He was always the man in the shadows, the éminence grise behind Muammar Gadaffi’s tent, the spy master who knew all the secrets.
On Wednesday, Libya’s Foreign Minister, Moussa Koussa, dressed in his trademark grey shirt, grey jacket and grey trousers, defected to Britain, inflicting a major blow on the faltering Gadaffi regime. Agents of British intelligence, MI6, spirited Koussa out of Libya via Tunisia and off to an airfield in southern England.
Moussa Koussa is now closeted in London with British intelligence. MI6 will have a huge number of questions to ask the man who headed up Libyan intelligence for some fifteen years, either officially or unofficially, and acted as a top advisor to the Libyan strongman.
Her Majesty’s spooks will debrief Koussa about the loyalty of Gadaffi’s military and tribal supporters, and his “Plan B” in case of defeat. In spite of denials, the US, Britain and France are already sending increasing numbers of special forces into Libya, as I’ve reported for two months.
But their most interesting questions will be about the still enigmatic bombing of US Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 and a French UTA DC-10 in 1989.
Libya was blamed for bombing the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people. Western investigators accused two Libyan agents of planting a bomb aboard the doomed aircraft. Under threats of crushing sanctions, Libya reluctantly handed them over. One of them, a small-fry named Abdulbasit el-Megrahi, was convicted by a Scottish court and jailed for life.
The common view was that the Pan Am atrocity was revenge for the US bombing of Libya in 1986. A year later, Gadaffi showed me the ruins of his private quarters where a US 1,000 kg bomb had killed his two-year old daughter. “Why are the Americans trying to kill me,” he asked me?
A year later, a bomb destroyed a French UTA airliner over the Sahara, killing 171. France had just defeated Libya in a sharp border conflict over Chad. The late head of French intelligence, SDECE, told me French President Francois Mitterand ordered him to kill Gadaffi, but then cancelled the operation - a bomb hidden in Gadaffi’s aircraft - when Franco-Libyan relations improved.
In 1999, French investigators found Libya guilty of the UTA attack. Six Libyan officials, including the deputy chief of intelligence, Abdullah Senoussi, were convicted in absentia. Senoussi insisted to me over dinner in Tripoli that his nation was innocent. But it certainly looked like Libya was getting revenge for its defeat in Chad, and the attempt on Gadaffi’s life.
Lockerbie is another story. Some veteran observers believed al-Megrahi was framed to implicate Libya when the real culprit was Iran, seeking revenge for the downing of an Iranian airliner over the Gulf in July, 1988, by US cruiser “Vincennes” that killed 290, mostly pilgrims, headed for Mecca.
But questions over Megrahi’s guilt grew. Scotland’s respected legal system was considering an appeal that was likely to have revealed efforts to frame the Libyan. To head off this embarrassment, Britain sent him back to Libya, claiming he was about to die from cancer. In return, British oil and commercial interests in Libya were quickly expanded. It was a remarkably cynical business, greased by Tony Blair, oozing synthetic charm from every pore.
Libya never admitted guilt for these aerial crimes, but paid out $1.5 billion blood money in 2008. US President George Bush promptly “pardoned” Libya, ended punishing sanctions, and allowed US oil firms to return to Libya. The hapless Meghrahi was welcome home by Libyans as a hero and sacrificial lamb.
We still don’t know who really bombed Pan Am 103 or the full story about the UTA airliner. Hard evidence has been lacking.
Moussa Koussa will likely reveal the truth about these two notorious crimes to British intelligence, as well as the alleged Libyan bombing of a Berlin disco that triggered the 1987 US attempt to kill Gadaffi, and Libya’s supposed nuclear program.
Another question: will Koussa himself be charged with crimes? One suspects a deal was made before he defected to spare the wily Libyan spook. The man in grey is stepping out of the shadows.