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The two faces of Gadhafi's right-hand man

The most powerful man in Libya outside the Gadhafi family is a U.S.-educated spy master suspected of masterminding deadly terrorist attacks and repressing political foes.
Image: Musa Abdussalam Kousa
Moussa Koussa, Libya's foreign minister, addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28.Frank Franklin II / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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. 

“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."