SLIEMA, Malta — A pudgy, graying middle-aged man in a brown sweater vest sat quietly sipping tea in the hotel lobby. If you noticed him at all, you might have thought he was a businessman, or an engineer, maybe a mid-ranking civil servant. He frowned occasionally as he contemplated the messages on his smartphone.
He allowed a smile as two men approached. They greeted each other as old friends, exchanging embraces, asking after relatives. One of the men complained a little about the state of business in the region, and warned he might have to head off at some point: “My daughter has a ballet recital.”
The entourage moved to a darkly lit corner of the hotel, their voices dropping, sometimes to a whisper. They looked up with paranoid glares each time a waiter or hotel guest walked by. The three men knew they could never be too careful.
The newcomers were retired colleagues; the first, a balding man in his sixties, works for a charity that helps African migrants in Libya; the second, in his late forties, is a real estate developer, dividing his time between the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and Europe.
But this was no workaday meeting of middle-aged businessmen. The three men are operatives from one of the most feared institutions in the Middle East: Libya’s mukhabarat, or intelligence agency. Formed shortly after the Second World War, the mukhabarat has worked behind the scenes to monitor and manipulate Libya for decades. And they have now joined the war against ISIS, as well as al-Qaeda and loyalists to the former regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. They have made many, many enemies over the years.
“Extremists are extremists,” said the man in the sweater vest, a senior ranking official of the agency’s counter-terrorism division. “It doesn’t matter if they’re government militias, ISIS, or Qaddafi loyalists. In my focus, I target them all. Political extremists are all the same. And I want stability.”
Faced with the rising threat of ISIS, authorities in Tripoli have allowed the country’s dilapidated professional spy service to reassemble. In the last 18 months, the mukhabarat has begun to tighten its grip on security matters across much of the country. It has grown to much of its capacity under Qaddafi and is conducting investigations, running operations, and re-establishing ties with foreign intelligence agencies, including those of the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Italy, France, Malta, Spain, Turkey, Tunisia, Austria, Serbia, Jordan, and Morocco.
“The old channels are still there,” said the senior mukhabarat official. “Some embassy types are still in Tripoli. The French, Americans — all have assets in the city. We even give them permits to carry guns and have nondiplomatic license plates. The guys who deal with us are Americans.”
Libya remains locked in a messy civil war, pitting several rival governments, a kaleidoscope of militias, and tribes against each other for control of the oil-rich country. But the spies, who ostensibly answer to the government in Tripoli, boast that they maintain networks across the country, including areas under the control of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the mustachioed former Qaddafi army officer whose forces and loyalists control much of eastern Libya and are fighting Tripoli. Despite the political hostility, there is still contact between security officials of the various competing powers on overarching matters of counter-terrorism. The spies proudly describe themselves as mandarins of Libya’s “deep state.”
“We are the long-term security apparatus,” said the senior official. “More than 75% of the security people who worked before are back. Some never left. Some retired and came back.”
Though they say they are beholden to no political player or ideology and are simply looking to provide security to a fractured country, they work for an organization that has a long history of torture, assassinations, and international subterfuge of the sort that has earned them a terrifying reputation.
The men insisted their hands were clean, and said they agreed to speak to BuzzFeed News because they were worried that Western powers seeking partners in the fight against ISIS were cultivating the wrong interlocutors, including militia groups and Haftar, whom they despise as another incarnation of Qaddafi. The three spies decided to step out of the shadows in an effort to promote themselves as key players in the ongoing global war against ISIS.
“[The West] is working with everybody,” said the balding former official. “They’re using everybody as a source of information. The problem is, sometimes it’s misinformation.”
The men agreed to talk in Malta, the sunny, ancient Mediterranean Island where Libyan officials and their Western counterparts frequently meet. The sit-down came after weeks of negotiations through an intermediary, a colorful onetime guerrilla fighter from South Asia with a résumé that includes ties to the U.S. military, academia, and global finance, as well as a stint as an adviser to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Based in New York, he now runs a small Malta think tank, the Institute for Strategic Studies and Democracy. “The purpose of the think tank so far has been to create a safe space for Western interests to talk to Libyan interests and to find a Libyan-to-Libyan solution to the current impasse in the country,” he said.
The three spies agreed to talk to BuzzFeed News on the condition that their names, and large elements of their personal history, remained undisclosed. During several hours of conversation, they frequently grew annoyed at questions about specific cases and recent successes. “Wait 30, 40 years and those files will be opened,” said the senior official.
