Abdullah al-Senussi, Gaddafi’s ‘black box’

Every dictator needs someone he can trust. Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, supreme guide of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, otherwise known as the Guide, relied on his brother-in-law, Abdullah al-Senussi. Scarcely known in the west outside intelligence circles, Senussi was the most feared man in Libya apart from the Brother Leader himself. The photographs tell the story. Gaddafi is always centre stage in his flamboyant robes or well-cut fatigues. Senussi, a dark-skinned man with curly hair in nondescript chinos or a suit, is usually out of the frame or in the shadows – present but scarcely noticeable. With Gaddafi dead, western intelligence services and Libya’s new rulers are vying to get hold of the man Libyans call “Gaddafi’s black box”.

Senussi was captured as he flew into the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott from Morocco in March, travelling on a fake Malian passport, a fugitive from Libya’s new rulers. They have demanded his extradition, as has the International Criminal Court in The Hague. French intelligence agents are reported to have persuaded a Mauritanian tribe to betray him, despite the arms and money Senussi had given them over the years.

The French had a special reason to seek him out: Senussi and five Libyan agents were found guilty in absentia of blowing up a UTA flight travelling from West Africa to Paris in 1989, killing 170 people including 54 French citizens. Legal sources say French intelligence officers are interrogating him now, before the Mauritanian authorities decide to which of the interested parties they will hand him over for trial. British and American officials believe that as head of Libyan special operations in the late 1980s, he likely played a substantial role in the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, and must know whether Gaddafi gave the orders. He may also know who killed WPC Yvonne Fletcher, shot from inside the Libyan People’s Bureau in St James’s Square in April 1984.

Senussi was born into a Bedouin family in 1949 in Shatii, deep in Libya’s desert west, where even today many still support Gaddafi. A member of one of Libya’s biggest tribes, the Magarha, he was related to Abdessalam Jalloud, Gaddafi’s closest aide among the free officers who seized power in 1969. Gaddafi’s tribe was small, so the support of the Magarha was crucial, and Gaddafi soon realised that Senussi, who was attending the military academy at the time, could be useful. Both Bedouins from humble backgrounds, they were determined to dislodge Libya’s governing class. When he married Fatima, the sister of Gaddafi’s second wife Safia, in the late 1970s, Senussi was ushered into the inner circle. “Senussi proved himself as a loyal servant, one of a small trusted group always at Gaddafi’s disposal,” said Noman Benotman, a former opposition fighter who got to know Senussi when the regime tried to make peace with its opponents in 2007. “He would kill anyone for Gaddafi, even a friend.”

In the late 1970s, Senussi was instrumental in putting down dissent at the universities in Tripoli and Benghazi, where dozens of students were publicly hanged. Ten years later, he was in charge of wreaking revenge overseas on behalf of his leader. The downing of the UTA flight is thought to have been in response to French support for the government in Chad, which Gaddafi was fighting at the time. The only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi, who died last month in Libya, was from Senussi’s tribe, and a member of the intelligence service; at the time of Lockerbie, Senussi headed the office of special operations within military intelligence. According to Benotman, Pan Am 103 was downed as revenge for Ronald Reagan’s bombing of Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound in 1986.

Senussi is kneeling on the far left with his hands on his knees

Yet for most Libyans these alleged crimes are of less concern than Senussi’s role in the signature atrocity of the Gaddafi era, the massacre at Abu Salim, in which an estimated 1,270 men were gunned down in a prison courtyard. Last year, after Gaddafi’s fall, I visited the prison to investigate. The sprawling greyish-white complex with its seven-metre-high concrete walls was synonymous with torture, starvation, sickness and death. Those who entered knew they might never get out, and their families might never know their fate. I wandered around, looking at the drawings on the cell walls: many had written their names and the year of their incarceration in hope that if they died, at least someone might find out where they had been.

In a courtyard I met Wanise Elisawi, who had been imprisoned in Abu Salim for 19 years after participating in a failed coup attempt in 1984. It was the first time he had returned since his release in 2002. His face creased and his hair grey, he spoke calmly until we walked into Cell No. 7, which he had shared with 13 others when first incarcerated. “I stayed here for four years without seeing light,” he said. Tears started to well and he put his head in his hands. “I don’t know why I came back here today,” he whispered to himself.

