Twelve months ago, a few days after the start of the Libyan revolution, I posed the following question on Professor Robert Black’s Lockerbie blog: ‘What’s the betting that, sometime in the next few weeks, the following happens: 1) In the burned out ruins of a Libyan government building, someone finds definitive documentary ‘proof’ that Libya and Megrahi were responsible for Lockerbie; and/or 2) A Libyan official reveals, ‘we did it’.’
Within a day the second scenario had materialised. The newly defected justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who was soon to become head of Libya’s National Transitional Council, declared to the Swedish newspaper Expressen ‘I have proof that Gaddafi gave the order on Lockerbie.’[i] More high-profile defectors followed suit, including the ex-interior minister Abdel Fattah Younes (who was later killed by suspicious revolutionaries) and the ex-ambassador to the UN Abdul Rahman al-Shalgham.
Six months on from the fall of the Gadafy regime, not a single piece of evidence has emerged to back up these defectors’ claims. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: if, as I believe, the bombing was not commissioned by Gadafy, then such evidence never existed; and, if Gadafy was involved, then the evidence was probably shredded years ago.
In the absence of evidence, what are we to make of the defectors’ claims? The first thing to note is that all have been remarkably vague. To my knowledge, so far only Jalil has expanded on the allegation. He did so in an interview with the Sunday Times, published on 27 February last year, under the headline ‘Lockerbie bomber ‘blackmailed Gadaffi for release’’. In it he claimed that Abdelbaset had blackmailed Gadafy into securing his release by threatening to expose the Colonel’s role in the bombing, and had ‘vowed to exact ‘revenge’’ unless Gadafy complied.[ii] This was both ludicrous and illogical. Abdelbaset depended upon the government to fund his appeal and look after his family in Tripoli. As his response to the revolution demonstrated, Gadafy didn’t take kindly to those who challenged him. And wasn’t it already accepted that Gadafy was responsible for the bombing? After all, Libya had paid compensation to the victims. How could Abdelbaset expose something that had already been exposed? And, if Abdelbaset only cared about his freedom, why, after returning to Libya, would he bother spending so much of his remaining time on a book? (It should also be noted that Jalil told the Sunday Times that Abdelbaset was not the man who carried out the planning and execution of the bombing, but was involved in facilitating things for those who did. This was, perhaps, a nod to the fact that the evidence against Abdelbaset was very weak – something which, as justice minister, he must have been well aware of.)
When, a few weeks after the article, Jalil was asked on BBC Newsnight about the evidence of Gadafy’s involvement, he ‘revealed’ that Gadafy had supported Abdelbaset and paid for his legal case.[iii] This was not even a revelation, let alone evidence. Was this the best Jalil could offer?
The ex-interior minister, Younes, was less explicit than Jalil, which was surprising, given that he had been close to Gadafy for 47 years and was described by some as the Colonel’s number two. Asked by the BBC’s John Simpson if Gadafy had personally ordered the bombing, he replied, ‘There is no doubt about it, nothing happens without Gadafy’s agreement. I’m certain this was a national governmental decision.’[iv] In an online article Simpson claimed that Younes ‘maintains that Col Gaddafi was personally responsible for the decision to blow up the Pan Am flight’,[v] but in the broadcast section of the interview he appeared to be expressing a firm belief, rather than certain knowledge. Surely, if Gadafy had ordered the bombing, Younes must have known all about it.
Shalgam’s claim of Libyan involvement was still less credible, as he had previously declared that the country was not responsible for the bombing.[vi] No doubt this was why, when questioned by the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, he gave the vague answer: ‘The Lockerbie bombing was a complex and tangled operation … There was talk at the time of the roles played by states and organisations. Libyan security played a part but I believe it was not a strictly Libyan operation.’[vii]
The most intriguing defector was the ex-foreign minister and former intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa. He too had previously denied Libyan responsibility for Lockerbie,[viii] yet, shortly after his arrival in the UK in March 2011, it was reported that he would be would be willing to tell the British authorities about the country’s involvement in the bombing. The claim was made by a UK-based Libyan acquaintance, Noman Benotman, who reportedly helped to coordinate the defection.[ix] Benotman’s role was itself interesting. A former leader of the anti-Gadafy islamist terrorist organisation the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, he had renounced violent extremism and become a leading figure in the counter-radicalisation think-tank Quilliam.[x] He remained opposed to Gadafy yet was apparently friendly with man described (by Shalgam) as the ‘black box’ of the Gadafy regime,[xi] who had once tried to have him extradited to Libya.
Koussa was eventually interviewed about Lockerbie by the Scottish police,[xii] and shortly afterwards had his assets unfrozen and was allowed to leave the country. He is now living in a luxury hotel in Qatar, whose government was the most supportive of the Libyan rebels among the Arab states, although the new Libyan government continues to regard him with extreme suspicion.[xiii] David Cameron insisted that Koussa had not been offered immunity from prosecution,[xiv] while behind the scenes Whitehall spinners were busy downplaying his role in terrorism. A ‘senior government source’ briefed the Daily Telegraph that Koussa was not in London at the time of the 1984 murder outside the embassy of WPC Yvonne Fletcher (as if that cleared him of responsibility) and added ‘seeing him as the mastermind behind Lockerbie doesn’t make any sense in terms of his career. He might, however, possess some useful information about such cases.’[xv]
The obvious problem here was that for years sources in Whitehall and Washington had been privately briefing the media that Koussa was Libya’s terrorist-in-chief and the probable mastermind of Lockerbie. The day after the defection the CIA’s Vincent Cannistraro, who had previously worked on the US government’s covert campaign to unseat Gadafy, part of which involved spreading disinformation, told CBS news: ‘Moussa Koussa was personally responsible for the actual organization of [Lockerbie].’[xvi] It was, in short, inconceivable that the Libyan government could be guilty of the bombing and Koussa be innocent.