The men wanted to open a window into their secretive world
As with most spies, especially ones rooted in repressive Arab dictatorships, they are typically averse to any kind of public scrutiny or attention. But the men wanted to open a window to their secretive world because of what they described as increasing frustration at the lack of support and cooperation they say the organization gets from Western counterparts. To cite one example, the men claimed the mukhabarat learned from a captured ISIS operative in the autumn of 2015 that the group was planning something big in Paris. The fortysomething former spy, who served as an analyst for the mukhabarat, said a name came up in the investigation: Salah Abdeslam, alleged to be a ringleader of the November Paris attacks, who was captured last month in Belgium, just days before coordinated suicide bombings at the airport and metro station in Brussels killed at least 31 people and injured 270 more.
“His guys were telling us he was planning something on French soil,” he said. The former analyst said the Libyans sought to reach out to a European counterpart, a claim that could not be verified.
“We sought to open a channel,” he said. “We didn’t get a line. The line was cut.”
Several weeks later, the Paris attacks unfolded. Abdeslam was the alleged ringleader of a prolonged multipronged night of terror that left 130 dead and transformed security calculations throughout Europe.
“After that,” said the analyst, “they opened the line.”
With tentacles across the world and murky ties to militant groups and organized crime, Libya’s mukhabarat has been linked to heinous acts of terror, including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Its operatives were trained and equipped by East Germany’s Stasi to spy, blackmail, torture, and otherwise coerce Libyans in what was considered one of the worst police states in the the world.
Despite this, the mukhabarat also cooperated with the West against common enemies. Mousa Kousa, who served for years as spy chief before defecting to the West during the 2011 uprising, reportedly helped Western intelligence agencies unravel jihadi networks throughout the Middle East and Africa. But it was also widely perceived as a political tool for Qaddafi’s repression. Abuzed Omar Dorda, now jailed in a high-security prison in southeast Tripoli, served as overall director of the agency during the last months of Qaddafi’s rule before he was captured.
In 2014, Mustafa Noah, a former army officer and militia leader, was named Libya’s spy chief. But for the three spies in Malta, the mukhabarat’s history, dating back to 1948, extends beyond both Qaddafi and the post-revolutionary period. The senior official’s career spans four decades, with nearly 20 years in counter-terrorism, having been recruited out of university.
“We were changing regimes in some African countries and we were spending just $10,000,” said the senior official. “We know what we’re doing.”
Asked if they had been involved in any of the former regime’s abuses, the three spies testily insisted they hadn’t, and argued that there was a core of dedicated civil servants who refused to do Qaddafi’s dirty work. “If I had done anything like that before, I wouldn’t have been able to come back to the security forces,” said the senior official. “Some of the others did that, because they working for the regime and not for their country.”
After the Libyan revolution threw off Qaddafi’s 42-year rule in a NATO-backed uprising, the country’s security forces fragmented. Citizen militias filled the security vacuum, growing into powerful armies answering to warlords and politicians, and by mid-2014 the country had descended into a complicated civil war. Into this mess, ISIS entered in early 2014, winning the loyalty of existing jihadi groups while drawing recruits from across Africa and the Arab world. It exploited the security chaos to establish a stronghold in the central city of Sirte. A report issued by a U.N. panel in March warned that the jihadi group had “significantly expanded its control over territory,” including in and around the capital.
At first, Libya’s two main warring sides attempted to use ISIS for their own ends. Haftar sought to tarnish all his opponents in Tripoli as “ISIS” in an attempt to justify indiscriminately bombing his enemies using an air force refurbished by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The Tripoli-based camp, called Libya Dawn, for months downplayed the ISIS threat, even loosely allying with some of its elements in an attempt to fight Haftar. Both sides now appear to be taking ISIS’s menace seriously, and many Libyan officials speak of cooperation with each other and the international community.
“There is the beginning of international cooperation,” said Aref Nayed, Libya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and a security adviser to Abdullah Thinni, prime minister of the pro-Haftar eastern government. “There is a good beginning — it’s better late than never.”
Western security agencies have been flying surveillance flights over Libya and have begun the groundwork for future intervention. The security consultancy Stratfor recently unveiled satellite images suggesting Western operatives had set up a base in Benghazi’s Benina airport, a stronghold of Haftar. The three spies described a small U.S. presence at a military facility on the outskirts of the city of Misrata, near the frontline against ISIS in Sirte. “In the mornings, you can even see the Americans jogging on the compound,” said the senior official.
