Muammar Qaddafi has used up twelve of his nine lives, but he still keeps going strong. He came to power - with some help from CIA it is whispered - in a 1969 coup against Libya’s doddering, British-run puppet king, Idris.
Forty years in power in the Mideast is a remarkable feat. President Ronald Reagan branded Qaddafi “the mad dog of the Mideast” and sent warplanes to kill him. Britain, France and some of Qaddafi’s Arab “brothers” also tried to overthrow or assassinate him. Libya’s `Leader’ has had the piquant pleasure of outliving or outfoxing most of his enemies.
I was invited to interview Qaddafi in 1987. We spent an evening together in his colorful Bedouin tent. He led me by the hand through the ruins of his personal quarters, bombed a year earlier by the US in an attempt to assassinate him. Qaddafi showed me where his 2-year old adopted daughter had been killed by an American 1,000 lb. bomb.
“Why are the Americans trying to kill me, Mister Eric?” he asked, genuinely puzzled. I told him because Libya was harboring all sorts of violent anti-western revolutionary groups, from Palestinian aircraft hijackers to IRA bombers and Nelson Mandela’s ANC.
While in Libya I spent time with two men high on the US and Israeli most wanted list: Palestinian militants George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh. To the naïve Libyans, they were all legitimate “freedom fighters.”
Two weeks ago, a Libyan intelligence agent, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, who was serving a life term in Scotland for the destruction of an American airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, was released on compassionate grounds by Scotland’s justice minister. Megrahi was dying of cancer. “Devolved” Scotland enjoys considerable autonomy from London in legal matters.
A huge international furor erupted that was rich in hypocrisy and double standards.
The US and the British governments and assorted politicians roared with moral indignation and blasted Scotland for releasing the dying Megrahi. His joyous reception on arriving home in Tripoli, led by Qaddafi’s son Saif, poured fuel on the fires of western outrage.
Then came embarrassing revelations that the British government may have been applying subtle pressure on Scotland to release Megrahi in exchange for lucrative oil and arms deals with Libya. The Brits are well known for bending their own laws when it comes to big export contracts. Exhibit A: Tony Blair’s quashing a major criminal investigation of bribery and kickbacks paid to the Saudis by Britain’s largest arms exporter.
Worse, the Pan Am 103 crime was part of a bigger, even more sordid story.
1986: Libya is accused of bombing a Berlin disco, killing two US servicemen. A defector from Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, named Viktor Ostrovsky claimed Israel framed Libya and gulled the US into believing Qaddafi was the culprit.
Israel denied the accusation. East German intelligence may also have been involved.
Then, Qaddafi committed a supreme offense. He accused the Arab oil monarchs of being American stooges and demanded they raise the price of oil. Washington was incensed and moved Qaddafi to the top of its black list.
1987: The US tries to kill Qaddafi, fails. Eighty-eight Libyan civilians die in the US bombing of Tripoli.
1988: France fights a secret desert war with Libya over Chad’s uranium-rich Aouzou Strip. French Foreign Legionnaires disguised as Tuareg tribesmen drove Libya’s rag-tag army out of the strip.
France’s very rough secret service, SDECE, was ordered to kill Qaddafi. Its late director, Count Alexandre de Marenches, told me his agents secreted a bomb aboard Qaddafi’s private jet. But after Franco-Libyan relations abruptly improved, President Francois Mitterand ordered SDECE to remove the bomb. Luckily for Qaddafi, he chose to stay in his tent rather than fly.
1988: The US intervenes on Iraq’s side in the eight-year war it helped start against Iran. A US Navy Aegis cruiser, `Vincennes,’ violates Iranian waters and `mistakenly’ shoots down an Iranian civilian Airbus airliner in Iran’s air space. All 288 civilians aboard die. “Vincennes” is known in the US Navy as “robocruiser” for its extremely aggressive, provocative actions against Iran.
Then Vice President George H. Bush vows, “I’ll never apologize…I don’t care what the facts are.” This obdurate trait seems to run in the Bush family.
To Iran’s fury, the “Vincennes” trigger-happy captain was subsequently decorated by President Bush Senior with the Legion of Merit medal for this crime. Washington quietly paid the families of the Iranian victims US$131.8 million in damages.
Five months later, Pan Am 103 with 270 aboard is destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland. The US and Britain pressure Scotland to convict Megrhai, who insists he is innocent. His co-defendant, another Libyan security agent, was acquitted. Serious questions about the evidence were raised during and after the trial. Some critics accused CIA of faking evidence to blame Libya.
A good number of intelligence experts believe the attack was Tehran’s revenge for the downing of the Iranian airliner, carried out by Mideast contract killers paid by Iran. In recent years, Scotland’s legal authorities raised serious doubts about Meghrahi’s conviction. An appeal was under way.
Libyans believed he was a sacrificial lamb handed over to save Libya from a crushing US-British-led oil export boycott that would have wrecked their nation’s fragile economy. Libya paid very large settlements to most of the American families involved in the crime.
1989: A French UTA-airliner with 180 aboard is blown up over Chad. A Congolese and Libyan agents are accused.
In a very curious twist of events, Qaddafi allows French investigators to go through the top secret files of Libya’s intelligence service.
French investigators indict Qaddafi’s brother-in-law, Abdullah Senoussi, head of Libyan intelligence, with whom I dined in Tripoli. Libya blames the attack on Senoussi and rogue mid-level agents but pays French families $170 million in compensation.
We will never have all the answers to these mysteries. But my sense is that Megrahi was probably innocent and indeed framed, as he claimed. Scotland was right to release him.
But Libya was guilty as hell of the UTA crime, which was most likely revenge for France’s attempt to kill Qaddafi. Libya’s `Leader’ threw his underlings to the dogs to escape censure.
The bombing of Pan Am 103 that was filled with Americans was probably revenge for America’s destruction of the Iranian Airbus.
Not to be outdone in the “Get Qaddafi” business, Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency tried in 1998 to kill Qaddafi with a car bomb in Benghazi. The plot failed, like so many others. North Africans would say that Qaddafi has “baraka,” good fortune that protects him from evil.
In the end, the western powers concluded they needed Libya’s high grade oil and business. So Libya bought its way out of sanctions with $2.7 billion total in damages paid to the US, Britain and France. Old sly fox Qaddafi also bought a few containers of useless nuclear junk from the Dubai black market and turned it over to Washington as part of his rehabilitation deal. The Bush administration gleefully trumpeted it had “halted Libya’s program to build weapons of mass destruction.” Qaddafi’s charade worked brilliantly.
The US, Britain, France and Italy then invested $8 billion in Libya’s oil industry and proclaimed Qaddafi an ally and new best friend. Libya signed contracts for new western arms and nuclear reactors. Qaddafi also had a face lift that left him looking a bit like France’s leading singer, Johnny Hallyday.
Not bad at all for a former Bedouin army colonel who managed to turn tiny Libya, a nation of only 5.5 million, into the scourge of Christendom – and have a jolly good time doing it.