The Gaddafi Regime Suffers a Huge Defection

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Chris Helgren and Alessandro Di Meo / Reuters

Moussa Koussa, left, and Muammar Gaddafi

In a thundering blow to Muammar Gaddafi's standing and the morale of his regime, Libya's Foreign Minister, Moussa Koussa, defected to London on Wednesday night, in the regime's most high-profile break since the Western bombing campaign began nearly two weeks ago — if not, indeed, the most momentous split in the Libyan government in years.

Koussa, who had long been one of Gaddafi's most trusted aides, landed at London's Farnborough Airport at about 9 p.m., after slipping across Libya's border into Tunisia earlier this week. He was flown on a British military jet, and immediately requested political asylum. "Koussa is not happy about how the government has handled the conflict," said his friend Noman Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was aligned with al-Qaeda until 2008, speaking to TIME late Wednesday night. Benotman said Koussa revealed earlier this month that he was distressed that Gaddafi had once again turned Libya into a pariah state, after years of Koussa's careful work in restoring its standing in the U.S. and Europe. "He was the key figure to rehabilitate Libya with the international community," Benotman said by phone. "Now it is all gone."

Koussa's defection comes just one day after Western and Arab leaders met in London for a key coalition meeting to decide the next steps in their campaign against Gaddafi. There, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other leaders warned Gaddafi that his time in power was quickly running out and invited those around him to ditch the regime before it was too late. Koussa appears to have been the first to flee — but Benotman says he is unlikely to be the last. "I'm aware of dozens of people in Tripoli who are not happy," said Benotman, who was in Tripoli when the revolt erupted in mid-February, and who has close contacts with high-level Libyan officials. "The message being delivered is that they have to make a decision now."

Koussa is more than just a familiar face to Western leaders. He fled Libya carrying a wealth of information that could prove extremely valuable to the coalition as it tries to assess how to end the military conflict and get Gaddafi to step down after nearly 42 years in power. As one of Gaddafi's closest aides, Koussa presumably would be informed about Gaddafi's war plans and state of mind after 11 days of aerial bombing by the coalition, as well as whether Gaddafi is open to negotiating a deal regarding exile for himself and his family.

In addition, Koussa was the long-standing chief of Libya's intelligence service before he was appointed Foreign Minister in 2009. That means he likely holds critical information that could ultimately lead to international indictments against Gaddafi and his family, including data on whether the Libyan leader ordered the Lockerbie bombing in Scotland in 1989, an attack that killed 270 people. Koussa might also be able to provide insight and information about more recent events, including the Libyan military's decision to shoot unarmed protesters in Benghazi and other towns in eastern Libya in mid-February. Those actions are believed to be the most likely basis for a possible indictment of crimes against humanity, which could be handed down by the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Thursday that his government would not give Koussa immunity from prosecution.

Despite his close ties to Gaddafi, Koussa has long held connections to the U.S., with a master's degree from Michigan State University. As a fluent English speaker who was familiar with America, Koussa was a central figure in helping negotiate Libya's détente with the U.S. in 2003. Along with Saif al-Islam, he persuaded Gaddafi to abandon his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and opted to share intelligence information with the U.S. on al-Qaeda operatives in Libya. It was Koussa's sharp instincts, in fact, that led to the drastic change in Libya's international standing in 2003. The idea of the U.S. lifting sanctions in exchange for Libya's abandoning its weapons of mass destruction emerged from a casual conversation between Koussa and CIA officials while they were discussing how to cooperate on intelligence issues, according to TIME interviews with those who were involved in the secret, early talks between U.S. and Libyan officials in 2003; they say Koussa believed that he and al-Islam could together persuade Gaddafi to change tack after years of hostility against the West. In a WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Koussa is described as "mostly cooperative in liaison channels and key to our re-engagement."

In Tripoli, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denied that Koussa had defected, telling reporters that he was "on a diplomatic mission" in London.

Koussa's painstaking intelligence and diplomatic work was shattered the moment Gaddafi's forces opened fire on protesters in Benghazi and other eastern cities in mid-February, prompting a return to international sanctions — and soon after, Western military attacks.

Yet even after those attacks, Koussa strongly defended Gaddafi's actions during a series of press conferences in Tripoli. On March 7, for example, he told reporters that there was "clear evidence" that Britain and the U.S. were "undertaking a plot against Libya." And he accused the rebels of being "affiliated with al-Qaeda," plotting to split the country into two parts. "The territorial integrity is something sacrosanct," he said. "We will die for it."