The Other Special Relationship: Documents Reveal Cozy Ties Between Britain and Gaddafi

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Leon Neal / Pool / Reuters

Britain's then Prime Minister Tony Blair shakes hands with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi near Gaddafi's home town of Sirte May 29, 2007

Since the rebels in Libya first rose up against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Britain has done much to support regime change, launching air strikes against forces loyal to Gaddafi and expelling his diplomats in London. But newly revealed documents suggest that in the years leading up to the revolution, British security agents actually helped the Colonel silence his opposition — including a former dissident now in charge of rebel forces in Tripoli.

According to a classified document uncovered in Tripoli on Sept. 2., MI-6, Britain's secret-intelligence agency, may have provided information to Gaddafi's regime that led to the arrest, rendition and alleged torture of Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, one of his leading opponents. The letter, discovered by London's Independent newspaper in the offices of Gaddafi's former foreign minister Moussa Koussa, appears to establish a link between a senior MI-6 official and the 2004 rendition of Belhaj, then the leader of militant organization the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which sought to overthrow Gaddafi.

In the letter, which has not been independently verified, an MI-6 officer reminds Koussa that British intelligence played a crucial role in capturing Belhaj. The officer, reported to be Mark Allen, formerly MI-6's director of counter-terrorism and now an adviser to BP, requests that the Libyans share information extracted from Belhaj by "enhanced interrogation technique." "The intelligence about [Belhaj] was British," Allen writes in the letter. "I know I did not pay for the air cargo [Belhaj]. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this and am very grateful to you for the help you are giving us."

Speaking to the Independent on Sept. 5, Belhaj explained that he had applied for asylum in the U.K. in 2004, after being arrested in Malaysia as a suspect in the U.S.-led war on terror. But while flying to London in March of that year he was arrested during a CIA and MI6 operation in Bangkok, and delivered to the Abu Salim prison in Libya, where he says he was routinely suspended from the ceiling by his wrists. He claims that during interrogations led by British security agents, he made hand gestures to covertly express he was being tortured. "The British people nodded, showed they understood," he told the Independent. "But nothing changed. The torture continued for a long time afterwards." Among other things, Belhaj says he was denied a bath for three years out of the seven he was imprisoned.

Prime Minister David Cameron responded on Sept. 5 by telling Parliament that the Gibson inquiry — established in July 2010 to investigate British complicity in the alleged torture of terror suspects — would broaden to investigate the new claims.

Even so, the revelations, the latest unearthed by reporters and campaign groups from the wreckage and abandoned buildings of Tripoli, set an awkward tone for diplomatic relations with Libya's new government, the Transitional National Council. And they're also a personal embarrassment for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who helped draw Libya out of international isolation and under whose watch relations between the two countries became particularly close as Libya became a key ally in the war on terror.

Other intelligence documents, recovered from the ruins of the British embassy in Tripoli by Human Rights Watch and seen by London's Sunday Times, indicate the exchange of secrets came thick and fast. In a 2005 document entitled "UK/Libya eyes only secret," British agents requested "timely debriefs" of interrogations conducted by their Libyan counterparts inside Libya's prisons. In exchange for the information, the agents agreed to provide details of Libyan exiles living in Britain — despite existing evidence of assassinations of Libyan dissidents in other countries, including Britain, and evidence of torture in Libyan prisons that included suffocating inmates with plastic bags, clubbing them, and pouring lemon juice in their open wounds. Perhaps as a measure of good faith, the document supplied the Libyans with the names and locations of up to 50 exiled members of the LIFG living in Britain.

The cozy relationship extended to the military, too. In 2006, as Blair pushed to increase arm sales to Libya, Major General Robin Searby, his defense coordinator in Libya, invited Gaddafi's sons Khamis and Saadi to Britain to watch "VIP demonstrations" of the Special Air Service (SAS) and its sister regiment, the Special Boat Service (SBS). "There can be no publicity at all connected with this visit, either here or in Libya," the London Sunday Times quotes Searby as writing in the confidential invitations, found in Saadi's abandoned office. In two proposed itineraries, the brothers would, among other things, hold meetings with top officials at the Ministry of Defense, tour Henry VIII's wine cellar, and visit the Defence Export Services Organisation, which encourages overseas arms sales. Other uncovered documents reveal that SAS soldiers sent to train the Libyan special forces provided assistance to Gaddafi's notorious Khamis Brigade, which is alleged to have carried out civilian massacres in the dying days of the regime.

Blair also appears to have forged close personal ties with Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi's eldest son and second-in-command. Saif, who, along with his father is now being hunted for possible war crimes, consulted with Blair — still prime minister at the time — over the 429-page doctoral dissertation he was submitting to the London School of Economics in 2007. Entitled "The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions," it's meant to showcase Saif as a reformer ready to take the reins from this father. In a copy of a letter dated March 5, 2007, Blair addresses "Engineer Saif," thanks him for outlining his "interesting" thesis and goes on to cite three examples of collaboration between government, civil society and business "that might help you with your studies." He signs off with: "I wish you well with your PhD and send my warm good wishes."

The London School of Economics, where Saif was awarded his PhD in 2008, confirmed earlier this year that it is currently investigating allegations he hired professors to serve as ghostwriters, and copied large sections of the dissertation from other sources.

Advice on a dissertation is one thing. Trading secrets that may have resulted in torture and illegal rendition is another. As the Gibson inquiry attempts to make sense of Britain's alleged and occasionally embarrassing role in Libya, propriety may prove more difficult to come by.