CAIRO (AP) — Around midnight in mid-November, Libyan militants in two Toyota pickups arrived at a residential building in a neighborhood of the capital, Tripoli. They broke into the house and took out a blindfolded man in his 70s.
Their target was former Libyan intelligence agent Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, wanted by the United States for allegedly making the bomb that brought down New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, a few days before Christmas 1988. The attack killed 259 people in the air and 11 on the ground.
Weeks after that nightly raid on Tripoli, the United States announced that Mas’ud was in its custody, to the surprise of many in Libya, which has been divided between two rival governments, each backed by a series of militias and foreign powers.
Analysts said the Tripoli-based government responsible for handing over Mas’ud was likely seeking US goodwill and favor amid power struggles in Libya.
Four Libyan government and security officials with direct knowledge of the operation recounted the trip that ended with Mas’ud in Washington.
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Officials said it started when he was taken from his home in the Abu Salim neighborhood of Tripoli. He was taken to the coastal city of Misrata and eventually handed over to US agents who took him out of the country, they said.
The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Several said the United States had been pressing for months to see Mas’ud’s handover.
“Every time they communicated, Abu Agila was on the agenda,” an official said.
In Libya, many questioned the legality of how he was detained, just months after his release from a Libyan prison, and sent to the United States. Libya and the US do not have a permanent agreement on extradition, so there was no obligation to hand over Mas’ud.
The White House and the Justice Department declined to comment on the new details about Mas’ud’s handover. US officials have privately said that, in their opinion, it unfolded as a literal extradition through ordinary judicial process.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with reporting rules, said Saturday that Mas’ud’s transfer was legal, describing it as the culmination of years of cooperation with Libyan authorities.
Following the public outcry in Libya, the Tripoli-based country’s prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, admitted on Thursday that his government had handed over to Mas’ud. In the same speech, he also said that Interpol had issued an arrest warrant for Mas’ud. A Dbeibah government spokesman did not return calls or messages seeking additional comment.
On December 12, the US Department of Justice said it had requested that Interpol issue an arrest warrant for him.
After the downfall and assassination of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in an uprising that turned into a civil war in 2011, Mas’ud, an explosives expert for Libya’s intelligence service, was detained by a militia in western Libya. . He served 10 years in prison in Tripoli for crimes related to his charge during Gaddafi’s rule.
He was released in June after serving his sentence. After his release, he was under constant surveillance and barely left his family’s home in Abu Salim district, a military official said.
The neighborhood is controlled by the Stabilization Support Authority, an umbrella militia led by warlord Abdel-Ghani al-Kikli, a close ally of Dbeibah. Al-Kikli has been accused by Amnesty International of involvement in war crimes and other serious rights violations over the past decade.
After Mas’ud’s release from prison, the Biden administration stepped up extradition demands, Libyan officials said.
The official said US officials continued to raise the issue with the Tripoli-based government and the warlords they were dealing with in the fight against Islamic militants in Libya. With pressure mounting, the prime minister and his aides decided in October to hand Mas’ud over to US authorities, the official said.
Dbeibah’s term remains hotly contested after planned elections failed to take place last year.
“It fits into a broader campaign being run by Dbeibah, which is basically giving gifts to influential states,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He said Dbeibah needs to curry favor with helping him stay in power.
More than a decade after Gaddafi’s death, Libya remains lawless and chaotic, with militias still holding sway over vast territories. The country’s security forces are weak compared to local militias, with which the Dbeibah government is allied to varying degrees. To carry out Mas’ud’s arrest, the Dbeibah government turned to al-Kikli, who also holds a formal government position.
The prime minister discussed the Mas’ud case in a meeting in early November with al-Kikli, according to an employee of the Stabilization Support Authority who had been briefed on the matter. After the meeting, Dbeibah informed US officials of his decision and agreed that the handover would take place in a few weeks in Misrata, where his family is influential, a government official said.
Then came the raid in mid-November, which was described by the officials.
The militants burst into Mas’ud’s bedroom and seized him, transporting him blindfolded to an SSA-run detention center in Tripoli. He was there for two weeks before he was handed over to another militia in Misrata, known as the Joint Force, which reports directly to Dbeibah. It is a new paramilitary unit established as part of a network of militias that support it.
In Misrata, Mas’ud was questioned by Libyan officers in the presence of US intelligence officials, a Libyan official briefed on the questioning said. Mas’ud declined to answer questions about his alleged role in the Lockerbie attack, including the content of an interview the US says he gave to Libyan authorities in 2012, during which he admitted to being the maker of the bomb. He insisted that his detention and extradition are illegal, the official said.
In 2017, US officials received a copy of the 2012 interview in which they said Mas’ud admitted to building the bomb and working with two other conspirators to carry out the attack on the Pan Am plane. According to an affidavit from the FBI filing in the case, Mas’ud said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Gaddafi thanked him and other members of the team afterwards.
Some have questioned the legality of Mas’ud’s handover, given the role of informal armed groups and the lack of official extradition procedures.
Harchaoui, the analyst, said Mas’ud’s extradition indicates that the United States is condoning what he described as illegal behavior.
“What the foreign states are doing is saying we don’t care how the sausage is made,” he said. “We are achieving things that we like.”
Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.
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