Gaddafi looks at children’s bikes with Senussi (far right) at the National Company for Industrial Development, 1982/3

Some of his fellow prisoners were driven mad, he said, so he tried to wash and shave them, to keep them clean, and give them a vestige of dignity. He talked of being forced to run full-tilt, blindfolded, into a wall time after time, of being tortured with dogs and electric prods, of watching cellmates die and their bodies lying in front of him for days on end. The prisoners were half starving and many died of TB. For two years they were given no clothes other than one prison uniform, and one blanket.

Abdullah al-Senussi (standing forward, far right), on a trip accompanying Colonel Gaddafi, circa 1974

By this time, Senussi worked in internal intelligence. On June 27 1996, prisoners in Section 4, which was reserved for Islamists who had mounted an uprising against Gaddafi, started rioting, demanding better conditions and fair trials. They seized two prison guards, and in the chaos killed one. Eventually the head warden arrived, but the prisoners would negotiate only with Senussi, who they knew had a direct line to Gaddafi. After several hours, agreement was reached that food would improve, the prisoners would be allowed to exercise in the yard and receive family visits and sick inmates would be taken for treatment. Four buses arrived at the prison gates, and about 120 sick prisoners were escorted out and told they were being taken to hospital.

For a few hours there was peace. The prisoners, who had been taken back to their cells, which now had new locks, tried to sleep. Silence hung over Abu Salim. At 11am on June 28 an explosion echoed through the prison – one of the guards had thrown a grenade into the yard where the prisoners from Section 4 had been assembled just before dawn. Elisawi, who was in another block, hoisted himself up and tried to look through the window-slit of his cell. He could see soldiers positioned on the roof around the courtyard where the prisoners were gathered, and Senussi and other senior officials standing by vehicles at the edge. “When the order came, Senussi started hitting the car and saying ‘No, not killing, not killing,’” Elisawi recalls. “For sure he didn’t want to do it. But he got his orders from elsewhere and then he carried them out.”

Senussi (arms folded, standing far left) watches Gaddafi talk at an international summit on 'The Green Book' – Gaddafi’s political writings – at Garyounis University, Benghazi, 1983

Did those orders come directly from Gaddafi? Elisawi believes they did. Who else could tell Senussi what to do? Elisawi watched the yard walls turn red with blood as the prisoners from Section 4 were mown down by machine-gun fire. There was nowhere for them to run. The few who were still in their cells were shot through the windows. Those who had been taken for treatment were hauled off the bus and killed. The shooting went on until 2pm. The dead lay piled up in the yard – other eye-witnesses say soldiers picked their way through the bodies, finishing off the injured with pistol shots.

Senussi has never given an interview, never spoken about Abu Salim in public, never acknowledged that the massacre happened, nor the role he played. If he is returned to Libya, the families of the victims will want him to reveal where their fathers, sons and husbands lie – he may be the only person who knows where the bodies were buried.

Senussi with Gaddafi at the 'Green Book' summit

Senussi also played a central role within the Gaddafi family, acting as a surrogate father to Seif al-Islam, Gaddafi’s second son, who was captured late last year. According to Benotman, who worked with Seif when he tried to introduce reforms to Libya in the 2000s, Senussi was also a mentor to Mutassim, the fifth son, who wanted to preserve the hardline security state. When the sons quarrelled – which was often – Senussi was a more effective mediator than Gaddafi, and he also tried to smooth things out between father and sons. When Seif tried to reform the prison system and persuade jihadi prisoners – two of whom had undergone “extraordinary rendition” at the behest of the CIA and MI6 – to reconcile with the regime, Senussi supported him. “Gaddafi was against the process,” said Benotman. “More than once Senussi intervened on behalf of Seif.”

