As Muammar Qaddafi’s eldest son and one-time heir apparent Saif al-Islam, 39, escaped into the desert, he left behind a trail of questions about his actions during the last days of his father's life.
At present, this quintessential survivor is believed to be on his way to Niger, just south of Libya. One of his brothers Sadi and a group of Qaddafi loyalists are already there, guided to safety through the sand ocean by the ever-faithful Tuareg tribesmen.
Their destination was confirmed Tuesday, Oct. 25 by Rissa ag Boula, an adviser to Niger's president and an elected member of the regional council of the northern Nigerien town of Agadez. He too is a Tuareg who once led a rebellion against the Niger government that was said to be funded by Qaddafi.
Boula said he was in touch with Saif al-Islam's guides. With him too is another wanted man, Qaddafi's former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.
The Tuareg fought to keep Qaddafi in power. When Tripoli fell to the rebels, they helped the ruler's close family and generals reach safety in Niger.
"If he comes here, the government will accept him, but the government will also need to respect its international obligations. It's up to him to decide whether to stay on the run or come to Niger," Boula said.
The Hellfire missile hit Qaddafi, missed Saif al Islam
To misdirect the pursuit, the Khartoum-based al-Intibaha owned by Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir’s uncle al-Tayeb Mustafa was persuaded to report Monday, Oct. 24 that Saif and a party of government officials had crossed into Sudan from Chad and were sheltering in Darfur with the anti-Khartoum rebels of Ibrahim Khalil's Justice and Equality Movement.
By then, the Libyan fugitives were heading in the opposite direction, although this does not mean they won't turn up in Darfur at some stage.
Not too far away, units of Qaddafi's old intelligence agents are still around in the Libyan-Chad border region, available to aid pro-Qaddafi groups. But Qaddafi's defeat and death leave them with the options of surrendering to one of the militias of the National Transitional Council ruling Libya as an interim government, or staying at large among the random armed groups loose in this border region which crisscrosses the Sahara.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources disclose that Saif al-Islam, coming from Bani Walid, joined the massive convoy of 95 armored vehicles that spirited his father and younger brother Mutassim out of Sirte on Thursday, Oct. 20. Its size was intended to cover their flight.
The convoy split into eight small columns to confuse the hunt. More than 6,000 miles away, in Las Vegas, American Predator drone operators sitting before their computer screens homed in on the group of vehicles carrying Qaddafi, Mutassim and former defense minister Abu Bakr Younis, and released a Hellfire missile to destroy it, followed by a French air strike.
Seriously wounded, the former dictator was finally shot dead on the streets of Misratah along with his son. After his and Mutassim's bodies were on public view for three days, Muammar Qaddafi, 69, and Mutassim, 34, were buried in unmarked desert graves.
NATO had known Qaddafi's secret address for weeks
Saif al Islam who traveled in a different part of the convoy escaped unscathed.
Our sources report that the pilots in Las Vegas were able to identify their target because it had been closely watched for weeks. In fact, the Western intelligence agencies involved in the NATO operation in Libya, knew exactly where Muammar Qaddafi was hiding out from early September,. The last weeks of his life were spent in a large bunker under a house in Sirte.
Small knots of American CIA and British MI6 Secret Service operatives kept the premises surrounded to prevent his escape. French Rafale fighter jets held the house under round-the-clock surveillance.
That is why this building alone came clean out of the blanket bombing which blasted the rest of the town.
It was the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence service, which gave the CIA the first precise tipoff of Qaddafi's hideout despite the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel had consistently opposed Berlin's participation in the Libyan war.
Monday, October 24, a German intelligence source offered this description of the critical finale of the uprising against the Qaddafi regime:
“Agents within the BND have a long tradition of cultivating sources in the Middle East, and managed to determine where the fallen dictator had hidden himself from revolutionary forces. But the organization has not delivered any geodata that could have led to a targeted strike being shared. Still, it appears that NATO forces had a clear idea of Qaddafi’s location.”
So much for the Western players' side of the story.
Qaddafi died believing he was betrayed by someone close
Qaddafi's side was naturally quite different: Our intelligence sources report that in the first week of October, when Qaddafi realized he had been run to ground by the US and NATO, he started negotiating terms for his escape to another African country with the Al-Salabi brothers Ali and Ismail, heads of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood in Tripoli. He offered them all the money and gold still in his possession.
