Image: Moussa Koussa
Frank Franklin II  /  AP file
Moussa Koussa, Libya's foreign minister, addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28.
By Senior investigative producer
NBC News
updated 3/2/2011 9:05:37 AM ET 2011-03-02T14:05:37

The most powerful man in Libya outside the Gadhafi family is a U.S.-educated spy master suspected of masterminding two of the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks and brutally repressing political opponents. 

But Moussa Koussa, Libya’s foreign minister, is a man of stark contrasts, having also been instrumental in helping the CIA fight al-Qaida and unravel the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network.

Koussa gained his credibility and notoriety during the 20-plus years he served as intelligence chief before Gadhafi  elevated him to his current post in 2009.

“He is no doubt the most powerful man in the government after the Gadhafi family,” said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Video: Pro-Gadhafi forces launch airstrikes on rebels (on this page)

No one will say what role Koussa has played in the massive assaults on the Libyan resistance, but he has a reputation, honed during his days as intelligence chief, as a ruthless and bloody loyalist to Gadhafi.

Moreover, there are growing indications that Koussa is serving as the “back channel” that the West and United Nations is using in talking with the beleaguered Libyan government.

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About 64 years old, Koussa is well-educated, having received a master’s degree in sociology from Michigan State University in 1978. Well-dressed and familiar with the American idiom, he is far removed from his boss’s reputation as a bizarre — perhaps unstable — figure. 

That ability to bridge the two worlds has led some to suspect that Koussa is serving as the conduit between the West and the beleaguered Libyan government.

On Sunday, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he had talked with Koussa a day earlier.

“I called the Libyan foreign minister last night because you still have to communicate to them directly,” Hague said. “Personally this situation is unacceptable, yes we can still get through on the telephone to the Libyan regime and we use that to say this is an unacceptable situation and you’ve got to take steps to bring it to an end, which in this case means the departure of the regime leaders.”

Many in the Libyan exile community suspect that his status as an intermediary is the reason he has been so far been omitted from the U.S. sanctions list, which has frozen the assets of Gadhafi, his close relatives and many other senior figures in the Libyan government.

'He should be first on the list!'
“I’m shocked why he is not on the list. He should be the first on the list!” said Masinessa Khattaly, spokesman for the Atlanta-based Libyan Working Group, the leading organization of Libyan dissidents in exile. “Maybe they (U.S. officials) feel they need to have some kind of channel as they come to some sort of an end. If Koussa was on the list, it would close that door.”

Certainly, there is a longstanding connection between Koussa and  the U.S. and U.K. intelligence services, discussed in little-noticed sections of former CIA Director George Tenet’s memoir, “At the Center of the Storm.”

Koussa gained a reputation as Gadhafi’s “envoy of death” during the 1980s, when his intelligence service was working with other terrorist groups — including Abu Nidal and the Irish Republican Army — and engaging in assassination attempts against Libyan dissidents around the world, some of which were successful. The British Foreign Office expelled him from the Libyan embassy in London in 1980 after he approved the killing of two U.K.-based dissidents.

Video: Defectors say Gadhafi behind Lockerbie bombing (on this page)

Most notably, Koussa has been tied by the CIA to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the bombing of UTA Flight 772 over Mauritania the following year, which together killed 440 people.

Koussa has a “bloody history,” said Khattaly. “His hands are all over Pan Am 103. He was the head of the agency when the international  kidnapping and murdering of a great number of Libyans overseas (occurred) … some in Italy, some in Greece, some in England.  He was at the top of the agency that carried out a great deal of abuses.”

A decade later, the situation had changed dramatically, when the U.S. engaged in its battle against al-Qaida.

Libya was the first nation in the world to seek an Interpol warrant, called a “Red Notice,” against Osama bin Laden in 1998. The reason: Bin Laden had struck an alliance with Libyan fundamentalists who helped fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, helping them organize the Libya Fighting Group. That group, which aimed to overthrow Gadhafi and replace his regime with a fundamentalist Islamic government, ultimately produced some of bin Laden's closest aides, including two directors of international operations responsible for planning terrorist attacks against the U.S.

