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Spooks, torture, oil and war—how the British state brought terror to Libya

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The British state has a long history of interfering in the Middle East. The carnage it sowed in Libya has now come back to expose the politicians who led it, argues Simon Basketter
Issue 2556
Former prime minister David Cameron attends a European Council meeting in 2015 to discuss his war in Libya
Former prime minister David Cameron at a European Council meeting in 2015 to discuss his war in Libya (Pic: Crown Copyright)

Media accounts of the links with Libya to the Manchester bombing have downplayed the role of Britain in the country. In particular it has obscured how the British state tortured people, then embraced them.

The shifting sands of who the US and Britain wanted as allies in the Middle East shaped Libya. The oil industry decided the pace of events.

How the West wrecked Libya
How the West wrecked Libya
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British governments have carried out murderous interventions in Libya for years.

Muammar Gaddafi took power after the overthrow of the king in 1969. He closed US and British bases, and partly nationalised foreign oil and commercial interests.

The West saw him as an enemy. US president Ronald Reagan sent warplanes to assassinate Gaddafi in 1986. The missiles missed and hit a residential area of Tripoli, killing some 100 people.

Two years later, Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, claiming 270 lives. Libya was blamed for the bombing in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an anti-Gaddafi Islamist militant group, was formed in 1990 by Libyan veterans of war against Russia in Afghanistan.

In 1996, with the backing of MI6, it tried to assassinate Gaddafi. It failed and was brutally repressed.

After years of considering Libya a pariah state, the West lifted the sanctions against it in 2004. Firms had their eyes fixed on the country’s oil.

In 2007 BP signed an exploration deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation—with Tony Blair looking on. Having backed it before, the British government decided to list the LIFG as a proscribed terrorist organisation in 2005.

Libyan exiles with links to the LIFG were placed on control orders and subjected to surveillance and monitoring.

According to documents retrieved from the offices of the Libyan intelligence agency following Gaddafi’s fall, British security services cracked down on Libyan dissidents as part of the deal.

They assisted in the rendition of two senior LIFG leaders, Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, to Tripoli where they were tortured.

A letter “for Musa in Tripoli from Mark in London”, about Abdel Hakim Belhaj, was written by Sir Mark Allen, MI6’s then counter-terrorism chief. Allen went on to work for BP.

The letter was addressed to then Libyan foreign minister Musa Kusa. Allen wrote, “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years.”

Calling Belhaj “air cargo”, Allen thanked Kusa for the support shown to an MI6 agent. “I am so glad,” he said. “I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out.”

The sands shifted again after the revolt in the country in 2011.

As the Libyan revolution ground to a stalemate, Britain, France and the US carried out airstrikes and deployed special forces soldiers.

The rebel groups were victorious only because of Nato airstrikes, but they were incapable of filling the vacuum created after Gaddafi fell.

The country is now divided and warlords who pay their fighters from the country’s diminished oil revenues are fighting for control.

One section of the army is fighting it out with Isis and its Islamist rival, the Shura Council of Benghazi revolutionaries.

Hypocrisy from Tories on Gaddafi

The Tory government enabled Libyan exiles in Britain to go to fight in Libya, including those with control orders.

When Belal Younis went to Libya, he said he was asked by an intelligence officer from MI5, “Are you willing to go into battle?”

“While I took time to find an answer he turned and told me the British government have no problem with people fighting against Gaddafi.”

As he was travelling back to Libya in May 2011 he was approached by police officers who told him that if he was going to fight he would be committing a crime.

As he waited to board the plane, he said the same MI5 officer called him to tell him that he had “sorted it out”.

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