‘Libya’s institutions are becoming weaker,’ analyst says after suspected Lockerbie bomber arrest4 min read
The suspected bombmaker of the explosives that downed Pan Am flight 103 — en route from London to New York — over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, is now in US custody. The US Department of Justice said that Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir al-Marimi will make his initial appearance in the US District Court in Washington, DC, though no date is set yet.
For the view from inside Libya and how Mas’ud came to now be in the US, The World’s host Marco Werman spoke with Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in Paris, where he focuses on North Africa and Libya.
Marco Werman: Who had control of Mas’ud and why did they turn him over?
Jalel Harchaoui: It was actually a series of armed groups, very personalized armed groups, working for the prime minister, [Abdul Hamid al-] Dbeibeh. So, it wasn’t really the Libyan state. The attorney general actually called the entire process extrajudicial, or “illegal,” actually, to use his word. So, what happened was really a personal initiative of the individual that happens to be the prime minister in Tripoli, Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibah, his nephew, Ibrahim, and a few armed groups that work for them.
And what was their interest in handing him over now?
Well, we are basically deep in a very quid pro quo kind of logic. This prime minister, as we were talking about, his term expired a year ago. And he’s very much interested in staying in power. And he knows, apparently — that’s his gamble, his wager — that if he gives a valued gift to a nation, a powerful nation by the name of the United States of America, he will be able to survive a little bit longer in power. That is the logic at play here.
So, back up a bit and help us understand the political situation today in Libya under which [Abu Agila Mohammad] Mas’ud [Kheir al-Marimi] was handed over to the US. I mean, since 2012 and the death of longtime strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has basically been in various states of upheaval. What is the current situation with the civil war and competing governments in Libya?
Well, there’s no hot war. There’s no major exchange of fire. The situation is relatively calm and it has been for two and a half years, really. The issue right now is the political crisis, corruption, the absence of elections. As you said, the the elections that were slated to happen in December 2021 collapsed. And there’s no real UN process. The UN is just trying to, kind of, revive this notion of elections, but you basically have two prime ministers. One in Tripoli, the one that we just mentioned, and another one, a rival aligned with Field Marshal [Khalifa] Haftar by the name of Fathi Bashagha in the city of Sirte. So, those two prime ministers are basically staring at each other and each one is interested in surviving, particularly Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh in Tripoli, because that’s where the institutions are, that’s where the bank is, that’s where the money is, the ability to sign contracts. So, the stakes are quite high.
And does the handing over of Mas’ud to US custody tell us anything about where things are headed politically in Libya?
Well, I think the way I interpret it is that the institutions are becoming obviously weaker and weaker. The process that we have been discussing, you and I, is completely informal. It’s completely outside of the justice system from a Libyan perspective. And so, this means that both the Libyan elites and foreign states, including the United States, accept a de facto situation where institutions don’t really matter. It’s just about who you speak to, you know, if you’re friends with a particular armed group and the armed group happens to give you something useful, you accept the gift and you move on. So, this institutional weakening is very alarming in many regards.
What does the handing over of Mas’ud to US officials mean for most Libyans?
It means that it’s going to be effectively two Libyas, right? Because the US also has partners in the East who happen to be the enemies of the prime minister in Tripoli. The US is happy to deal with both Libyas. So, this de facto partition is probably going to continue. Actually, I believe that it will continue deepening. And there’s no real process to fix this whole thing and turn it back into a unitary state.
Jalel, back up a bit. How did the Lockerbie bombing impact Libya?
I would summarize it by saying that the sanctions imposed by the UN in 1992 really had a huge effect on Gaddafi. He actually stopped supporting a lot of the terror activities that he was known to support in the ’70s, in the ’80s. So, all of that kind of stopped in the ’90s, and beginning in the late ’90s, he was actually quite sincerely interested in coming back out from the cold and get into the Western world, be accepted among Western nations, which began happening in earnest in December 2003, when the George W. Bush administration struck a deal with Gaddafi on weapons of mass destruction. And he was able to kind of continue that momentum. And he really believed that he succeeded. By the late 2000s, he was actually part of the Western club. And that was just a few years before the intervention that toppled him in 2011. So, I would say that it’s probably, like all Libyans have a strong opinion about the Lockerbie event and they all remember the consequences that it had on their lives.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.
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