helm of the hunt is a dapper 60-year-old named Mohamed Ramadan Mensli. Almost everyone calls him Mo.
When I arrived, he was seated in a booth in the hotel restaurant, his elegant blue suit and black horn-rimmed glasses allowing him to blend in amid the bustle of a city where so many people dress like bankers. That façade crumbled as soon as Mo opened his mouth. “I would not be surprised if it’s hundreds of billions and perhaps into the trillions that was stolen,” he suggested, with a mix of awe and disgust. “The system Qaddafi and his people created to evade sanctions and move assets and wealth out of Libya and around the world—it’s a masterpiece. I think Qaddafi was a son of a bitch. But he knew how to play the game.”
Muammar Qaddafi, of course, was not the first kleptocrat to grace the world stage over the last half century. Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Mobutu Sese Seko, Saddam Hussein…the list is long and ignominious. But save for Vladimir Putin and his array of oligarchs (who by some estimates may have siphoned off as much as $1 trillion), Qaddafi may well have been the most rapacious. Oil lubricated Libya’s swing toward modernity and underwrote a graft-and-patronage machine that kept him in power for 42 years, enriching those in his orbit in ways that are hard to fathom and may be impervious to an accurate accounting. Now, there is a global endeavor to win some of those riches back.
This story is a deep dive into these efforts—and a chronicle of my encounters with the motley cast of characters who have emerged as Libya has attempted to recoup its purloined wealth—including in recent weeks, its artworks. It is also an exploration of how the obscure outfit Mensli oversees—the Libyan Asset Recovery and Management Office (LARMO)—is working to repossess assets from autocrats and enablers (witting or unwitting), and, as a result, return a modicum of dignity to the Libyan people.
Long before governments around the world began to track down the ill-gotten gains of Russia’s rulers and oligarchs, a similar effort targeted Libya’s counterparts. At the U.N.’s behest, nations—in the lead-up to Qaddafi’s demise—froze the low-hanging fruit: assets in the tens of billions that belonged to the Qaddafi family, its inner circle, or state-sanctioned affiliates. A significant portion of that wealth, however, was hidden, according to intelligence sources, squirreled away by loyalists the Qaddafi clan trusted to provide plausible deniability about the money’s true owner. These individuals are said to range from the obvious (an espionage chieftain, an aide-de-camp, and a translator) to the improbable (a former waiter at a waterfront hamlet frequented by Qaddafi’s sons). Upon the Libyan leader’s death in 2011, his meticulously crafted mechanism for stealing from his people—while often evading international sanctions—collapsed.
As fear of the family’s wrath and reach subsided, several of those tending to Qaddafi’s plunder allegedly diverted it for their own purposes, including some figures who had publicly sided with the opposition. By 2012, treasure hunters—from the pin-striped set to those accustomed to tactical garb—had already begun to swoop in, lured by the promise of a windfall. One American defense contractor cut a deal with the provisional authorities to scour the world for hidden cash and accounts in exchange for a cut of the proceeds and unleashed a team of CIA, DIA, IRS, and NSC veterans in support of the effort. Art-theft experts began looking for priceless artifacts swiped from Libya that, down through the years, had shown up in prominent museums and private hands.
Tripoli became a modern-day Casablanca, a crossroads that conjured characters from Three Kings, Repo Man, and The Bourne Identity. The unholy cadre of spies, guns-for-hire, and straight-up con men who flocked there soon acquired a nickname among the Libyans. They were derisively referred to as “10 percenters” on account of the exorbitant fees they hoped to reap for identifying secret locations said to contain billions in vaults piled high with cash or bullion.
Other swindlers and shadow dwellers sought their commissions up front. “There were all of these people with intelligence, military, financial, and political backgrounds,” a veteran Libyan intelligence operative told me. “They would come to us and say, ‘There’s $1 billion in cash in Benin. Tens of billions in South Africa.’ It made no sense. But they always asked for hundreds of thousands of dollars in advance to unlock the big money—money belonging to the Libyan people.”
LARMO, which Mensli nominally took over last year, was established in 2017—by which point the race to find the loot had become so disjointed it bordered on the comical. As one retired U.S. intelligence official told me, “We actually had a mandate from the Minister of Justice. But when we landed in Switzerland…and visited a bank suspected of holding dirty money, the manager said, ‘Who are you guys? Two weeks ago there were other people here claiming the same thing.’ So, we reported the names to Tripoli and found out the ‘other guys’ were charlatans. In the early days, some charlatans were able to get their hands on [a lot of] the money.”
Mensli seems to have had some success by centralizing the search and elbowing out the hucksters. Over lunch, he described the leads his team has been chasing down, occasionally scrolling through his phone to offer examples. “This one shows $32 billion in dollar-denominated accounts in European banks,” he said excitedly. “We have 58 properties in Paris alone—all Libyan assets. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” As our conversation drifted into the late afternoon, the promise and peril of his mission came into focus. One moment he was justifying the detention of the man who used to run LARMO. The next, he was phoning a Qaddafi confidant who is on a U.S. blacklist. Soon, he had the Libyan embassy in Washington on the line, discussing the latest in what would prove to be a series of seizures by law enforcement officials of rare antiquities—priceless pieces that had been spirited out of his country over the years—from high-profile collections, including The Met and that of an American billionaire.
Tattered though his country’s reputation may be, Mo Mensli made one thing clear: Libya wants its shit back.
Acorpse on the Danube. A hotel near the Thames. An embassy a short drive from the Potomac. In February, I was on a different river—the Seine—in a 1965 Riva Super Florida speedboat.