“Koussa’s main work was foreign intelligence, and he did a good job for Gadhafi,” said Khattaly. “Word was that the most detailed information on al-Qaida (was) … found with the Libyan intelligence. Koussa was very good at it. That’s the way he started cozying up to the U.S. and Brits, developing relationships with the CIA and MI6," the British intelligence agency.

Widely seen as mastermind of Pan Am bombing
Indeed, the CIA made contact with Koussa through the British intelligence services, and meetings were conducted in various European cities.

As Tenet notes in his book, “Illustrative of the surreal world in which we had to operate, CIA officers found themselves exchanging pleasantries with the man who, by some
accounts, was the mastermind behind the Pan Am 103 bombing."

According to others in the CIA at the time, there was no need to insert “by some accounts” in the book. Most agency officials considered Koussa to be the mastermind of the attack, likely acting on the orders of Gadhafi himself.

Even the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent — and employee of Koussa’s — in May 2000 for the bombing did nothing to slow the warming relationship between Gadhafi’s government and the U.S. Then, after the al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, the cooperation moved into high gear, according to Tenet’s memoir.

Related story: U.S., British officials benefited from thaw in Libya relations

“Following the 9/11 attacks, Colonel Gadhafi publicly condemned the terrorists’ actions, calling them 'terrible,' and announced that the Libyan people were ready to send humanitarian aid to America,” he wrote. “That was an interesting sign.”

By April 2003, as U.S. troops took up residence in Baghdad, President George W. Bush ordered the agency to try to ratchet up the Libyan cooperation, focusing not just on terrorism but on the possible acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by al-Qaida and other groups. 

Stephen Kappes, the CIA’s associate deputy director of operations, and a British counterpart met with Koussa in a hotel in a “European city,” as Tenet describes it. But the meeting in the hotel restaurant was not without its tense moments. Kappes noticed former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at another table, Tenet wrote.

Once settled in a meeting room on the hotel’s top floor, Koussa launched into a diatribe against the U.S. and the West, at the insistence of his boss, in Tenet’s estimation. Then, he broke the news the two spies had hoped for. As Tenet recounted, “After some discussion, Moussa Koussa essentially admitted that his country had violated just about every international arms control treaty it had ever signed. Then he said that they wanted to relinquish their weapons programs, that we should trust them to do so, and he asked for a sign of good faith from us.”

After some unproductive meetings with Saif al Islam, Gadhafi’s son, a breakthrough occurred in September 2003. “Moussa Koussa invited Steve and his British colleague to come to Libya and meet with Gadhafi himself,” Tenet wrote. “President Bush instructed us to make no promises until we saw solid proof of Libyan intentions and evidence that their decision was irreversible.”

A diatribe, then a warm welcome
When the big day finally came, Koussa warned Kappes that the first few minutes with the volatile leader might be a “little rough.”

Tenet described the bizarre scene, as well as Koussa’s extraordinary sensitivity to Gadhafi’s moods:

“They were ushered into Gadhafi’s large office. Two huge globes sat astride either end of a large desk that featured a modern personal computer. (Steve would learn that Gadhafi spent hours surfing the Web, to keep up with developments in the outside world.) The leader was wearing expensive Italian loafers and a gaudy shirt with a map of Africa emblazoned on it. After brief introductions, the visitors took seats and Moussa Koussa put his head down, as if he knew what was coming, and the interpreter pulled out his pad. Gadhafi immediately launched into a loud and colorful diatribe, slamming the West, and the United States in particular, for every misdeed imaginable. The interpreter had great difficulty keeping up with the Arabic words as they flew off Gadhafi’s tongue.

“Then, at about the seventeen-minute mark in the tirade, Moussa Koussa’s head came up as if he could tell that the rant was about to end. Sure enough, Gadhafi ran out of steam, took a breath for the first time, and smiled. ‘Nice to see you. Thanks for coming,’ he
said. And then he got down to business. We want to ‘clean the file,’ he kept saying.”

