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How Khashoggi case brings back bad memories for Libyan exiles

Long-time Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi was known for sending hit men to get rid of 'stray dogs' that opposed him
Gaddafi was in power for 42 years before he was unseated in 2011 following a popular uprising (AFP)

The suspected killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul has stirred harrowing memories of past disappearances and assassinations in Libyan exile communities which once lived in fear of the long arm of Muammar Gaddafi's ruthless security services.

Gaddafi was once notorious for sending agents to target political opponents denounced as "traitors" and "stray dogs" who had sought refuge abroad in countries including the US, the UK, Italy and Germany, as well as dealing brutally with those who dared to return home.

Now, amid media reports raising questions about what Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knows about Khashoggi's disappearance earlier this month, some in Libyan communities have drawn comparisons on social media between Gaddafi and the Saudi royal.

Opponents of bin Salman accuse the crown prince of orchestrating a widespread crackdown on dissent targeting business tycoons, clerics, political activists and even members of the ruling family.


Saudi officials have strenuously denied allegations that Khashoggi was killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. They insist that he left the building shortly after arriving.

However, they have offered no evidence to corroborate that claim and say that security cameras at the consulate were not working on the day of Khashoggi's disappearance.

Turkish officials have told Middle East Eye and other media outlets that investigators suspect Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, although they have not released evidence to back up their account.


But a friend of Khashoggi, who preferred to remain anonymous, told MEE that the savagery of accounts of Khashoggi's alleged death made him fearful that others critical of the Saudi government would meet the same fate unless Riyadh was held accountable, just as Gaddafi and his agents had once been able to get away with the targeted killings of opponents aboard.

'Stray dogs' policy

In 1980, Gaddafi’s then-deputy Abdel Salam Jalloud appeared to justify the so-called "stray dogs" policy of assassinating exiled dissidents, telling an Italian newspaper: “Many people who fled abroad took with them goods belonging to the Libyan people. Now they are putting their illicit gains at the disposal of the opposition led by [then-Egyptian leader] Sadat, world imperialism, and Israel.”

In the same year there was a succession of attempts to kill Libyan exiles in London, which by then had become a safe haven and a hub of dissident activity for Gaddafi's political opponents.

In April, Mohammed Ramadan, a BBC World Service journalist, was gunned down outside Regent's Park Mosque in central London, while Mahmoud Nafi, a lawyer, was shot dead in his London office.

Police officers surround Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot by a gunman inside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984 (Reuters)

MI5, the UK's domestic intelligence agency, at the time had gathered "conclusive evidence", according to later accounts, that the Libyan embassy in London was targeting dissidents in Britain, and discovered that the embassy had been sharply criticised by Tripoli for failing to shoot at Libyan protesters that would gather outside.

British members of Parliament called for the government to close down the Libyan embassy, with one claiming it was harbouring "a gang of thugs".

In October 1980, MI5 received intelligence that the Libyan embassy had a powdered poison with which it intended to assassinate dissidents in the country. 

The first to be targeted were Farj Shaban Ghesouda and his British wife, Heather Clare who were given peanuts - it was later discovered that they were laced with thallium - by an airline worker. The couple survived, but the peanuts killed the family dog and made their children dangerously ill, according to a New York Times story.

In Rome, at least four opponents of Gaddafi were killed in 1980. In March, businessman Mohamed Salem Rtemi was found dead in Rome. In April another businessman, Abdul Jalil Arif, was shot dead in a cafe, and in May, two more exiles, Abdallah Mohamed el Kazmi and Mohamed Foud Buohjar, were found dead.

Buohjar's body was found with a note signed by the "Libyan Revolutionary Committees operating in Rome".

In West Germany, a Libyan man was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Omran el-Mehdawi, a former Libyan embassy official who was shot dead in a shopping centre in Bonn in May 1980.

In 1982, two Libyan students in West Germany said they had been tortured and threatened with death while being held overnight inside the residence of the Libyan ambassador.

''We screamed out, but most of the time we were gagged,'' said El-Hadj el-Gariani, one of the students.

Gaddafi's reach extended across the Atlantic as well. In October 1980, Faisal Zagallai, a Libyan student at Colorado State University in the US, was shot and injured in his home by a former Green Beret special forces soldier who claimed he was working for the CIA.

Prosecutors said the gunman was hired by a former CIA agent who was acting on behalf of the Libyan government.

Faisal Zagallai and his wife Collorado 1981

In 1984, a Libyan embassy official in London did open fire on anti-Gaddafi protesters, killing a British police officer who was on duty at the protest, Yvonne Fletcher, and injuring 10 other protesters.

Fletcher was killed by machinegun fire which came from a first-floor window of the embassy. 

The killings continued with another wave of assassinations in 1985.

Among those killed were Jibril A ad-Dinali, a former police officer and leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a prominent opposition group, who was found dead in West Germany, and Ahmed Rafeeq al-Barrani, a dissident and businessman found dead in his office in Cyprus.

Political opponents were also targeted when they visited Libya's neighbours. 

Mansour Kikhia, a former Libyan foreign minister and UN ambassador, was reported to have been abducted by Gaddafi's agents after he disappeared from his Cairo hotel in 1993.

Kikhia, who defected to the US in 1980, was a pointed critic of the Gaddafi government. Four months away from gaining US citizenship, he had been attending a meeting of an Arab human rights organisation in Egypt which he had helped establish.

