Saif Gaddafi: London life of former playboy who could lead Libya revealed

A cache of emails and documents sheds light on the would-be ruler’s activities at a time when he was entering public life

The organiser said it would be “the most amazing party ever done in Punta del Este”, a glamorous seaside resort in Uruguay. He offered his client a sound system, a DJ, decorators, fireworks and “naked models swimming in the pool”. The client – a fixer with close ties to the rulers of Libya – turned down the fireworks.

It appears the fixer wired the organiser $34,300 – and asked him for a whole roast lamb to be delivered every day to the party villa between 30 December 2006 and 6 January 2007. He would be joined there by fellow Libyans and his boss, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who was due to fly in from South Africa.

Saif had reasons to celebrate. He was the heir apparent of his father Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship and its international, acceptable face. He was leading negotiations with Britain over the Lockerbie bombing. The World Economic Forum had named him a “Young Global Leader”. In his free time, he was studying for a PhD in philosophy at the London School of Economics.

Now a cache of emails and documents, seen by the Guardian and Tortoise Media, sheds light on the would-be ruler’s activities at a time when he was entering public life, spearheading a rapprochement with western governments. The correspondence between Saif and his associates offers a rare glimpse into the heart of the Gaddafi regime, during a pivotal moment in Libya’s relationship with Britain.

The good times would last another four years, before the first Libyan civil war erupted, driven by his father’s kleptocratic rule. Rebels brutally executed Muammar, before capturing Saif, who then disappeared from public view.

A decade later, Saif emerged from captivity in the rebel stronghold of Zintan dressed in berber robes, to announce he would run for president. He signed his candidacy papers with a hand wounded in the airstrikes that had toppled his father’s regime. Disagreements between rival factions have delayed the elections, sparking a wave of protests this month. The UN is pushing for agreement on a new polling date. When the race for the presidency begins, many Libyans seem ready to lend Saif their votes.

Traumatised by years of civil war, they long for the relative stability of the Gaddafi years. It has been a long journey. “You need to come back slowly, slowly,” he told journalists last November, when announcing his campaign. “Like a striptease.”

There are hurdles. Saif is due to stand trial at the international criminal court, for crimes against humanity, raising questions about his fitness for office. He is being held responsible for the murders and persecution committed by security forces under his control during the war.

When Saif moved to London in 2002, a team of officials and enablers was assembled to manage his affairs. Administrative matters were handled by the Libyan Foreign Investment Company (LFIC) in London, according to a source there. Extracurricular activities were managed by a group of young Libyans including Faisal Zuwawi, the organiser of the Punta del Este party [see footnote]. Uruguay was just one of many excursions. Zuwawi handled yachts in the Mediterranean and clubs in the Caribbean.

(L-R) Saif Gaddafi, Faisal Zuwawi and an unknown man
(L-R) Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Faisal Zuwawi and an unknown man. Photograph: web

Saif is said to have started by asking his LFIC fixer for an apartment in Belgravia. Then he apparently extended his demands: more apartments, a butler, driver and security personnel. The fixer is said to have paid the costs, including rent, and then invoiced Saif’s office in Libya, a country where the average income was about a third of Britain’s.

He recalls taking Saif to a briefing with MI6 officers about his personal security. Saif also met with government officials. He had a lot to discuss. In 2003, after lengthy negotiations, he announced that Libya would “accept responsibility” for Lockerbie and pay out $2.7bn in compensation to the victims’ families.

Police and investigators look at what remains of the flight deck of Pan Am 103 on a field in Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988.
Police and investigators looking at what remains of the flight deck of Pan Am 103 on a field in Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988. Photograph: AP

Saif’s attention then turned to securing the early release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber who was diagnosed with prostate cancer while incarcerated near Glasgow. PR agents were hired to set up a campaign website – – and to lobby journalists. “By meeting with various personnel within the entire media spectrum,” one agent explained in a briefing note, “I have to behave as if this is not an orchestrated PR campaign.”

Saif’s fixers also enlisted the help of doctors. Scottish law allowed for prisoners with less than three months to live to be released on compassionate grounds. There had been several paper assessments of the prisoner, who was not having active treatment, and it was decided to have him examined in person. On 24 July 2009, Saif received an email from Karol Sikora, a London-based oncology professor. “I believe Mr al-Megrahi’s prognosis is very poor,” Sikora wrote. “The best way of convincing the UK authorities to allow him home on compassionate grounds would be for two physicians to meet with him and a third expert to agree with their findings.”

Sikora proposed himself as the three-person group’s chair. He has said that he agreed with Saif that he would be paid the NHS Litigation Authority standard rate for medico-legal experts for his work. He then visited al-Megrahi in prison, assessed that the man had three months to live, and submitted his assessment to the Libyan embassy in London. The Scottish authorities accepted the prognosis.

