Libyan security service chiefs key in determining fate of Gaddafi regime

Heads of external security and military intelligence will play a significant role in shaping post-revolution Libya, experts say

In the Libyan capital, Tripoli, international journalists have taken to playing a kind of parlour game.

They try to calculate which officials and members of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's family are important in a regime that is so opaque at times as to be – in practical terms – impenetrable.

Of Gaddafi's sons, is it Saif al-Islam, the most visible and accessible to the world, who invited in the international media? Or Saadi, a businessman? Is it Khamis, the most active on the battlefield – and the most hardline?

It is speculation that has only increased with the defection to the UK of Moussa Koussa, Libya's foreign minister and former intelligence chief. Even before his flight to Britain questions were being asked. Had Koussa been sidelined in the last two years since taking over at the foreign ministry? And if he had been sidelined, by whom? And what does it mean?

What seems beyond doubt is that Koussa has long represented the old guard which for decades was close to Gaddafi, but which – if the Tripoli rumour mill is to be believed – has recently been pushed aside by Gaddafi's competing sons.

Others suggest that, ironically, Koussa may have become tainted in Gaddafi circles by virtue of his success in opening up contacts with western intelligence agencies, with whom he negotiated Libya's transformation from pariah status in the last decade.

The reality is that no one really knows. Instead there are hints that point to who is really powerful and by extension to the stability and durability of the regime – issues thrown into the spotlight by the continued air strikes and Koussa's defection.

It is generally agreed that Koussa's foreign ministry is regarded as suspect within the regime because of the large numbers of defections of its diplomats, and therefore has little real influence.

If its officials have been more visible it is a function of the fact that many, including Koussa and his erstwhile deputy, Khaled Kaim, have more experience in dealing with the west.

Some observers, such as Elliott Abrams, a former US assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan who dealt with Koussa, say they believe his "defection is a serious blow" and that he may be able to identify other potential defectors.

Abrams argues that Koussa's flight suggests Gaddafi's inner circle "now know how this story ends and do not wish to be with the dictator when that end comes".

Others are less certain. Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya, cautions that part of the problem in working out the real centres of power within the regime – and how long it can survive – is rooted in how "non-apparent large parts of the state security apparatus are".

"It is totally and utterly opaque. So much so it is incredibly difficult to interpret the lines of command. Then there is this mysterious entity called the old guard. In the end I tried to avoid using it because it was so hard to say who they were."

Dalton believes that much power resides with individual members of the Gaddafi family – not least the sons – but how that power is exercised is both complex and nuanced.

Indeed, as the crisis has developed, US intelligence sources have suggested that Gaddafi has become ever more reliant on family and tribal ties, even pushing away old allies like Koussa.

"The sons see themselves as heirs, modelled on Gulf princes. Without any concrete roles they get things done by getting on the telephone and making it happen. It is about patronage," Dalton said. He believes the bickering sons' influence has increased since former prime minister Shukri Ghanem was pushed into the background allowing them more room to operate.

It is clear that the most visible of the sons, Saif and Saadi, have their own lines of communication and influence with the various state security organs, not all of whom are as easily biddable as they would like.

If the sons' power is circumscribed by their own internal family rivalries, by their mercurial father and by powerful state security officials, the power of another institution – the army – remains limited by distrust.

Suspicion of the military, in truth, is not a new phenomenon. Gaddafi has long been suspicious of the larger military and units that do not answer directly to his family. It explains his long pursuit of missiles for the defence of his borders.

Since the rebellion against Gaddafi's rule began, that distrust has been shown not to be misplaced. Whole units, particularly in the east of the country, have defected en masse. There have been reported mutinies among soldiers ordered to attack the town of Misrata. As a consequence, officers have allegedly been placed under house arrest, and soldiers' cars entering Tripoli searched.

All of which leaves considerable power and influence in the hands of the state's two most prominent enforcers, Abu Zayd Umar Dorda, the director of Libya's external security service, and Abdullah al-Senussi, the chief of military intelligence.

Although al-Senussi was rumoured to have been killed following an equally rumoured abortive coup several weeks ago, since then his name has reappeared in several contexts that suggest he is still very much alive and influential behind the scenes.

It is these two organisations, Dalton believes, that hold the key to the regime's ability to continue. "So long as the internal security is still intact and still taking orders, the regime in Tripoli can survive," he said.


Peter Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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