Cruising past Notre Dame, I was catching up with Tim Lawrence, 52, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Maine whom I first met when he was serving as a U.S. military attaché in Israel, overseeing America’s special-operations portfolio there. With his gregarious, devil-may-care disposition, the Springsteen fanatic (he named his youngest child Bruce) put away the uniform, and in 2014 moved to Tunisia where he began advising and assisting governments across North Africa that were battling insurgents. “Libya has been in chaos and civil strife and various degrees of armed conflict since the fall of Qaddafi,” he remarked. “They now have a prime minister in the east, a prime minister in the west. It’s like those old bars in the States with people banging away on the keys trying to outplay each other. Dueling pianos.”
The U.S. evacuated its diplomats from Tripoli in 2014 and established what amounts to an embassy in exile in Tunis. Ever since, Lawrence has had a front-row seat to the mishigas. Last summer, after decades chasing terrorists, he joined a different quest: helping LARMO try to repossess some of Libya’s loot.
“I dubbed this Operation Rainbow: There may be a pot of gold at the end of it,” he chuckled as we sailed past the Louvre—a fitting backdrop considering that one of the caches on LARMO’s checklist has been exhibited at the museum: four stunning statues pillaged from Cyrene, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in and around the modern-day Libyan city of Shahat. (The museum said that “the artworks presented at the Louvre in this exhibition were deposited by French Customs,” which seized the antiquities in 2012 and 2016. French Customs has said that French law permits the display of illegally trafficked artworks “with a view to their preservation,” and that antiquities will be returned to their “legitimate owner” after a “judicial inquiry.”) Lawrence, whom Mensli enlisted to help with the high-stakes scavenger hunt, grinned as he considered what it has wrought. “When the fairy tales and stories are in the hundreds of billions of dollars, that generates its own counterculture, microcosm, special breed of folks.”
He is not kidding.
In August, a Canadian acquaintance who kept his eyes on the search for the lost Libyan funds hit up Lawrence for help with a “lucrative opportunity” in Ghana, but was cagey about the particulars. After a flurry of encrypted exchanges, Lawrence learned that the undertaking involved retrieving and extracting 60 pallets’ worth of Qaddafi’s cash—labeled “family valuables” on a reputed customs manifest—from a secure storage area. Having served in war zones where Uncle Sam was known to dole out large sums to grease the palms of allies, Lawrence did some back-of-the-envelope math: “You need a forklift to move a single pallet. A single pallet—at a meter and a half by a meter and a half that’s composed of $100 bills—would be $100 million. So 10 of those for $1 billion, multiplied by six.”
After sizing up the logistical and security challenges, he joined forces with a ragtag Canadian American team bound for Ghana. But upon arrival in Accra, the country’s picturesque capital on the Gulf of Guinea, two things became evident. First, there was some uncertainty about the money’s whereabouts: It was said to be in one of two warehouses situated some 20 miles apart. Second, they did not have a plan for how to secure, much less move, the money. And that was where the Tuareg fit in.
By definition, the Tuareg are a nomadic people spread across the Sahel-Sahara, a group Muammar Qaddafi occasionally empowered during his reign—and entrusted before his fall—to protect his family, allies, and interests. Thus, it seemed plausible that a contact they called the Tuareg was what he claimed to be; namely, a dependable custodian for a large cache belonging to the departed Libyan leader. The Americans in the group say they were circumspect. “He’s wearing $10 worth of clothing. He’s basically illiterate and he hasn’t showered in days,” Lawrence remembered. “Is that dude sitting on $6 billion for 10 years? Not unless he’s doing some seriously deep-cover shit. I mean, if you’re caretaking that much money for that long, you’re living in a penthouse.”
The team seemed convinced nonetheless, based on an understanding that the Tuareg and another man known simply as the Kurd had previously gone into the warehouse. Inside the facility, the Tuareg, with no small amount of pageantry, opened a sealed pallet chock full of $100 bills. He even provided a couple of Benjamins as a show of good faith, which the Kurd evidently took to a bank where they were judged to be genuine.
Soon, the North American crew would be driving out to the desert to try their luck.
Before Qaddafi arrived on scene, self-determination had been a historical aberration for Libya. Its inhabitants and territory—two and a half times the size of Texas, with 1,100 miles of prime Mediterranean coastline—had been controlled by Hannibal and the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Ottomans, as well as the Italians, British, and French. In 1951, Libya’s only monarch, Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi as-Senussi, took over and during an otherwise unremarkable reign, struck oil, which proved both a blessing and a curse for a country that was among the poorest on the planet. In 1969, Qaddafi, the 27-year-old son of a camel herder, dethroned King Idris.
“He was the Middle Eastern Fidel Castro,” Jonathan Winer, President Obama’s special envoy for Libya, told me, recalling that Qaddafi, after taking power, “wanted to export socialist revolution to the rest of the world. And, like Fidel, he failed almost everywhere. Unlike Fidel, he didn’t need a patron to provide economic support because he had oil. So he was Fidel with oil money and less education.”
Not to mention malevolent intent. Save for a brief respite in the aughts, Qaddafi long bedeviled the West with his erratic ways, theatrical public appearances, and outright brutality. His nation supplied arms to terrorists, allowed insurgents safe harbor, and plotted (unsuccessfully) to assassinate leaders of other countries. In the 1980s, a discotheque attack in Berlin and two airplane bombings, all plotted by Libyan agents, killed hundreds. (After his death, the 2012 assault on the American consulate in Benghazi claimed the lives of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, a State Department employee, and two CIA contractors.)