Benotman recalls visiting Senussi in a secret office in the interior investment department in Tripoli. “Behind the stairs it looked like a dead end, but you opened a wooden door and you were inside this huge office,” he said. “There was a back door to a car park so he could enter and leave without anyone knowing.” Senussi, he said, had huge amounts of money at his disposal, some of which he used to arm and secure the loyalty of tribes across the Sahara, inside and out of Libya’s borders. “He was very sharp in a Bedouin way,” said Benotman. “Ruthless, and not sophisticated, but very proud of himself as a fighter, a warrior for the cause.”

He did, however, understand the importance of improving Libya’s standing in the world. Documents uncovered by the exiled opposition reveal that Senussi was a contact person for Monitor Group, the PR company which helped Seif al-Islam write his PhD thesis at the London School of Economics, and arranged for top academics to visit Tripoli. In a 2006 memo to Senussi, Monitor’s CEO, Mark Fuller, outlined a plan to “enhance international understanding and appreciation of Libya”, which later elided into a new project “to enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi”.

Senussi with a girl at a party, date unknown

When revolution erupted in eastern Libya last February, Gaddafi sent Senussi to Benghazi. Fathi Terbil, the lawyer for the Abu Salim families, who had been arrested on February 15, was brought to see Senussi, who was apparently nervous and asked Terbil to call on people to stop demonstrating. It was too late – emboldened by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the people were not about to back down. A video, discovered by rebels later, shows a meeting of men, presumably members of Gaddafi’s feared revolutionary committees, each more eager than the next to show loyalty to “our father” [Gaddafi]. Senussi, who presides, is dismissive of the rebels. “They’re mostly alcoholics and drug addicts who have no family,” he says. “We’ve described these recent events to the leader, and reassured him that ‘Benghazi is your city, the people are up to the task.’”

Four months later, the prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno Ocampo, issued a warrant for Senussi’s arrest for allegedly instructing troops to attack civilians demonstrating in the city.

As he sits in jail in Mauritania, Senussi is said to be ill, possibly with cancer. If he is sent to the ICC, he faces trial only for alleged crimes committed in 2011. The relatives of those killed on Pan Am 103, and thousands of Libyans who blame him for the deaths and disappearances of their relatives, want him to account for far more.

Lindsey Hilsum’s book ‘Sandstorm; Libya in the Time of Revolution’ is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and Penguin Press in the US. She is international editor of ‘Channel 4 News’

The story behind the pictures

It was late February 2011 when we arrived in Benghazi, the Libyan city where the revolution had just begun, writes Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch.

We were there to monitor the conduct of both sides. But from the beginning, we felt part of our mission was to make sure the country’s security archives, the evidence of abuses perpetrated during 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule, were not destroyed.

As angry mobs torched state buildings all over the city, this process became a race against time.

When we found archives, including later in Tripoli, we photographed what we thought might be relevant, and then worked with Libyan lawyers and rebel representatives to impress upon the new authorities the importance of securing their contents. We were sure the archives held the answers to many unsolved mysteries, such as what had happened at the Abu Salim prison in 1996.

We were searching mostly for intelligence documents, but we also found rooms filled with films and photographs of Gaddafi and his top lieutenants, among them Abdullah al-Senussi, a linchpin of Gaddafi’s police state.

Eventually we had thousands of photographs. We knew it was important to keep them in Libyan hands. Aside from some negatives and ageing film that were temporarily removed to be scanned, we photographed everything where we found it and left it all in the archives.

We discovered secrets that western governments would have liked to have kept, not least a high level of co-operation between the US, the UK and Libyan intelligence and the transfer of Gaddafi opponents back to Libya – a country with a record of torture. They have led to a Scotland Yard criminal investigation into the actions of MI6.

These images are important for Libyans and outsiders alike. They tell the story of Gaddafi’s rise, of the people that he kept around him to enforce his will and the consolidation of the personality cult that followed. Whether Senussi is brought to justice will be a critically important part of the story of post-revolution Libya.

Peter Bouckaert is the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch; www.hrw.org

Images: courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown / courtesy of the estate of Tim Hetherington

An exhibition, “The Gaddafi Archives – Libya Before the Arab Spring”, curated by Susan Glen, will run at the Slade Research Centre, London WC1, from June 21-29, as part of the London Festival of Photography; www.lfph.org

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