His son Sadi, by then in Niger, acted as his father's liaison – and not for the first time. Early September, just before the battles of Sirte and Bani Walild, Sadi established continuous contact with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the new Tripoli strongman, ex-al Qaeda Abdulhakim Belhaj.
Those exchanges were kept secret, whereas in October they were no longer concealed. Qaddafi, realizing Western intelligence had cornered him and had him under surveillance, threw caution to the winds. Abandoning the obsessive precautionary measures he had observed in recent years, he conversed with his contacts in and outside Libya by satellite phone, aware that every word was recorded and picked apart by his besiegers.
Repeated phone calls to his Sirte hideout from Saif al-Islam in Bani Walid made Qaddafi's suspicious about the game his eldest son was playing and finally convinced him his hideout was blown.
From the conversations recorded in his bunker, it is clear that Qaddafi believed he was betrayed by a party or parties close to him. He bitterly held the traitor responsible for his downfall.
Saif hatched the Megrahi plot
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that Muammar Qaddafi never trusted his eldest son, Saif al-Islam. In the early stages of the Libyan uprising, he let Saif pose before the media, diplomats and intelligence agencies as his right hand, spokesman and heir apparent. While never granting him any of these positions, the ruler decided that using the network of ties and contacts Saif had built up in the West could do no harm and might do some good.
Saif al-Islam established that network during his virtual exile. In 2008, DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed that Qaddafi had thrown him out of Libya and kept him at arm's length in London, where lavish funding allowed him to live the life of a playboy tycoon – so long as the did not come home.
Qaddafi had in fact selected his fourth son, Mutassim, as his heir apparent. He sent him to Washington on April 21, 2009, to be introduced to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as his chosen successor. Through diplomatic channels, Qaddafi asked the Obama administration to endorse Mutassim in this role.
Saif al-Islam meanwhile pressed his new political and affluent friends in the West to the task of cajoling his father into relenting.
When that didn't work, they helped him hatch a plan for getting him reinstated in Tripoli.
In November 2009, Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi was released from a Scottish prison and allowed to go home to Libya. This former Libyan agent was sentenced to life in jail by a Scottish court for the bombing of Pan Am 103 in December 1988, in which 270 people, mostly American citizens, were killed over the Scottish village of Lockerbie. He was freed on the grounds that he was dying of cancer and had only three months to live.
Muammar Qaddafi's move from the desert to Sirte cost him his life
He made his triumphal return home on Nov. 2, 2009 hand in hand with Saif al-Islam. In those circumstances, there was no way Muammar Qaddafi could prevent his son setting foot in Libya.
That moment is seen from a historical perspective as the first step on the road to Qaddafi's fall under the rebel wheels driven by NATO. His surrender to Saif's machinations was the first sign of weakness his enemies had detected in 42 years of iron rule – even though his younger brother Mutassim continued to be cherished as heir apparent.
And Thursday, Oct. 20, in the last hours of his life, Qaddafi kept Mutassim at his side. The slippery Saif was somewhere else.
In the third week of August, when Muammar Qaddafi fled Tripoli ahead of the rebel offensive facilitated by British, Qatari, Jordanian and French special forces, his first destination was not Sirte but a desert oasis in southern Libya.
Saif did not accompany him. He made his own way to Bani Walid which was still in government hands.
On Aug. 23, Saif popped up like a conjurer before the foreign media stranded by the fighting at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, asserting his father was still in the capital running the fight against the rebels who had suffered heavy losses. "We control the capital," he said, before melting away as suddenly as he appeared.
After that, he was never again seen in public. But Western intelligence knew he was constantly on the move, zipping back and forth in armored convoys between Bani Walid, Sirte, Zintan and his father's desert sanctuary.
According to our sources, on Aug. 27, he sought his father out to persuade him to move over to Sirte as his only safe option. Muammar Qaddafi was won over by his eldest son. Moving back to his tribal home of Sirte a few days later was the deposed dictator's biggest mistake. It cost him and his chosen heir their lives.
Saif al-Islam is on the run – but still alive.