The suspected assassinations continued into the 2000s, even as Gaddafi was drawing closer to the West in the wake of the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks in the US.

MI6 chief met Gaddafi shortly before abductions, court papers show
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In 2004, a founder of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a politrical opposition group that called for liberalising reforms such as a free press and democratic elections, was stabbed to death in his London shop in what was thought to have been an assassination ordered by Gaddafi. 

Ali Abuzeid had previously complained about threats against his life to neighbours, and following the discovery of his body, political opponents of Gaddafi said they believed he was targeted by Libyan agents. 

Speaking to MEE, Huda Abuzeid, Ali's daughter, said he was "a successful businessman".

"He was one of those named by Gaddafi in his famous 'stray dogs' speech, and was a target... He had retired from politics when he was assassinated."

Ali Abuzeid fled Libya in the 1970s and actively opposed Gaddafi. In 1984 he launched a failed attack on the Libyan ruler's Tripoli headquarters. 

Returning dissidents targeted

Gaddafi's intelligence services were also suspected of targeting dissidents living abroad who risked returning to Libya, and stories of family members and friends disappearing or being found dead are common among members of exile communities.

A British-Libyan told MEE about the case of a relative who turned up dead in the Libyan capital after visiting family in the country for the first time in years.

"My cousin Ahmed went to Libya to see his family who he hadn't seen in years," said Marwa, who preferred not to use her real name.

'It was the norm that people who didn't toot the [Gaddafi] regime's horn would turn up dead or disappear without trace.' 

- Relative of Libyan man who died in a car crash

"He had a successful business, worked from here [the UK] using contacts in Libya, had some very lucrative deals as far as I know. But he was never a supporter of Gaddafi.

"A few days after he arrived in Tripoli, he was found dead in his car. It was allegedly a car accident, but everyone knew it was orchestrated. It was the norm that people who didn't toot the regime's horn would turn up dead or disappear without trace." 

Even visiting dignitaries were not safe. Musa Sadr, a prominent Lebanese Shia leader, disappeared while on a visit to Libya to meet Gaddafi in 1978.

In 2014, Libya admitted that Gaddafi’s agents were to blame for Sadr’s disappearance. In 2015 Lebanese authorities arrested Gaddafi’s son, Hannibal, for withholding information and being involved in Sadr's prolonged abduction.  

MI6 and CIA help

Gaddafi's rapprochement with western nations after 9/11 saw the Libyan leader rehabilitated as an ally in return for renouncing weapons of mass destruction and cooperating in the so-called "war on terror". In fact, the pact enabled Gaddafi's agents to continue to harass and intimidate dissidents abroad with the active cooperation of western intelligence agencies.

In 2002, both MI6, the UK's foreign intelligence agency, and the CIA began cooperating with Gaddafi's External Security Organisation (ESO) in an effort to foster ties with intelligence agencies in the Arab world.

In the following years, as ties between Libya and the UK and US intelligence agencies grew closer, the Libyan government received assistance from MI6 and the CIA in kidnapping enemies of Gaddafi.  

Many opponents of Gaddafi were living in exile in the UK at the time. Asylum seekers and British Libyans alike were harassed by Gaddafi's agents who were given permission to operate in the country, alongside MI5, the domestic intelligence agency. 

Some dissidents, who had been living in the UK legally for many years, were detained by British police and British intelligence provided details of some of Gaddafi's targets to the ESO, including phone calls, causing relatives and friends in Libya to be threatened or arrested.

The British government also made "determined attempts" to have some of those detained deported to Libya. 

Files unearthed in a Libyan government official's office after the 2011 revolution revealed cooperation between the US, UK and Libyan intelligence agencies in abducting Gaddafi's enemies including Abdel Hakim Belhaj - a prominent opponent of Gaddafi and former military commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group - and his wife, Fatima Boudchar.

The couple were seized and detained in Hong Kong in 2004 as they were about to take a flight to the UK to seek asylum, in a secret operation carried out by the CIA based on information provided by MI6.

Instead they were deported to Malaysia, from where they were flown to Bangkok in Thailand and handed over to the CIA, which flew them to Tripoli.

Belhaj was hooded and shackled to the floor in a stress position and the then pregnant Boudchar was bound tightly by tape during the 17-hour flight to Libya, where they were subsequently tortured by Gaddafi’s security forces.

At the time of the rendition operation, Mark Allen, the then head of MI6's counter-terrorism unit, in correspondence with Gaddafi's intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, took credit for MI6's work. In a fax sent by him to Libyan authorities in March 2004, he said that it was British intelligence which should take credit and reap the rewards for Belhaj's abduction.

Earlier this year, as the result of a court settlement, the British government apologised for its role in what it called the “appalling treatment” of Belhaj and his wife.

Fellow Libyan dissident, Sami al-Saadi, was also rendered from Hong Kong to the Libyan capital in an MI6-CIA operation. He, too, was tortured, later accepting compensation of £2.2 million ($3m) from the British government.

Belhaj was among the many exiles who returned to Libya in early 2011 to join the uprising against Gaddafi after street protests against his rule were violently quashed by government security forces.

Gaddafi was subsequently deposed, and then captured and killed by opposition fighters as he tried to flee in a convoy from his home city of Sirte.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.