Saif also lobbied Gordon Brown’s government. Emails suggest Zuwawi chartered a yacht to Corfu between 1 and 3 August. As has been reported, Saif went to Corfu during that period and met Peter Mandelson, then Brown’s most senior cabinet minister, spending a night at Jacob Rothschild’s seafront villa. One person at the villa recalls that Saif turned up in combat fatigues with his entourage, went with Mandelson to a secluded spot in the garden, and raised the al-Megrahi issue. Mandelson’s spokesperson said in 2009 the two had discussed the Lockerbie case in a “fleeting” conversation.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi sitting in a wheelchair in his room at a hospital in Tripoli in September 2009.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi sitting in a wheelchair in his room at a hospital in Tripoli in September 2009. Photograph: REUTERS

Approached for this article, Mandelson said he played “no part whatsoever” in any negotiations over the release, adding “to my certain recollection neither he [Saif] nor a representative asked me to act in this case”. On 20 August 2009, Scotland’s justice secretary Kenny MacAskill pressed the button, freeing al-Megrahi to live out his last three months in Libya.

A day later, documents suggest Saif drafted a letter to first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, expressing his “deepest appreciation for the understanding and willingness to take all necessary steps that were needed to facilitate the decision of Secretary MacAskill”. Salmond says he has “no recollection of even seeing it”. He adds that the UK government had “no influence” on MacAskill’s decision, which was made “entirely properly and in line with due process”. On the same day, Saif drafted a similar letter to Simon McDonald, Gordon Brown’s foreign policy adviser, extending his “sincere and deep appreciation for your support over the past several months in securing the release of Mr. al-Megrahi.”

McDonald says he was the point man in the negotiations. “As far as I know, I was the only person Saif was dealing with in the British government, it was a single channel, me and Saif al-Islam”. He felt there was nothing strange about dealing with the dictator’s son, despite his lack of an official position, “because he had a clear instruction from his father to get a terminally-ill Libyan prisoner back home”. He recalls his interlocutor as “very smooth, excellent English, expensively turned out”. They visited Saif’s farm near Tripoli, where McDonald was introduced to a white tiger in a cage made of disconcertingly flimsy wire. “The next time I saw the white tiger, it was a rug on the floor of Saif al-Islam’s majlis [receiving room].”

Saif mixed with socialites too. In May 2010, he received an email which appears to be from supermodel Naomi Campbell with the subject heading: “Ghislaine Maxwell. Friend of Naomi Campbell coming to Libya”. The email described Maxwell as a “great friend” who wanted to go to Libya “with her boat” for “pleasure” in September. The email asked Saif to make it possible, gave him Maxwell’s email, and signed off with “hugs hugs” and “Love and Light”. It appears Saif replied: “Hi Naomi, your friend is welcome in Libya. Please tell her to get in touch with Mohamed” – Saif’s right-hand man. It is unclear whether any further contact was made.

Campbell’s spokesperson said: “Ms Campbell does not recognise the alleged email exchange. As the Guardian has refused to provide her with a copy of the alleged exchange or to provide any evidence as to its authenticity she is not in a position to comment.”

Saif was mixing with global power brokers too, at the World Economic Forum. Its founder Klaus Schwab personally invited Saif to attend the annual Davos meeting in January 2011, describing him in a letter as “an avid bridge-builder and a true advocate of dialogue”.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Faisal Zuwawi did not respond to requests for comment.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, gestures as he talks to reporters in Tripoli in August 2011.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, gestures as he talks to reporters in Tripoli in August 2011. Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters

When civil war broke out in Libya two weeks after Davos, Saif promised to “fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet”. The World Economic Forum broke off contact with him.

Zuwawi was looking for a way out. As the violence began, he made inquiries about purchasing apartments in central London, and later in downtown Dubai.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi sitting with his captors in Obari airport in November 2011.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi sitting with his captors in Obari airport in November 2011. Photograph: REUTERS

Then Zuwawi switched sides, becoming a cooperating witness in the case against Saif at the international criminal court in The Hague. He forged links with the National Transitional Council that took control of Tripoli after the revolt. Zuwawai also, according to a senior council member, disclosed to him that the dictator’s son was close to Niger and requesting a doctor to treat his mutilated hand.

The Zintan rebels reached him first, and he was whisked away as a valuable hostage. The nature of any deal with his former captors has not been disclosed, but the son of a notorious dictator is free to run for office. The ICC case against him has been no impediment. A Libyan court waved his candidacy through on the grounds that, as yet, Gaddafi’s heir has no criminal record.

• Footnote added 1 February 2023: Following publication of this article, we were contacted by lawyers for Faisal Zuwawi. They said that Mr Zuwawi was adamant that any exchange with the organiser of the party in Punta del Este was restricted to the renting of the villa and that he did not seek or accept any unsolicited offer of naked models. They also said that Mr Zuwawi denied “switching sides” and that he did no more than co-operate fully with the International Criminal Court by complying with its request to make a statement to the best of his knowledge. The article was amended on 31 August 2022 and 31 October 2022 to revise descriptions of Mr Zuwawi’s work on behalf of Saif Gaddafi, and to attribute to a senior council member a reference to him helping disclose Mr Gaddafi’s location in 2012.

• This article was earlier amended on 21 July 2022 to clarify the description of Simon McDonald’s role in negotiations with Saif Gaddafi.


Paul Caruana Galizia and Juliette Garside

The GuardianTramp

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