A U.S. military spokesman for Africom, which oversees U.S. armed forces operations across Africa, declined to verify where American forces are located but acknowledged cultivating relations with various Libyan players. “I'll tell you that the U.S. military is meeting with multiple regional groups across Libya in an effort to help the Libyans re-establish a safe and secure environment,” Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo said in response to an email inquiry. “Our efforts to establish regional security are in support of the Department of State and United Nations' efforts to seek agreement of rival factions on a national unity government in Libya.”
But in an illustration of how complicated Western involvement in Libya could be, both Nayed and the intelligence officials warned against choosing the wrong partners. Nayed opposes Western cooperation with Islamist-leaning militias that control much of the capital and who serve as the mukhabarat’s allies, painting them as enablers of ISIS. “One of the most frustrating things is that we’re hearing denials from the West,” Nayed said. “They keep calling these ISIS fighters ‘revolutionaries.’”
The three men also warned the West against building ties with armed groups they see as outside the law. “The Americans, French, Italians are going to Misrata and meeting with everybody,” said the senior spy. “We don’t accept that.”
Western officials tell their Libyan counterparts that more robust security cooperation will have to wait until a unity government is established, however unlikely that currently seems. Seeking to draw warring factions under one umbrella, Western officials and the U.N. recently recognized a new transitional government and urged the two competing camps to recognize it and come under its authority. Both have so far refused, even as members of the U.N.-backed government arrived unannounced in the capital earlier this week.
“We send our people inside. We can guide them to do right. Or we can destroy from the inside.”
In the meantime, the mukhabarat continues to operate. Its officers are attached to the ministry of foreign affairs or serve as advisers on security matters for local officials, at airports, at seaports, and on airplanes. They have renovated old safe houses and offices that were looted or destroyed in the years of unrest, equipping them with electronic equipment to continue the work of building up files on terrorism suspects and on security incidents. They have resurrected networks across the country, and personnel and informants now supply headquarters with a steady stream of intelligence about goings-on across the country. They have placed operatives in key positions inside some of the country’s largest and most powerful militias, including those that oversee security in the capital.
“We control them,” the senior official said. “We send our people inside. We can guide them to do right. Or we can destroy from the inside.”
The senior intelligence official hinted that his agency was involved in the recent U.S. bombing of an ISIS training base in the Western city of Sobratha. He described a secret committee in Tripoli that collects the coordinates of suspected ISIS sites and hands them to Americans, and suggested his operatives may have been behind damage assessment of the strike. Shortly after the destruction of the compound, the U.S. announced they had killed Noureddine al-Naibi, who was allegedly behind the horrific March 18, 2015 Bardo museum attack in Tunisia’s capital. “How could the Americans confirm that this guy was in the building?” the senior intelligence official said. “The problem is that if any of us would show up and say, ‘We were involved in this attack,’ we would be killed.”
The day-to-day work of the mukhabarat these days includes fighting illegal migration, kidnapping, terrorism, smuggling, and money laundering, from Sirte in central Libya all the way to Ras Ajdir on the Tunisian border. They’ve captured criminals and terrorists from across the country, they say. Some get locked up in prison and investigated before trial. A few become valued operatives, intelligence assets, sent back into the field to infiltrate criminal or terrorist cells.
It is the clash of approaches between the gumshoe police work touted by the Libyan spies, and the airstrikes and rockets used by Haftar that may explain the friction between the two camps. The Libyan spies say they believe Haftar’s approach exacerbates the terrorism problem. What is needed are tools like eavesdropping equipment, which they say they have requested from Western counterparts, more than drone strikes or fighter jets.
“I’ve asked the Italians a million times for facial recognition software,” the senior spy said, in exasperation.
“When you capture them, they cry. In the 1980s, they didn’t cry.”
He said the current batch of ISIS fighters won’t be difficult to beat, regarding them as a generation of “selfie” jihadis unschooled in the dark arts of clandestine warfare. Previous jihadis, including those who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and then returned to Libya, used to encode their communications and refused to talk when captured, he said.
“When you caught the al-Qaeda cells, they would never let you know who was their leader or emir,” he said. “Now the emir acts like a president. He puts a holster on his chest and poses for photos and is dumb enough to act like an emir.”
What’s more, they don’t protect themselves, taking few security precautions, he said. “They are glued to their Android phones, which have pictures of all their associates,” he said. “When you capture them they cry. In the 1980s, they didn’t cry.”
Additional reporting by Mitch Prothero in Rome