Libya’s Lockerbie bombing: The strange extradition of Abu Agila

By Mathieu Galtier
Posted on Thursday, 29 December 2022 17:03

A service to comemmorate the Lockerbie attack. Photo taken on 21 December 2008 in Drysdale, Scotland © Callum Bennetts / AFP

The Lockerbie Bombing mastermind has been arrested in Tripoli before being transferred to the United States, revealing the dangerous links between militias, the government, and foreign powers.

On the evening of 16 to 17 November, four unmarked vehicles arrived before a house in the Abu Salim district of Tripoli. Half-a-dozen masked and armed men disembarked from these vehicles, entered the house, and grabbed a man named Abu Agila Mohammad Massoud Kheir al-Marimi from his bed.

Less than a month later, on 12 December, the 74-year-old man was standing before a federal judge in Washington DC, nearly 8,000km away.

Abu Agila’s nephew, who described the scene to various media, denounced a foreign-involved kidnapping. In a document obtained by us, the government of Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh, claimed a successful, legally-executed operation without foreign interference.

Clearly, two different stories have been told, but this can be explained by the person at the centre of this story: Abu Agila Mohammad Massoud Kheir al-Marimi, considered to be the mastermind of the Lockerbie terrorist attack.

On 21 December 1988, a Pan Am Boeing 747, flying from London to New York, exploded over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing 259 people.

It remains the deadliest terrorist attack of its kind within UK borders. On 21 December 2020, US authorities opened an investigation against Abu Agila.

According to Tripolitan authorities, the latter had been released, due to health reasons, from prison in November 2022 after 10 years in prison for his participation in the repression of the 2011 revolution which saw the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Cooperation: Tripoli-Washington

On the evening of 21 December, the US embassy in Libya confirmed Tripoli’s account, making it plain that Abu Agila’s extradition was both legal and carried out in cooperation with the Libyan authorities.

The government also affirmed that the United States will not go back on the financial agreement which was established in 2008. Put simply, Washington promised the Prime Minister that the civil parties to the criminal trial set in the States will not be able to demand more money from Tripoli.

“Cooperation with the United States already existed under Gaddafi, but the key is understanding at what cost this cooperation came. Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh’s government has played the game well, and US diplomatic statements have reinforced its international stature, assuring that the convention has not been affected,” analysed Béchir Jouini, an international relations researcher and a specialist in Libyan issues.

Operation Abu Agila has, however, confirmed that since 2011, Libyan governments have been unable to accomplish many desired activities without the approval of the armed groups in control of the Libyan capital.

According to several sources, the hooded and armed men, responsible for Abu Agila’s capture and removal from the country, belonged to the Ghaniwa force, whose headquarters is located in Abu Salim.

Ghaniwa, also known as Abdel Ghani al-Kikli, is believed to have then agreed to hand over his new prisoner to the Joint Operations Force, the government’s armed division.

To avoid having to enter into negotiations with the rival Rada forces in the region, Abu Agila was then moved 200km to Misrata, where he then departed from the country without incident.

Blurred lines

From there, Abu Agila would have passed through Malta, then Frankfurt, before reaching Washington.

From here, the legal vagueness of this extradition circumstance makes itself known.

“Official Libyan and American declarations on this operation’s legality cannot hide the fact that it was necessary to negotiate with the armed militias in control of the region. In Tripoli, the situation is all the more delicate as there are many actors on the ground,” said Mohamed Essaid Lazib, a doctoral student at l’Institute français de géopolitique and a specialist in Libyan militias.

In the end, the target was transported without incident and there was no rebellion to quash in Tripoli.

But this situation does not lack precedent. Abu Anas al-Libi and Abu Khattala were kidnapped from Tripoli by US Delta Force commandos in 2013 and 2014. The first for his involvement in attacks against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the second for the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012.

Tripolitans took to the streets with anger for each of these episodes. “Apart from Abu Agila’s family, no one took to the streets, much less Martyr’s Square, to protest this time,” said a Tripoli-based journalist. “They laugh at the Abu Agila’s fate now. There are other things on their mind.”

Revelation

Prime Minister Dbeibeh took advantage of this sequence of events to score points against one of his rivals, a certain Khalifa Haftar.

At present, Libya is politically divided between the ancient city of Cyrenaica to the east, where Haftar holds de-factor rule, and Tripolitania to the west, under Prime Minister Dbeibeh’s internationally-recognised governmental authority.

Tripolitan authorities made known to the public that certain Haftar supporters – described as a simple retired major general – had attempted to recruit Abu Agila to join them in Benghazi.

This objective was twofold: to portray Abu Agila as a traitor to be given into US custody (instead of the sickly, old man dragged from his bed in the middle of the night) and to reinforce the image of a Haftar movement surrounded only by dusty relics of a past regime.

Additional documents obtained by us insist on Abu Aglia’s role in the Gaddafi regime before its fall, demonstrating his alleged leadership of a secret operational cell of five people under secret service head Abdalla Senoussi.

According to these documents, Abu Agila would have thus provided information on a 1990s assassination attempt on Abdullah ben Abdulaziz al-Saud, the future king of Saudi Arabia, during a tour of North Africa.

The Tunisian factor

Incidentally, this episode is a bit of a snub for Tunisia. According to Libyan authorities, not only does Abu Aglia have Tunisian nationality, he was one of the most prominent leaders of Operation Gafsa, which involved a 27 January 1980 attack on military and police strongholds in Gasa, Tunisia, with the objective of overthrowing Habib Bourgiba, at the time President of Tunisia.

Apart from Abu Agila’s family, no one took to the streets, much less Martyr’s Square, to protest this time.

Abu Agila is said to have planned the failed assault and trained the then-Tunisian president’s opponents in camps throughout Libya.

The Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no comment when we contacted them. There is no doubt, however, that Tunis would have appreciated being made aware of this extradition effort, including being given an opportunity to question Abu Agila before his transport to the United States.

On 21 December, Middle Eastern media announced the extradition of Abdalla Senoussi to the United States, a report that was denied by family members of the former general in charge of espionage.

“Senoussi could be handed over to the United States in the coming days. The Tripolitan authorities want to do everything to remain in power. If Washington really demands it, President Dbeibeh will accommodate,” denounced a senior Cyrenaica-based official.

One thing is certain – the many dignitaries of the old Gaddafi regime released in recent years and remained in Tripolitania are sleeping with one eye open. There’s no telling who could be next.

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