Libya militia held Lockerbie suspect before handover to U.S.

Libya militia held Lockerbie suspect before handover to U.S.

CAIRO – Around midnight in mid-November, Libyan militiamen in two Toyota pickups arrived at a residential building in a neighborhood in the capital Tripoli. They stormed the house and brought out a blindfolded man in his seventies.

Their target was former Libyan intelligence agent Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, who was wanted by the United States for allegedly building the bomb that sent Pan Am Flight 103 to New Zealand just days before Christmas 1988 York crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland The attack killed 259 people in the air and 11 on the ground.

Weeks after that nighttime raid on Tripoli, the US announced that Mas’ud was in its custody, to the surprise of many in Libya, which has been divided between two rival governments, each backed by a range of militias and foreign powers.

Analysts said the Tripoli-based government responsible for Mas’ud’s handover is likely seeking US goodwill and favor amid the power struggles in Libya.

Four Libyan security and government officials with direct knowledge of the operation reported on the trip, which ended with Mas’ud in Washington.

Officials said it started when he was taken from his home in the Abu Salim district of Tripoli. He was transferred to the coastal city of Misrata and eventually handed over to American agents who flew him out of the country, it said.

Officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Several said the United States had been pressuring for months to secure Mas’ud’s surrender.

“Abu Agila was on the agenda of every communication,” an official said.

In Libya, many questioned the legality of how he was apprehended and sent to the US just months after his release from a Libyan prison. Libya and the US do not have a permanent extradition treaty, so there was no obligation to hand Mas’ud over.

The White House and Justice Department declined to comment on the new details of Mas’ud’s surrender. US officials have privately said they believe this was extradition by the book through due process of law.

A Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with briefing regulations, said Saturday that Mas’ud’s transfer was lawful, describing it as the culmination of years of cooperation with Libyan authorities.

Libya’s Attorney General has launched an investigation following a complaint by Mas’ud’s family. But nearly a week after the US announcement, the Tripoli government remained silent as rumors swirled for weeks that Mas’ud had been kidnapped by militiamen and sold.

Following a public outcry in Libya, the country’s Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah admitted on Thursday that his government had handed over Mas’ud. In the same speech, he also said that Interpol had issued an arrest warrant for Mas’ud. A spokesman for the Dbeibah government did not respond to calls and messages asking for additional comment.

On December 12, the US Department of Justice said it had asked Interpol to issue a warrant for his arrest.

After the ouster and assassination of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in a civil war in 2011, Mas’ud, an explosives expert for Libyan intelligence, was arrested by militia in western Libya. He served 10 years in prison in Tripoli for crimes related to his position during Gaddafi’s rule.

After serving his sentence, he was released in June. After his release, he was under constant surveillance and rarely left his family’s home in Abu Salim district, a military official said.

The neighborhood is controlled by the Stabilization Support Authority, an umbrella group of militias led by warlord Abdel-Ghani al-Kikli, a close Dbeibah ally. Al-Kikli has been accused by Amnesty International of involvement in war crimes and other serious rights abuses over the past decade.

After Mas’ud’s release from prison, the Biden administration tightened extradition demands, Libyan officials said.

Initially, the Dbeibah government, one of the two rival governments that claimed to rule Libya, was reluctant, citing concerns about political and legal implications, an official in the prime minister’s office said.

The official said US officials have continued to raise the issue with the Tripoli-based government and with warlords they deal with in the fight against Islamist militants in Libya. Under mounting pressure, the prime minister and his aides decided in October to hand Mas’ud over to American authorities, the official said.

Dbeibah’s mandate remains highly contested after elections that were planned last year did not take place.

“It fits into a broader campaign by Dbeibah, which essentially consists of giving gifts to influential states,” said Jalel Harchaoui, Libya expert and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He said Dbeibah needed to curry favor to help him stay in power.

More than a decade after Gaddafi’s death, Libya remains chaotic and lawless, and militias still control large areas. The country’s security forces are weak compared to local militias, with which the Dbeibah government is allied to varying degrees. In order to carry out the arrest of Mas’ud, the Dbeibah government turned to al-Kikli, who also holds a formal position in the government.

The prime minister discussed the Mas’ud case with al-Kikli at a meeting in early November, said a Stabilization Agency official who was briefed on the matter. After the meeting, Dbeibah informed US officials of his decision and agreed that the handover would take place within weeks in Misrata, where his family is influential, a government official said.

Then, in mid-November, the raid described by the officers took place.

Militiamen burst into Mas’ud’s bedroom, grabbed him and took him blindfolded to an SSA detention center in Tripoli. He was there for two weeks before being handed over to another militia in Misrata known as the Joint Force, which reports directly to Dbeibah. It’s a new paramilitary entity formed as part of a network of militias supporting him.

In Misrata, Mas’ud was interrogated by Libyan officials in the presence of US intelligence officers, a Libyan official briefed on the interrogation said. Mas’ud declined to answer questions about his alleged role in the Lockerbie attack, including the content of an interview the US said he gave to Libyan authorities in 2012 in which he admitted to being the bomb maker. He insisted his detention and extradition were unlawful, the official said.

In 2017, US officials obtained a copy of the 2012 interview in which they said Mas’ud admitted building the bomb and working with two other conspirators to carry out the attack on the Pan Am plane. According to an FBI affidavit filed in the case, Mas’ud said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Gaddafi thanked him and other members of the team afterwards.

Some have questioned the legality of Mas’ud’s surrender, given the role of informal armed groups and the lack of official extradition procedures.

Harchaoui, the analyst, said Mas’ud’s extradition signals the US condones what he described as lawless behavior.

“What the foreign states are doing is saying we don’t care how the sausage is made,” he said. “We get things we like.”

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