Two hours later, Gadhafi ended the meeting by saying, “Work things out with Moussa Koussa,” Tenet said. Kappes later had dinner with Saif al Islam and, as Tenet noted, it was the CIA official — not his father or Koussa — who informed Saif what had just taken place.

Koussa “worked out” a number of issues with the Americans and their British counterparts: granting them clearance to land at Tripoli’s airport and — after Kappes threatened to walk out of the talks — increased access to Libyan weapons sites. “You guys are such a pain in the ass,” Koussa told him at one point, according to Tenet.

Shutting down the A.Q. Khan network
The big prize for the U.S. came when Koussa admitted that Libya had a nuclear weapons program, which, while not advanced, showed how A.Q. Khan had become the Johnny Appleseed of nukes, Tenet said. It was later determined that the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program had sold Gadhafi’s government centrifuges and blueprints for a crude bomb, all for $200 million. 

The Libyans’ help provided the clearest picture yet on how the Khan network operated and helped the U.S. shut it down.

Koussa — like any good intelligence officer — typically didn’t volunteer information, Tenet said. But he was instrumental in helping the U.S. combat another nuclear proliferation threat.

The CIA had learned that another group of Pakistani nuclear weapons scientists, motivated more by religious beliefs than greed, had met with bin Laden in the months prior to Sept. 11, initiating a worldwide hunt for intelligence. Had the scientists, who used a charity called UTN to facilitate their operations, offered nuclear weapons to anyone else?

Tenet dispatched Ben Bonk, then deputy director of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center to speak with Koussa. 

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“Bonk asked if Koussa had ever heard of UTN. ‘Yes,’ the Libyan replied, ‘they tried to sell us a nuclear weapon. Of course, we turned them down.” This information confirmed separate reporting from another intelligence service that UTN had approached the Libyans with an offer to provide chemical, biological and nuclear expertise.”

The U.S. used that information, along with other supporting accounts, to  pressure the Pakistanis to detain and question the UTN leadership.  Koussa had become a valuable U.S. asset.

How much contact the U.S. has had with Koussa since then is unclear.

Khattaly, a Libyan-American, thinks that the U.S. relationship with Koussa  is an example of the nation often getting caught between its short term needs and its cherished values.

"We had to look the other way," he said. "Human rights weren't a priority. Our priority was to corner al-Qaida. President Bush bought Koussa and the entire Qaddafi gang back to the world community ... and basically we are paying for it."

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Video: Pro-Gadhafi forces launch airstrikes on rebels

  1. Closed captioning of: Pro-Gadhafi forces launch airstrikes on rebels

    >> in forces loyal to moammar gadhafi . jim maceda is in tripoli . good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. there are fresh reports today of intense fighting in the east with an oil installation changing hands by the hour. it could be the sign of a long protracted conflict. the uprising in tripoli has gone to ground. there have been no protests here for days, not since security forces dispersed a crowd of several hundred with live fire. increasingly, security experts say, it will be on the battlefield where any break in the standoff will come. in the rebel camps, spirits remain high in zawiya after opposition forces who had taken the town over the weekend managed to hold it despite a pro gadhafi counter attack .

    >> we feel we are in a good situation. we are ready to attack gadhafi in tripoli .

    >> reporter: but tripoli is ringed by tanks and artillery and a dozen checkpoints. there were signs today gadhafi was mounting an offensive with reports of gains in the rebel-held east. at least one oil installation was recaptured and libyan bombs were attacking an air base just days ago. gadhafi 's son said brushed off comments that his father was collusional made by susan rice , ambassador to the u.n.

    >> we have many city leaders, statesmen, every day. we have no time for them.

    >> reporter: as the fighting spreads, so does the anxiety. more than 100,000 have fled the country and thousands more can't get out, like these migrant workers , mostly africans who are living outside tripoli airport . many have waited for days but flights never come. this laborer says conditions are desperate. there is toole little food or even water and his family is getting sick.

    >> we need your aid.

    >> reporter: they fear another african war . with either the libyan army nor the rebels capable of striking a knockout blow this humanitarian crisis we are seeing could get much worse. meredith?

