The extradition to the US of Muammar Gaddafi’s most trusted and notorious aide was abruptly halted by Libya at the 11th hour this week for fear of public anger after the handover of another ex-senior Libyan intelligence operative, officials in Tripoli have told the Guardian.
Abdullah al-Senussi, a former intelligence chief and brother-in-law of Gaddafi, is blamed for a series of lethal bombings directed at western aviation as well as other targets.
The US want the 72-year-old, currently held in prison in Tripoli, to answer questions connected to the attack which brought down a US-bound aircraft over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988. Senussi has long been suspected of masterminding the operation, which killed 270 people.
Earlier this month the US announced that another Libyan suspect in the Lockerbie bombing, Mohammed Abouagela Masud, was in its custody. Masud was taken from his Tripoli home by armed men on 17 November, held for two weeks by a militia and then handed over to US government agents in the port city of Misrata.
His family said he had been unlawfully abducted. In a statement on Tuesday, the US embassy in Libya said the process had been “lawful and conducted in cooperation with Libyan authorities”.
The handover of Masud has provoked outrage in Libya, putting the government of interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh under severe pressure and leading to the shelving of plans to transfer Senussi to US custody.
“The idea was to have Masud sent to the US first and then give them Senussi. There have been discussions for months about this. But then officials got worried,” said one Libyan official source with knowledge of the case. A second said Senussi was meant to be handed over at the weekend.
Known as “the butcher”, Senussi is being held in the Rawawa prison in Tripoli and is thought to be in ill health. He was sentenced to death in a mass trial that concluded in 2015.
Senussi was considered Gaddafi’s most trusted aide. He has had a reputation for brutality since the mid-1970s and his name appeared as number two on an opposition list of wanted “war criminals”.
Bringing him before a US court would mark a significant, if controversial, achievement for the Biden administration and may signal a new determination to pursue decades-old cases involving the deaths of US citizens.
The effort to secure the transfer of Masud and Senussi was launched under Donald Trump’s administration but has been revived over the last nine months through discussions between US officials and the Libyan government, the sources said.
In August an agreement about the transfer of Senussi and Masud was reached with Dbeibeh. Dbeibeh’s mandate expired last December and he has a clear incentive to win favour with the US, analysts say.
As Senussi is currently behind bars, a transfer by Libya to the US would have been administratively more straightforward than that of Masud, who was detained without a warrant by militia loyal to a commander accused of systematic human rights abuses.
“This is a completely different case,” said one Libyan official.
Senussi is also a widely reviled figure in Libya, and cannot be portrayed as a pawn simply following orders, as Masud has been by his supporters.
In the early 1980s, while Senussi ran Gaddafi’s internal security services, many opponents of the regime were killed in Libya and overseas. Libyans hold him responsible for the 1996 massacre of about 1,200 inmates at the Abu Salim prison while a court in France convicted him in absentia in 1999 for his role in the 1989 bombing of a passenger plane over Niger that killed 170 people.
Senussi, then head of Libya’s external security organisation, has long been accused of recruiting and managing Abdel-Baset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
Senussi was also said to have been behind an alleged Libyan intelligence plot to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in late 2003.
The international criminal court issued an arrest warrant for Senussi in 2011 for his role in violence against opposition protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi at the start of the Libyan uprising.
Successive Libyan governments insisted on prosecuting Senussi on home soil. The ICC decided in 2013 that as Libya had put Senussi on trial it would halt its own proceedings against him. The former intelligence chief was eventually condemned to death in July 2015 in a process that was severely criticised by human rights campaigners.
It is unclear if the transfer of Senussi to the US has been shelved indefinitely, or merely postponed.
Alia Brahimi, an expert on Libya with the Atlantic Council, said the case demonstrated a tension between the demands of the law and the demands of justice.
“Senussi is suspected of a great many crimes and the possibility that he might answer for one of them, an act of mass murder no less, is extraordinary,” Brahimi said. “Any transfer would generate enormous controversy, whatever the circumstances, as did that of Masud, and rightly so. But the lasting story will be about the long arm of American justice, and it will be heard around the world.
“Successive transitional governments [in Libya] have struggled to hold members of the old regime accountable in a transparent and ordered way, because of the chaos which has prevailed since the revolution but also because of the continuing power of regime interest groups.”
The family of Senussi and tribes still loyal to him have threatened unrest if he is transferred to the US.