Libya gives spies a chance to shine | Richard Norton-Taylor

British intelligence officers have a firm foothold in Libya. Their subtle moves may be more explosive than the bombing campaign

While David Cameron praises British pilots and enthusiastically announces an increase in the number of RAF Tornado aircraft deployed against Libya, British intelligence officers are operating rather more discreetly on the ground.

Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, is in the thick of it and the Libyan conflict should be right up its street. The Libyan desert may have been the birthplace of the SAS during the second world war when MI6's main playground was the deserts of Arabia further east. But in recent years their officers have got to know the deserts of north Africa, and of Libya in particular.

Their role should be key now, as the coalition's military operation, which the US says it is abandoning, appears to have run its course.

While Cameron is gung-ho for the fight, defence chiefs and commanders, in Washington as well as London, are increasingly concerned about a stalemate. It is time for intelligence agencies to prove their worth.

CIA and MI6 officers are active in Libya, doing what they are trained to do – encouraging influential people to come over, to defect.

Both agencies have a special relationship with Muammar Gaddafi's Libya. They monitored it closely when Gaddafi was funding and supplying terrorists in western Europe, including the IRA. Their senior officers, Sir Mark Allen of MI6, Stephen Kappes of the CIA, were deeply involved in talks with Tripoli over compensation for the victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism, including Lockerbie. In 2003, they celebrated months of talks leading to Gaddafi's decision to give up weapons of mass destruction with a long lunch at the Travellers Club in Pall Mall.

A year later, and after failing to get the top job at MI6, Allen joined BP, a company that was to benefit from trade deals agreed between Libya and the Blair government. On the Libyan side, heading the negotiations that culminated in the Travellers lunch was Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi's wily head of foreign intelligence who also gave the UK and US information about al-Qaida's presence in North Africa.

Koussa, who was later appointed foreign minister, is now being questioned by MI6 officers and Foreign Office diplomats in a safehouse in the home counties. MI6 wants his views on Gaddafi's inner circle – in particular how vulnerable the Libyan leader is, and who may defect.

Given its past relationship with Tripoli, this is a special test for MI6. Its officers are in Libya, and neighbouring countries, trying to persuade others to abandon the Gaddafi regime. Imploding the regime from within, with the help of a propaganda war, is more likely to achieve a breakthrough than explosions from missiles fired from Tornado jets. It is a case, perhaps, where spooks could – indeed, should – be doing more good than fighter pilots.


Richard Norton-Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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