Tuesday, Aug. 25, after a thunderous five-day silence in the face of a storm of protest at the release of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally had only this to say:
“When I met Colonel Gaddafi over the summer (July 2009), I made it absolutely clear to him that we had no role in making the decision about Megrahi’s future.”
In 2001, the Libyan secret service agent was convicted of involvement in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over the village of Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988 killing 270 people, including eleven on the ground. Al Megrahi, the only perpetrator brought to book, was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Brown went on to say: “Because it was a matter legislated for by the Scottish Parliament and not by us, it was a matter over which we could not interfere and had no control over the final outcome.”
The Prime Minister stressed he was “angry and repulsed” by the hero's welcome that greeted Megrahi on his return to Libya.
Brown was under extreme pressure to comment on the Scottish decision of Thursday, Aug. 20 to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The bomber was said to be dying of terminal cancer. Although foreign secretary David Miliband condemned the scenes of jubilation which greeted the Lockerbie bomber's arrival in Tripoli, he and other ministers declined to comment directly on the case or the charges that it came down to British-Scottish-Libyan oil and gas interests.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources reveal five hidden factors and considerations behind the decision to ship Megrahi home to die:
UK Secret Service: Don't let him be used as a shahid
1. Britain feared his death in prison would trigger a wave of Islamic terror.
2. London is sensitive about its handling of terror prisoners and detainees and how it compares with US president Barack Obama's decisions regarding the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and its inmates. The charges leveled against US Central Intelligence Agency of abusing prisoners during interrogation were also a factor in the decision. The UK wanted to show it is more humane.
3. British leaders are actively involved in the struggle to succeed Col. Muamar Qaddafi as ruler of Libya between his two sons Saif al-Islam and Moatassem-Billal.
4. A British-Russian group of magnates is pulling strings in the Libyan succession race to gain an edge in the competition for Libya's lucrative oil and gas business.
5. Prime Minister Brown and his foreign secretary, David Miliband, were ready to risk their political necks in a desperate bid to cover up the shortcomings of Britain's undercover agencies, especially the MI6 Secret Service, in the Megrahi episode.
Jonathan Evans, Director General of the MI5 Security Service, and Sir John Scarlett, head of MI6, warned Brown and Miliband that the prisoner, Mohammad Al Megrahi, had less than three months to live from an advanced case of prostate cancer and must not be allowed to die in a British jail, a prognosis which some now suspect was exaggerated to get him quickly off British soil
His death in prison would inspire Muslim extremists in the UK and abroad, including al Qaeda – they explained in meetings at 10 Downing Street between May and June at 10 – to declare him a shahid and call for revenge.
At least four terrorist detainees are known to have succeeded in killing themselves in Guantanamo. This information is classified so there may have been more. But none are known to have died of natural causes in a Western prison since the 9/11 attacks on America, so Islamist groups would make a big deal of Megrahi's death in Scotland.
Qaddafi would hold the Brits responsible for his death
Furthermore, they argued, although he was a member of the Libyan security service which combats al Qaeda at home, Megrahi was nevertheless the only Muslim to have blown up an American airliner flying from London's Heathrow to JFK in New York. This feat has eluded al Qaeda despite several attempts. The innate contradiction of glorifying an enemy agent as a Muslim martyr would be resolved by claiming he had found his true religious bent during his eight years of incarceration. Jihadis would be encouraged to emulate his feat by re-enacting the Pan-Am explosion.
The last plot to blow up planes bound from London to New York for “mass murder on an unimaginable scale” was thwarted three years ago in August 2006. It entailed the mid-Atlantic detonation of explosive devices planted in liquid containers and smuggled aboard ten airliners in hand luggage. Should Megrahi die in August, the intelligence chiefs warned Brown, Islamist terrorists would tie his death to the anniversary and, failing access to airports, celebrate it by striking English and Scottish targets elsewhere on UK soil.
Qaddafi too would not pass up the chance of holding Her Majesty's government responsible for the bomber's death while in its custody. The two intelligence chiefs said he was capable of accusing the British authorities of deliberately neglecting to treat Megrahi's illness so as to expedite his demise.
The Libyan ruler, a generally unpredictable individual, is known to have a serious bone to pick with the Brown government over what he sees as unacceptable meddling in the infighting between his two sons over the succession.
For Qaddafi, the issue is settled, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report.
He decided earlier this year to pass over his eldest son, Saif al-Islam, and anoint his fourth son, Moatassem-Billal, the next ruler of Libya. He deeply resents British scheming to upset his decision, especially after he sealed it by sending his chosen successor to Washington to introduce himself to the Obama administration as heir apparent.
