In a luxury hotel suite in downtown Tripoli, I sat across from Saif al Islam al Qaddafi, Libya’s heir apparent and the son of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
The handsome 37-year-old playboy had scored a major PR success with the release of the Lockerbie bomber the previous year. But now—battling early rumors—he was trying to convince me that there had been no “secret deal” between his government and the British.
“We worked very hard,” on the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. “But that doesn’t mean we made a secret deal with the British government," he said, touching the tips of his fingers together, leaning forward.
"We worked very hard…but that doesn’t mean we made a secret deal with the British government."
“That’s not true,” he said. “Please, say this to people.”
When we spoke this past spring, Qaddafi was adamant that rumors about any secret deal between his country and the Brits were spurious.
Such stories first emerged after the younger Qaddafi met with Lord Peter Mandelson, Labour’s first secretary of state, at the Corfu villa belonging to Qaddafi’s close friend, Nathaniel Rothschild last year.
Mandelson has since described the meeting as brief, but admitted that the subject of Megrahi “was raised.”
And earlier this month, BP confirmed it had lobbied the British government for the release of the man responsible for placing a bomb on Pan Am 103 in 1988, further stoking public anger against the oil giant, which is already in trouble because of how it has handled the oil spill in the Gulf.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has planned hearings for later this week to investigate any part BP may have played in the Lockerbie release.
The Libyans had been angling to get the convicted Lockerbie bomber out of prison for years. But there were only two legal ways to do so: one, include Megrahi in a Prisoner Transfer Agreement that allowed him to be brought back to Libya; or two, find grounds for his release on compassionate grounds, i.e. mortal illness.
According to Saif, the first was not an option. The British government had tried to keep Megrahi out of a previous deal involving the transfer of prisoners from the U.K. to Libya. As Qaddafi told me: “When the British said that we should mention his name [to disqualify him] in the Prison Transfer Agreement…we said no.”
The other way to get the prisoner released was his approaching death—which, officially at least, became the reason. Megrahi, diagnosed with cancer, was said to have only a short time left to live. However, a year after his release, he appears alive and well in Libya. But Libyans have dismissed allegations of foul play, noting that it was British doctors who diagnosed Megrahi. If Megrahi lives longer than expected, well, the West can take that up with God, not the Libyan government, Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, Libya's minister for Europe said last week.
The Lockerbie bomber’s release proved to be the younger Qaddafi’s greatest international triumph. It was he who flew home with Megrahi, after the bomber was released from his Scottish prison, receiving a hero’s welcome in Tripoli last year.
Of all six of his siblings, he is by far the most Western-media friendly. He has been cast as the New Face of Libya and holds a Ph.D. in comparative democracy from the London School of Economics. He’s never beaten up his servants, unlike his brother Hannibal. He’s never worn the kinds of crazy shiny outfits his other brother Moatassim wore to meet Hillary Clinton.
He has even dated an Israeli—not exactly comme il faut behavior among Arab leaders. But maybe this is a marriage made in heaven—Orly Weinerman is a soap opera star; Qaddafi considers himself a painter.
Lately he has been in the news for his role in challenging Israel’s blockade by sending the al-Amal—a ship called hope—to Gaza with 2,000 tons of relief supplies. After being surrounded by eight Israeli warships less than 30 miles off the contested coast, the al-Amal headed for port in neighboring Egypt.
But thanks to cooperation between the Egyptians and the Israelis, the foundation he heads, The Qaddafi Foundation, will contribute $50 million to the relief effort in Gaza.
“I challenge any Arab to say that he sent a single dollar, a single iron bar, or a single bag of cement to Gaza. Nothing has been sent to Gaza since the Israeli war against it in 2008—until now,” he said, claiming a moral victory.
Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity, will by published by FSG in August.