Photos: Moammar Gadhafi

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  1. Col. Moammar Gadhafi is seen in Tripoli on Sept. 27, 1969, after leading a military coup that toppled King Idris. Gadhafi has maintained his rule over Libya for more than four decades since the coup. Gadhafi was killed in Sirte on Oct. 20 as revolutionary forces took the last bastion of his supporters. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Gadhafi, left, and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, right, arrive in Rabat, Morocco, in December 1969 for the Arab Summit Conference. (Benghabit / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Col. Gadhafi, left, jokes with a group of British hippies in Tripoli in July 1973. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Gadhafi was purportedly a major financier of the Black September movement, a band of Palestinian militants. Its members perpetrated the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. One of the Black September guerrillas who broke into the Olympic Village is seen in this picture. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Gadhafi during the summit of the Organization of African Unity on Aug. 4, 1975, in Kampala, Uganda. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Flowers are laid at the memorial to Yvonne Fletcher, a British police constable who was shot dead by terrorists in April 1984 while on duty during a protest outside the Libyan embassy in London. Fletcher's death led to an 11-day police siege of the embassy and a breakdown of diplomatic relations between Libya and the United Kingdom. (Fox Photos via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Gadhafi and his second wife Safiya wave to the crowd upon their arrival in Dakar, Senegal, for a three-day official visit on Dec. 3, 1985. Gadhafi has eight biological children, six by Safiya. (Joel Robine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. U.S. Ambassador to West Germany Richard Burt, fourth from left, and West Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, fifth from left, inspect the damage following an April 5, 1986, bombing at a Berlin discotheque frequented by American serveicemen. Libya was blamed for the blast, which killed three and injured more than 200. Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan retaliated by ordering airstrikes against the Libyan capital of Tripoli and city of Benghazi. (Wolfgang Mrotzkowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. French policemen and army soldiers unload crates of arms and ammunition seized aboard the Panamian merchant ship Eksund on Nov. 3, 1987 at Brest military port in France. A huge supply of arms and explosives purportedly supplied by Libya and destined for the Irish Republican Army was found aboard the vessel. (Andre Durand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. This Dec. 22, 1988, photo shows the wreckage of the Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people - most of them Americans. Gadhafi has accepted Libya's responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the victims' families. Libya's ex-justice minister was recently quoted as telling a Swedish newspaper that Gadhafi personally ordered the bombing. (Letkey / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, right, welcomes Gadhafi upon his arrival at Tunis airport on Jan. 10, 1990. (Frederic Neema / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi is escorted by security officers in Tripoli on Feb. 18, 1992. Al-Megrahi was granted a compassionate release from a Scottish prison in August 2009 on the grounds that he was suffering from prostate cancer and would die soon. (Manoocher Deghati / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, left, accompanies Gadhafi on a tour at the pyramids of Giza on Jan. 19, 1993. (Aladin Abdel Naby / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Egyptian border policeman counts passports belonging to Palestinians waiting at the post in Salloum for transit to the Gaza Strip on Sept. 12, 1995. Families were stranded at the border with Libya after Gadhafi decided to expel 30.000 Palestinians, reportedly in order to call attention to the political situation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. (Amr Nabil / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Libyan women bodyguards provide security for VIPs during a military parade in Green Square on Sept. 1, 2003, to mark the 34th anniversary of Gadhafi's acension to power. (Mike Nelson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Family members of people killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, read documents on Sept. 12, 2003, as the U.N. Security Council votes to lift sanctions against Libya for the 1988 bombing. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, flew to Libya in 2004 to hold talks with Gadhafi inside a Bedouin tent. Here, Blair and and Gadhafi stroll to a separate tent in Tripoli for lunch during a break in their talks. Blair's role was particularly vital in Gadhafi's international rehabilitation. He praised the leader for ending Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons program and stressed the need for new security alliances in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. (Stefan Rousseau / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. U.S. President George W. Bush looks at material and equipment surrendered by Libya, during a tour of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee on July 12, 2004. Bush officially lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Libya on Sept. 20, 2004. