The fact that terror suspect Abdel Hakim Belhaj – former militant leader in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and now head of security for the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli – was abducted by US intelligence in Bangkok in 2004 and flown back to his homeland to be tortured at the hands of the Gaddafi regime is well-established.
What was, until recently, much less clear was the extent of Britain’s involvement in this criminal act. But new information is beginning to shed light on the role the UK played in securing Belhaj’s arrest and facilitating his subsequent mistreatment.
The Labour administration in office at the time was unflinching in its insistence that neither the UK government nor its intelligence and security services colluded in illegal rendition, even during the most highly charged periods of the ‘War on Terror’.
Indeed, even as late as last September, Jack Straw, foreign minister under ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, claimed that “the position of successive foreign secretaries, including me, is that we were opposed to unlawful rendition, torture... and not only did we not agree with it, we were not complicit in it, nor did we turn a blind eye to it.”
The current allegations that there was a high degree of British collusion in Belhaj’s extraordinary rendition are, however, becoming increasingly difficult to deny.
Few now seriously dispute that it was the MI6 which tipped off the CIA as to the whereabouts of Belhaj. Indeed, a letter sent in 2004 by a senior MI6 official – presumed to be Mark Allen – to the Gaddafi regime which refers to Belhaj’s rendition to Libya seems to confirm that the source of the intelligence that led to Belhaj’s capture was British. It also congratulates the Libyans on the “safe arrival” of their “air cargo”. Allen has not challenged the authenticity of this crucial piece of evidence which was recovered in Tripoli.
What remains contentious, however, is the suggestion that Jack Straw – or at least someone of significance in the British government at the time – authorised MI6 to pass on the information to the CIA. Straw continues to insist this did not happen.
Peter Taylor, an experienced and highly regarded correspondent for the BBC, however, claims to have been told otherwise. Taylor also claims that, despite Straw’s assertions to the contrary, British foreign secretaries work closely with intelligence services on a day-to-day basis and are frequently required to sign off on operations. Given its potentially explosive consequences, it is hard to imagine that high-level British government officials did not have advance knowledge of MI6’s plan to reveal Belhaj’s location.
Belhaj, whose pregnant wife was also abducted and imprisoned in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison for four months, is now involved in a joint litigation case against both the British government and Mark Allen. He was imprisoned for six years. And when he met with Taylor earlier this year, he told Taylor he was confident of the integrity of his claims.
So what does this episode tell us about Britain’s approach to its relations with Libya? Above all, it reminds us that London has consistently elevated its own interests above those of the Libyan people to whom it claims to be allied.
Of course, this is hardly new or surprising. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Gaddafi regime, British defence secretary Philip Hammond suggested that, given “Libya is a relatively wealthy country with oil reserves, I expect there will be opportunities for British and other companies to get involved in the reconstruction of Libya…I would expect British companies [to be] packing their suitcases and looking to get out to Libya”. Hammond’s inference seemed to be that Libya somehow ‘owed’ the West for its contribution to the Benghazi uprising.
The Belhaj case, however, offers a particularly striking illustration of British duplicity. And there is reason to believe Belhaj was used as an incentive by Tony Blair’s government to help draw Gaddafi out of his diplomatic isolation.
Prior to his rendition, Belhaj was entirely unaware that he was considered a threat to UK security. Indeed, when he was picked up, he was actually en route to London from Malaysia to apply for political asylum – a move he would clearly not have made had he known he was on an MI6 target list.
It is claimed the change in his status – from dissident to terrorist – was made after 9/11 on the basis of his alleged links to the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. But Belhaj insists his only political goal was to rescue Libya from Gaddafism and says that his meetings with Osama Bin Laden in the 1980s occurred only because the two were involved in the same struggle against Russian occupation.
Crucially, the infamous “deal in the desert” meeting between Blair and Gaddafi – which deflected attention from the controversy generated by the invasion of Iraq – took place just two weeks after his rendition. Taylor goes as far as to claim the rapprochement was personally orchestrated by Allen. Within a matter of years, the UK had once again shifted its position and its loyalties, this time by abandoning Gaddafi as rebellion broke against his rule in early 2011.
As Libya struggles back to its feet after a devastating civil war, history clearly suggests that it should avoid allowing its ties to London to grow too strong.
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