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MI6, Oil and Libya’s Torture Chambers


Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s rule is coming to an end in Libya and a picture of contrasts is emerging. There is a contrast between the celebratory mood in London, Paris and Washington on one hand and Libya itself on the other. With Gaddafi down and disappeared but not altogether out of the scene, a contrast between the west and the east in that vast desert land. The east includes Benghazi, the anti-Gaddafi factions’ stronghold. In the west, the popular sentiment is much more ambivalent toward the National Transitional Council and its NATO backers.

Thus far, the NTA’s senior leaders have spent more time abroad, or at their base in Benghazi, than in Tripoli, where conditions are precarious. Is Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s passage to the Libyan capital hindered by security, because Gaddafi’s troops have taken off their uniforms and melted into the population with their guns? Or it is the fear of the rival militias of Nisrata and Nafusa, who did most of the fighting but whose loyalties to the Transitional Council are uncertain.

Contrast also haunts life at large. The Economist correspondent in Tripoli spoke of those the NTA may regard as its constituency, but also those who view the recent events with “disaffection” and “nervousness” as they adapt themselves to the new situation. Reports of smugglers looting large numbers of portable missiles and small weapons are adding to the climate of fear and uncertainty. Libya’s tribal society is truly split.

On Thursday (September 1), President Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Cameron of Britain welcomed delegates to Paris for an international conference on Libya. And Syria-based al-Rai channel broadcast a defiant message from Colonel Gaddafi. Never to miss his moment, the colonel warned that “the traitors will come to an end and NATO will collapse.” Meanwhile in London,  the curtain went up a little, revealing intentions hitherto undeclared and a secret plan hatched to bring Gaddafi down.

As the Paris conference opened, Britain and France lost no time before planting their flags in the Libyan sand, determined to secure their share of the prize. The race for Libyan oil had begun. France asserted that it was “fair and logical” for its companied to benefit after the war. BP, a rival, was already holding private talks with members of  the Transitional Council of Libya. And the council had to deny reports of a secret deal under which French companies would control more than a third of Libya’s oil production. It is a little premature to celebrate, though, for it is not known how soon and how fast the oil will start flowing again.

The role of Britain’s bombers from the sky and that of its special forces on the ground to help the anti-Gaddafi forces had been known for some time. Now, more has been revealed about the extent of military-intelligence planning at the highest levels in London to bring about Gaddafi’s downfall. According to leaks, Prime Minister Cameron set up a top-secret “Libya oil cell” to plot against Gaddafi as NATO embarked on its bombing campaign. The secret unit is said to have played a “crucial role” in blocking oil supplies to Tripoli while making sure that the rebels continued to receive fuel supplies unhindered. The plot was the “brain child” of the international development minister, Alan Duncan, an ex oil trader, who convinced the British Prime Minister and the National Security Council that Colonel Gaddafi would defeat the rebels unless they got access to oil and the colonel was deprived of it.

The Guardian disclosed how the plan was devised and executed. With strong backing from Prime Minister Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague, a select group of British officials and foreign intelligence service (MI6) officers was involved in the operation. Their task – to control the flow of oil in and out of Libya. For weeks prior to the fall of Tripoli, Gaddafi’s forces struggled to keep on the move, as his stocks of refined oil were exhausted. The rebels were getting supplies and trading Libyan oil and diesel freely.

In months and years to come, Prime Minister Cameron will face some tough scrutiny. For his international development minister, the prime mover behind the covert operation of regime change in Libya, has previously worked as a consultant with the Swiss oil firm Vitol. The minister also has close ties with the company’s chairman, Ian Taylor, a donor to the Conservative Party. Given Switzerland’s neutrality, how the authorities there view a Swiss firm’s involvement in the Libyan war is yet to be established.

Meanwhile, there are matters of more immediate curiosity. Human Rights Watch says it has discovered secret files buried deep in Gaddafi’s private offices. They contain evidence of how close the United Kingdom and the United States were to Gaddafi in the torture regime in the “war on terror” in the past decade; how previous animosities were forgotten; and how the United States used Libya for its torture program, transporting suspected militants for enhanced interrogation outside U.S. jurisdiction. The relationship between Britain and Libya became so close that Swedish, Dutch and Italian intelligence agencies used the services of MI6 to approach the Libyans for help in dealing with their own “terrorist suspects.” Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the Transitional Council of Libya, was Libya’s justice minister until his defection early this year.

Deepak Tripathi is the author of Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Potomac Books, Incorporated, Washington, D.C., 2011) and Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan (also Potomac, 2010). His works can be found at: and he can be reached

Deepak Tripathi is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. His works can be found at: and he can be reached at

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