Scotland’s devolved government is now reeling from the vehemence of the opposition—from the White House to its own backyard—which has greeted its decision to free the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. The Scottish Parliament has been recalled from its summer recess to meet in emergency session in Edinburgh Monday. But increasingly attention is moving away from Edinburgh to London and the exact role of the British government in facilitating the Lockerbie bomber’s release. And here we enter very murky waters indeed.
Privately, Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, says he was in no doubt London wanted Megrahi returned to Tripoli.
Nobody has yet proved that the British government struck a deal with Tripoli—the return of the bomber for lucrative contracts with the oil-rich Libyans—but the circumstantial evidence that something was going on behind the scenes is growing daily. There is a bad smell in London that no amount of official spin can dissipate—and the cast of characters that might have been involved in any deal would not be out of place in a Bond movie.
• The Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove: The Man Who Freed the BomberTwo British prime ministers, the son of the Libyan dictator, a Russian oligarch, the scion of a European banking dynasty, a prince of the Realm, a leader of Big Oil and Britain’s very own “Prince of Darkness”—all have at least walk on parts, if not more, in events that preceded the release of the Lockerbie bomber, supposedly on compassionate grounds (because he is apparently dying of prostate cancer).
The man at the center of this web of intrigue is Saif Gaddafi, the shaven-headed son of the Libyan dictator. Turns out this graduate of the London School of Economics is a good friend of Oleg Deripaska, the Russian aluminum baron, and Nat Rothschild, of the eponymous banking dynasty. Saif invited both to his 37th birthday party in June in Becici in Montenegro, into which Deripaska and Rothschild have poured around $1 billion to create a sort of St. Tropez in the Balkans. Saif is also pumping Libyan money into Montenegro—reason enough for Rothschild last year to host a party in his honor in New York.
What’s all this got to do with the Lockerbie bomber? Enter Lord Peter Mandelson, Britain’s secretary of State for Business, the most powerful man in London after Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a politician so steeped in the dark arts of spin that he almost revels in his “Prince of Darkness” moniker. Despite his Labour politics, Mandelson loves the company of the rich and famous and numbers Deripaska and Rothschild as friends.
Last August he visited Rothschild in his $60 million estate in Corfu, Greece and stayed on Deripaska’s luxury yacht. This August he stayed at the Rothschild villa—and met Saif Gaddafi. Mandelson claims the meeting was only “fleeting” but admits they did discuss the Lockerbie case. A week later it became public that the bomber might be released on “compassionate” grounds. It was then revealed that Mandelson had previously met Saif at a reception in London in May.
As Business secretary, Mandelson is obviously keen on drumming up opportunities for British trade and business. And as the favored son of the Libyan dictator, Saif was keen to be seen to be doing everything he could to get the bomber back. He turned up in Glasgow on the private jet which whisked him back to Tripoli and in a taped TV interview during the flight Saif, whose name means “Sword of Islam,” assured the now-free bomber that “in all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain, Megrahi was always on the table.”
He has been “on the table” for some time. In 2004 Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to a tent outside Tripoli to do his so-called “deal in the desert” with Colonel Gaddafi which led to a broad rapprochement with Libya, a significant part of which was a prisoner transfer agreement which Gaddafi always saw as a means of bringing back Megrahi. Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, has continued the schmoozing of Gaddafi, even welcoming him to a recent G8 summit.
Business contacts have increased: Lord John Browne, then boss of BP and a key Blair confidant, had numerous meetings with Colonel Gaddafi which culminated in a $1 billion oil deal in 2007. But the really big deals still eluded Britain and the Libyans were angry that Megrahi remained in captivity.
After all, Tripoli had made it clear repeatedly, at a number of influential levels, that they wanted Megrahi back. As part of the British charm offensive Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son who acts as Britain’s special trade representative, has visited Libya three times in the past year (as well as visiting the Deripaska-Rothschild resort in Monenegro). Saif has gone out of his way to befriend the prince (who was due to make a fourth visit this year until the Libyans proved a tad too enthusiastic in welcoming back Megrahi). It is inconceivable that Saif did not press Andrew on the matter.
Libyan impatience turned to anger. When the Swiss arrested Saif’s younger brother Hannibal for allegedly beating his staff, Colonel Gaddafi cut off oil supplies to Switzerland and withdrew billions of dollars from its banks. The Swiss retreated with a groveling apology. The British, perhaps, saw it as a sign of what could happen to them if they didn’t move faster on Megrahi.
The British government has maintained throughout that Megrahi’s release was a matter for the devolved Scottish judicial system. But, privately, Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, says he was in no doubt London wanted Megrahi returned to Tripoli. A letter from a junior Foreign Office minister in London to the Scottish government encouraging it to “consider” his release has been leaked. No serious observer of British politics believes that London would leave such a sensitive foreign policy matter purely to Edinburgh.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has maintained a curious omerta on the matter, not even venturing a view on whether his native Scotland was right to return Megrahi. Colonel Gaddafi has been more explicit: on Megrahi’s return he went out of his way to thank not just Scotland but the British government. Oh yes, and Saif has just bought a $20 million house in fashionable Hampstead, North London.
So all is now hunky-dory between London and Tripoli now the bomber is back in the bosom of his family. But at what price for Britain’s reputation for plain, honest dealing with dictators and resolution against terrorism? Lockerbie, after all was the worst ever terrorist atrocity in British history—and Megrahi was the only one ever found guilty of it.
Andrew Neil is a publisher and broadcaster working out of London, New York, Dubai, and the south of France. He is chairman and editor in chief of Press Holdings Media Group, publishers of The Spectator, Spectator Business, and Apollo.