On April 21, secretary of state Hillary Clinton not only received Moatassem-Billal in her bureau, but posed with him for photos at the entrance to her office against the background of the American and Libyan flags. This must have been one of the oddest photo-ops in diplomatic history, but for Qaddafi it counted as the US administration's endorsement of his choice of successor.
The dispossessed eldest son is sent into exile
Saif al-Islam had always taken it for granted that he was the Libyan dictator's heir and built an international banking and business empire on the strength of this assumption. To make sure his elder son was in no position to defy him, Qaddafi took the precaution in May of ordering him to go and live abroad for the next five years. Put bluntly, Saif al-Islam was exiled from Libya and forbidden to set foot at home until his younger brother was safely in the saddle, Qaddafi's way of telling the world that he planned to step down by 2014.
But this was not the end of the episode.
The Libyan ruler began to suspect that Saif al-Islam was plotting to reinstate himself as successor with the help of a group of British and Russian political and business VIPs with a stake in the dispossessed son's affairs. He believes UK undercover agencies are part of the conspiracy to overturn his choice of successor.
The names he links to this cabal include Prince Andrew, Duke of York, UK Secretary of State for Business Lord Mandelson, co-chairman of the Atticus Capital hedge fund Lord (Nathan) Rothschild, and Russian multibillionaire Oleg Deripaska (Vladimirovich Dyeripaska), who is CEO of the Basic Element company and CEO as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the RUSAL United Company, a Russian aluminum industry company.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, as the preparations for al-Megrahi's release in London and Edinburgh gathered momentum, Qaddafi became convinced that Lord Mandelson was using his close ties with prime minister Brown to make the Lockerbie bomber's early release a lever for helping the UK government and secret services restore the dispossessed Saif al-Islam to center stage in Libya.
Shoving the Sword of Islam down Qaddafi's throat
The Libyan ruler found his suspicions confirmed when he saw his eldest son boarding the Libyan plane which landed in Glasgow Thursday, Aug. 20, to collect Megrahi, although he had expressly ordered the flight crew to prevent him setting foot on the plane.
But the crew flouted the order because they were frightened to lay a hand on the dictator's eldest son.
Qaddafi had three and-a-half hours between the plane's takeoff from Scotland and its landing in Tripoli to decide how to react to what he saw as a conspiracy to reinstate Saif al-Islam against his wishes.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources report that his first decision was to arrange for crowds to turn out for a hero's welcome for the returned prisoner.
Megrahi and his family were then quickly separated from his eldest son and whisked over to Qaddafi's sumptuous palace-tent in Tripoli.
Realizing that Saif al-Islam would take over Megrahi's welcome and use it for his own triumphant return from exile, the Libyan dictator decided to punish its British stage-managers, especially Prime Minister Brown. The jubilation which greeted Megrahi deeply embarrassed Brown at home and cast him as the villain of the piece with the Obama administration.
Like Qaddafi, Washington is furious with the British prime minister and foreign secretary for deciding to let the Lockerbie bomber go free although most of the Pan-Am victims – 180 out of 270 – were Americans.
But US resentment runs still deeper.
Brown drops Britain's US partner
The US and Britain were partners in the secret negotiations of 2001 which culminated in the Libyan ruler accepting responsibility for the Lockerbie disaster, handing over to the Scottish authorities two suspects for trial (the second, Libyan agent Lamin Khalifa Fahimah was later acquitted) and forking out millions to indemnify the victims' families.
Eight years later, without a by-your-leave to its erstwhile US partner, the British government acted on its own bat for the bomber's release. In administration circles in Washington, it is strongly suspected that the Brits acted alone and in deep secrecy to beat their American competitors for lucrative contracts to develop Libyan oil and gas resources.
(BP has invested roughly $1 billion in oil and gas exploration and is supplying Tripoli with missiles and air defense systems under a 2007 deal.)
The Americans share Qaddafi's anger with Brown for acting independently of the US in mobilizing select government-backed business interests to push Saif al-Islam to the top of the Libyan succession tree, four months after the Obama administration endorsed Moattasem Billal.
With all these competing interests at stake, the storm surrounding el-Megrahi is not expected to die down any time soon, especially as the Libyan ruler is intent on keeping the ailing Megrahi close beside him at every important public function covered by international media to keep the storm in the West roiling.
The next big day on Qaddafi's calendar is Sept 1, when a huge celebration for which a vast stadium has been built in Tripoli will honor him on the 40th anniversary of the coup which overthrew King Idris and brought him to power.
Everyone who is anyone is invited to the event, including Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
As head of the African Union, he has ordered every head of state on the continent to put in an appearance.
As a gesture of goodwill, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is not only attending but will contribute the Italian air force's aerobatic squad for an air show.
Two individuals not invited to the party are sure to be Saif al-Islam and the Duke of York, Prince Andrew.