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. View of the remains of Gadhafi's bombed-out headquarters, now turned into a living memento, inside his compound in Tripoli on Oct. 15, 2004. The sculpture in the center represents a golden fist grabbing a U.S. jet fighter. U.S. jets bombed Tripoli, killing Gadhafi's adopted 4-year-old daughter, in April 1986 in retaliation for the Berlin discotheque bombing. (John Macdougall / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is welcomed by Gadhafi in Tripoli on July 25, 2007. Sarkozy arrived for a meeting with the Libyan leader a day after the release of six foreign medics from a Libyan prison. (Patrick Kovarik / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Gadhafi's son Saif, center, attends a ceremony in the southern Libyan city of Ghiryan on Aug. 18, 2007, to mark the arrival of water from the Great Manmade River, a project to pipe water from desert wells to coastal communities. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Gadhafi looks at a Russian-language edition of his book "The Green Book" during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 17, 2008, in Tripoli. Putin was in Libya for a two-day visit to rebuild Russian-Libyan relations. (Artyom Korotayev / Epsilon via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Gadhafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pose for a picture after signing an agreement in the eastern city of Benghazi on Libya's Mediterranean coast on Aug. 30, 2008. Berlusconi apologized to Libya for damage inflicted by Italy during the colonial era and signed a $5 billion investment deal by way of compensation. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Gadhafi poses with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prior to a meeting in Tripoli on Sept. 5, 2008. Rice arrived in Libya on the first such visit in more than half a century, marking a new chapter in Washington's reconciliation with the former enemy state. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Gadhafi attends the closing session of the Arab League summit in Doha, Qatar, on March 30, 2009. (Marwan Naamani / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Gadhafi waves after delivering a speech during a meeting with 700 women from the business, political and cultural spheres on June 12, 2009, in Rome. The Libyan strongman drew cheers and jeers when he criticized Islam's treatment of women but then suggested it should be up to male relatives to decide if a woman can drive. (Christophe Simon / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. U.S .President Barack Obama shakes hands with Gadhafi during the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, on July 9, 2009. (Michael Gottschalk / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, top left, is accompanied by Seif al-Islam el-Gadhafi, son of the Libyan leader, upon his arrival at the airport in Tripoli on Aug. 20, 2009. Scotland freed the terminally ill Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds, allowing him to die at home in Libya despite American protests that he should be shown no mercy. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The president of the U.N. General Assembly, Ali Abdussalam Treki, top center, listens in apparent misery as Gadhafi speaks on Sept. 23, 2009, at U.N. headquarters in New York. It was Gadhafi's first appearance before the U.N., and he emptied out much of the chamber with an exhaustive 95-minute speech in which he criticized the decision-making structure of the world body and called for investigations of all the wars and assassinations that have taken place since the U.N.'s founding. (Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Gadhafi greets Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during the plenary session at the Africa-South America Summit on Margarita Island on Sept. 27, 2009. Chavez and Gadhafi urged African and South American leaders to strive for a new world order countering Western economic dominance. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Gadhafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a group picture of Arab and African leaders ahead of the opening of the second Arab-African summit in the coastal town of Sirte, Libya, on Oct. 10, 2010. Ben Ali and Mubarak were driven out of power by popular revolts in 2011. (Sabri Elmehedwi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Gadhafi is followed by members of the press in Tripoli before making a speech hoping to defuse tensions on March 2. Gadhafi blamed al-Qaida for creating turmoil and told applauding supporters there was a conspiracy to control Libya and its oil. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyan rebels step on a picture of Gadhafi at a checkpoint in Tripoli's Qarqarsh district on Aug. 22. Libyan government tanks and snipers put up a scattered, last-ditch effort in Tripoli on Monday after rebels swept into the heart of the capital, cheered on by crowds hailing the end of Gadhafi's 42 years in power. (Bob Strong / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. A man in Tripoli holds a photo said to be of Moammar Gadhafi after the announcement of the former leader's death, Oct. 20, 2011. Gadhafi was killed when revolutionary forces overwhelmed his hometown, Sirte, the last major bastion of resistance two months after the regime fell. (Abdel Magid Al-fergany / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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