Libya militia held Lockerbie suspect before handover to US

By Sammy Magdy (Associated Press)

CAIRO (AP) — Around midnight in mid-November, Libyan soldiers in two Toyota pickup trucks pulled up to a residential building in a neighborhood of the capital, Tripoli. They brought out a 70-year-old blindfolded man and entered the house.

The target was Abu Agila Mohammed Masoud Kheir al-Marimi, a former Libyan intelligence agent wanted by the United States for making the bomb that brought down New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, just days before Christmas in 1988. The attack killed 259 people in the air and 11 people on the ground.

Weeks after the attack that night in Tripoli, the US announced that Massoud was in its custody, surprising many in Libya, which is divided between two rival governments, each backed by militias and foreign powers.

Analysts say the Tripoli-based government is seeking US goodwill and favor by taking responsibility for Massoud’s extradition amid a power struggle in Libya.

Four government officials with direct knowledge of Libyan security and operations described the trip that ended with Massoud in Washington.

It started with him being taken from his home in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighborhood, officials said. He said he was transferred to the coastal city of Misrata and eventually handed over to American agents who flew him out of the country.

The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Many said the United States had been pressing for months for Massoud’s extradition.

“Whenever they interacted, Abu Agila was on the agenda,” said one official.

In Libya, many questioned the legality of the fact that Libya, which was sent to the U.S. just months after being released from a Libyan prison, and the U.S. do not have a standing agreement on extradition, so there was no obligation to extradite. Masood is over.

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The White House and the Justice Department declined to comment on new details about Massoud’s extradition. US officials have said privately that, in their view, it is a by-the-book extradition through a normal court process.

A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to comply with briefing rules, described Massoud’s transfer as legal and the culmination of years of cooperation with Libyan authorities.

Libya’s chief prosecutor has launched an investigation following a complaint by Masood’s family. But for nearly a week after the US announcement, the Tripoli government remained silent, while rumors swirled for weeks that Massoud had been kidnapped and sold by militiamen.

After public protests in Libya, the country’s Tripoli-based prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbayba, acknowledged on Thursday that his government had handed over Massoud. In the same speech, he also said that Interpol has issued a warrant for Masood’s arrest. A Dbeibah government spokesman did not return calls and messages seeking additional comment.

On December 12, the US Department of Justice said it had requested Interpol to issue a warrant for him.

After the fall and assassination of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi in the 2011 coup-turned-civil war, Massoud, an explosives expert for the Libyan intelligence service, was captured by militias in western Libya. He served 10 years in prison in Tripoli for crimes related to his position in the Gaddafi regime.

He was released in June after completing his sentence. After his release, he was under permanent surveillance and left his family 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 ally of Dbeebah. Al-Kikli has been accused by Amnesty International of being involved in war crimes and other serious rights violations over the past decade.

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After Massoud was released from prison, the Biden administration intensified demands for his extradition, Libyan officials said.

At first, the Dbeibah government, one of two rival regimes claiming to rule Libya, was reluctant, citing concerns of political and legal repercussions, a prime minister’s office official said.

The official said US officials continued to raise the issue with the Tripoli-based government and military officials they are dealing with in the fight against Islamic militants in Libya. As pressure mounted, the prime minister and his aides decided to hand Masood over to US authorities in October, the official said.

Dbeibah’s mandate is highly contested after planned elections last year failed to take place.

“This fits into a broader campaign being waged by Dbeibah, which basically involves giving gifts to influential states,” said Jalel Harchoui, a Libya expert and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He said Dbeibah needed to be favored to help him stay in power.

More than a decade after Gaddafi’s death, Libya remains chaotic and lawless, with militias still controlling large swathes of land. The country’s security forces are weak compared to local militias with which Dbeibah’s government has allied to varying degrees. To carry out Mas’ud’s arrest, the Dbeibah government summoned al-Kikli, who held a formal position in the government.

The prime minister discussed Mas’ud’s case in a meeting with al-Kikli in early November, said an employee of the Stabilization Support Authority briefed on the matter. After the meeting, Dbeibah informed US officials of his decision, agreeing that the extradition would take place within weeks in Misrata, where his family is influential, a government official said.

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Then came the attack in mid-November, which officials described as

Militiamen rushed to Massoud’s bedroom and captured him, transporting him blindfolded to an SSA-run detention center in Tripoli. He stayed there for two weeks before being handed over to another militia in Misrata, called the Joint Force, which reports directly to Dbeiba. It is a new paramilitary unit established as part of a network of militias supporting them.

In Misrata, Libyan officials interrogated Massoud in the presence of US intelligence officials, a Libyan official recounted the interrogation. Massoud refused to answer questions about his role in the Lockerbie attack, including the contents of an interview with Libyan authorities in 2012, during which he admitted to being the bomb maker. He insisted that his arrest and extradition were illegal, the official said.

In 2017, US officials received a transcript of a 2012 interview in which Masood admitted to building the bomb and working with two other conspirators to carry out the attack on the Pan Am flight. According to an FBI affidavit filed in the case, Massoud said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and Gaddafi thanked him and other members of the team.

Some have questioned the legality of Massoud’s extradition due to the role of informal armed groups and the lack of official extradition procedures.

Harchoui, the analyst, said Massoud’s extradition indicated the US was condoning what it portrayed as illegal conduct.

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


Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.


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