So why wasn’t he arrested? There were two obvious explanations. The first was that, in its desperation to overthrow Gadafy, the UK government was prepared to make a pact with the most notorious devil in his inner circle. The second was that the government was well aware that neither he nor Gadafy had anything to do with Lockerbie and that he had simply called their bluff. A third explanation, which doesn’t preclude the other two, was that Koussa was a long-time MI6 asset. Former foreign secretary Jack Straw confirmed in a BBC Radio 4 interview that Koussa had been ‘a key figure’ in the 2003 negotiations with the Libyan government over weapons of mass destruction. Straw then went further: when put to him that Koussa had had ‘exceedingly close contacts at a very sensitive level with – what shall we call them for the sake of argument? – ‘British officials’ for the best part of a decade’, he answered, ‘Yes, if not more.’[xvii] The Daily Telegraph went further still, stating: ‘As head of Libya external intelligence, Mr Koussa was an MI6 asset for almost two decades.’[xviii] If true, this was not only breathtaking, but might also account for much of the disinformation surrounding the case. Even if it were not true, the affair exposed the ugly reality of the government’s approach to Lockerbie.
The most recent ‘Gadafy did it’ claim, appeared in an ITV Tonight programme, broadcast last month. The documentary followed the admirable Dr Jim Swire to Tripoli as he attempted to uncover information about the bombing. Its denouement was an interview with Ashur Shamis, described as an adviser to the Prime Minister, who told Dr Swire there was no doubt that Gadafy was personally involved in the planning and execution of the bombing. He added: ‘Regardless of what Megrahi did or did not do, that [sic] is a small fish. He is an employee of Libyan security, there is no doubt about it – of external security – and if he was told to do something he would have done it.’ Gadafy, he said, ‘paid all this money to cover up himself … If he had no role, he wouldn’t have paid a penny, he wouldn’t have paid a penny.’[xix] This was, of course, nonsense: the Gadafy regime had paid compensation to the Lockerbie victims, reluctantly, because it was the only way to rid the country of harsh UN sanctions – a point made publicly by Shalgam in 2004. If the programme’s producers had checked Shamis’s background, they would have discovered that he hadn’t lived in Libya since 1973 and therefore had no first hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Gadafy regime. In 1981 he was one of the founders of the CIA-backed National Front for the Salvation of Libya and in 1985, at the height of the US Government’s covert campaign against the Gadafy regime, became chair of its National Congress.[xx]
The programme claimed that Dr Swire ‘is now persuaded that Gadafy was probably behind his daughter’s murder.’ In fact, as he subsequently told the Times, he found Shamis unconvincing. He explained: ‘I found Tripoli percolated with the desire to pin everything imaginable under the sun on the defunct Gaddafi regime, because the people are so delighted to have got rid of him … Mr Shamis certainly believes al-Megrahi was guilty. I tried to make plain that if you look at the evidence that it is not at all likely.’[xxi]
Thankfully, not all the influential voices in the new Libya are as badly informed as Shamis. The first interim justice minister, Mohamed al-Alagi, a former head of Libya’s human rights association who was involved in Abdelbaset’s case, has stated publicly that Abdelbaset is innocent.[xxii]
I still expect that ‘evidence’ will emerge from Libya to support Abdelbaset’s conviction. The case against him is now so damaged, that only such concoctions can save it.
[i] Translated extract of Expressen article on Aljazeera English website, 23 February 2011.
[ii] Sunday Times, 27 February 2011.
[iii] BBC Newsnight, 1 April 2011.
[iv] Text accompanying Younes statement, BBC News website, 25 February 2011; BBC interview with General Abdel Fattah Younes Al-Abidi, BBC News website, 25 February 2011.
[v] Article by John Simpson, BBC News website, 25 February 2011.
[vii] Daily Telegraph, 18 July 2011
[viii] The Times, 5 September 2009.
[ix] The Herald, 2 April 2011.
[xi] Al-Arabiya, 18 April 2011.
[xii] The Herald, 1 April 2011 and 8 April 2011.
[xiii] Daily Telegraph, 27 June 2011.
[xiv] Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2011.
[xv] Daily Telegraph, 2 April 2011
[xvii] Jack Straw interview, BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 31 March 2011.
[xviii] Daily Telegraph, 30 March 2011.
[xix] ITV Tonight programme, broadcast 19 January 2012.
[xx] Ashur Shamis interview, Spotlight on Terror, vol. 3, issue 3, 24 March 2005.
[xxi] The Times, 20 January 2012.
[xxii] The Times, 29 August 2011.