Libya militia held Lockerbie suspect before handover to U.S.

Analysts said the Tripoli-based government responsible for Mas’ud’s handover was likely seeking US goodwill and favor amid the power struggles in Libya.

Four Libyan security and government officials with direct knowledge of the operation made the trip that ended with Mas’ud in Washington.

The officials said it started when he was being taken from his home in the Abu Salim neighborhood of Tripoli. He was transferred to the coastal city of Misrata and eventually handed over to American agents who flew him out of the country, they said.

The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Many said the United States had been pushing for months to hand over Mas’ud.

“Every time they communicated, Abu Agila was on the agenda,” one official said.

In Libya, many questioned the legality of how he was picked up, just months after his release from a Libyan prison, and sent to the U.S. Libya and the U.S. do not have a standing agreement on extradition, so there was no no obligation at hand. Mas’ud over there.

The White House and the Justice Department declined to comment on the new details of Mas’ud’s transfer. US officials have said privately that they believe it was a by-the-book extradition through a normal court process.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with information regulations, said Saturday that Mas’ud’s transfer was legal and described it as the culmination of years of cooperation with Libyan authorities.

Libya’s chief prosecutor opened an investigation following a complaint from Mas’ud’s family. But for nearly a week after the US announcement, the Tripoli government was silent, and there had been rumors for weeks that Mas’ud had been kidnapped and sold by a militia.

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After a public outcry in Libya, the Tripoli-based country’s prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, admitted on Thursday that his government had handed over Mas’ud. In the same speech, he also said that Interpol had issued a warrant for Mas’ud’s arrest. A spokesman for Dbeibah’s government did not respond to calls and messages seeking further comment.

On December 12, the US Department of Justice said it had requested that Interpol issue a warrant for him.

After the fall and killing of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in a civil war insurgency in 2011, Mas’ud, an explosives expert for the Libyan intelligence service, was detained by a militia in western Libya. He spent 10 years in prison in Tripoli for crimes related to his job during Gadhafi’s rule.

He was released in June after completing his sentence. After his release, he was under constant surveillance and barely left the family home in the Abu Salim district, a military official said.

The neighborhood is controlled by the Stability Support Authority, an umbrella militia led by warlord Abdel-Ghani al-Kikli, closely allied with Dbeibah. Al-Kikli has been accused by Amnesty International of being involved in war crimes and other serious rights violations over the past decade.

After Mas’ud was released from prison, the Biden administration stepped up extradition demands, Libyan officials said.

At first, the Dbeibah government, one of two rival administrations that claim to rule Libya, was reluctant, citing concerns about political and legal repercussions, an official at the prime minister’s office said.

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The official said that US officials continued to raise the issue with the Tripoli-based government and the warlords they were dealing with in the fight against Islamic militants in Libya. With the pressure mounting, the prime minister and his aides decided in October to hand Mas’ud over to American authorities, the official said.

Dbeibah’s mandate remains highly contested after the planned elections failed last year.

“It is indicative of a wider campaign being run by Dbeibah, which is basically giving gifts to states of influence,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He said Dbeibah had to do favors to help him stay in power.

More than a decade after Gadhafi’s death, Libya remains chaotic and lawless, with militias still controlling large swaths of territory. The country’s security forces are weak, compared to local militias, with whom Dbeibah’s government is allied to some extent. To arrest Mas’ud, the government of Dbeibah asked al-Kikli, who also has a formal position in the government.

The prime minister discussed Mas’ud’s case at a meeting in early November with al-Kikli, according to an employee of the Stability Support Authority briefed on the matter. After the meeting, Dbeibah informed US officials of his decision, agreeing to make the move within weeks in Misrata, where his family has influence, a government official said.

Then came the raid in mid-November, which the officers described.

Militia entered Mas’ud’s bedroom and arrested him, transporting him blindfolded to a detention center run by the SSA in Tripoli. He was there for two weeks before being assigned to another militia in Misrata, called the Joint Force, which reports directly to Dbeibah. It is a new paramilitary unit formed as part of a militia network that supports it.

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In Misrata, Libyan officials questioned Mas’ud in the presence of US intelligence officials, said a Libyan official briefed on the matter. Mas’ud has refused to answer questions about his alleged role in the Lockerbie attack, including the content of an interview the United States says he gave to Libyan authorities in 2012 in which he admitted to being the bomb maker. He argued that his detention and extradition are illegal, the official said.

In 2017, US officials obtained a copy of a 2012 interview in which they said Mas’ud admitted to building the bomb and working with two other conspirators to carry out the attack on the Pan Am plane. According to an FBI affidavit filed in the case, Mas’ud said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Gadhafi later thanked him and other members of the team.

Some have questioned the legality of Mas’ud’s transfer, given the role of informal armed groups and the lack of official extradition procedures.

Harchaoui, the analyst, said Mas’ud’s extradition shows the US is acquiescing in what it has described as lawless behavior.

“What the foreign states are doing is saying we don’t care how the sausage is made,” he said. “We’re getting things we like.”

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