Terrorist for Sale?

As the British government scrambles to adopt a new get-tough policy on Libya, Andrew Neil details the growing evidence, despite promises to the U.S., of a terrorist-for-oil swap.

On Sunday night, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown confirmed that the U.K. will suddenly adopt a get-tough policy against the Gaddafi regime, supporting compensation claims made by IRA victims against the Libyan government for its role in arming the Irish terrorist group.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Last month, I reported that there was a growing body of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the British government, despite its official silence, had been less than neutral in its attitude toward the release of the only person convicted of the 1988 Pan Am terrorist attack over Lockerbie, Scotland: Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi.

“Across the world, there is little doubt that the British government is perceived as responsible for the Megrahi affair.”

That body of evidence has now turned into an avalanche, all of it indicating that the British government was actively seeking the release of al-Megrahi, despite firm commitments given to the U.S. government in 1998-99 that whomever was found guilty of the Lockerbie bombing would spend their lives in a Scottish jail. The British government’s stated official position—that al-Megrahi’s release was entirely a matter for Scotland’s devolved administration and that it had no view on the matter—is now increasingly untenable. Indeed, many will conclude it’s shot to shreds. Consider the following:

  • We now know that British Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who at the start of 2007 had originally opposed Megrahi being part of a prisoner-release agreement between Britain and Libya, had changed his mind by the end of 2007 and insisted he be included. Originally this was said to have nothing to do with trade or business. Now Straw admits that oil and other trade and investment matters played a “very big part” (Straw’s words) in Britain’s talks with Libya over Megrahi. He eventually told the Scottish administration in Edinburgh that Megrahi had to be part of the prisoner-release deal because of “wider considerations,” i.e. oil, trade, and business.
  • Straw’s U-turn seems to have been influenced by the lobbying of BP, the British oil giant that has so far gained most in the new era of good feelings between Britain and Libya. While Straw was still holding out against including Megrahi in the prisoner-exchange deal, BP’s agreement with Tripoli to explore for offshore oil hit the rocks. Straw then took two calls from BP’s special adviser, Mark Allen, a former head of counterterrorism at MI6, Britain’s CIA. As a spook, Allen had played a pivotal part in bringing Libya in from the cold in 2003-4, the process which converted the country from pariah rogue state to new friend of the West. Now with BP, Allen, whose contacts in Tripoli are unrivalled, made it clear that a deal worth a potential $25 billion was in jeopardy if the British government stood in the way of Megrahi’s release. Straw quickly made Megrahi part of the prisoner-release scheme—and the BP deal was back on track.
  • Straw originally claimed that the decision was his alone and that it did not involve Prime Minister Brown. But we now know that, in the course of his U-turn over Megrahi, Straw wrote a memo to Brown warning that excluding Megrahi from prisoner release might block the BP deal. Brown went along with his decision to include him. Straw has yet to explain why a justice minister, in making what should have been a purely legal decision, took calls from a BP lobbyist.
  • The British prime minister went further than that in cozying up to the Libyans. It wasn’t just Tripoli’s role in Lockerbie that was to be overlooked: so was Colonel Gaddafi’s role in arming the IRA with Semtex, a lethal explosive. It is thought that over 2,500 British families were victims of IRA terrorist atrocities involving Libyan-supplied bomb materials. Their lawyers have been pushing for Tripoli to provide compensation, in the same way it has for the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bomb. But they could not count on the support of the British prime minister—at least until a few hours ago. Brown wrote to one of their leading lawyers saying it was “not appropriate” to insist on compensation from Libya because there were wider trade and security matters to take into account. A separate letter from a junior British Foreign Office minister to the victims’ lawyers said the government would not pursue compensation because “Libya is now a vital partner for the U.K.” when it came to secure energy supplies and a “key partner” in the fight against terrorism.
  • Britain’s PM originally did nothing to secure justice for British victims of Libyan Semtex—at least until his flip-flop on Sunday—but he was keen, despite that promise to America that Megrahi serve his full sentence in a Scottish jail, to let the Libyans know that, though it was ultimately a matter for Scotland, he would be happy for him to return home. Libya’s minister for Europe has revealed that the British Foreign Office assured him that Brown did not want Megrahi “to die in a Scottish jail.”

So what does all this mean? There might have been no explicit “terrorism-for-trade” deal between London and Tripoli, but it is increasingly clear that London wanted Megrahi returned, despite that promise to Washington 10 years ago. A series of released documents show that the Foreign Office in London made it repeatedly clear to Edinburgh that there were no legal problems, as far as London was concerned, to Megrahi’s release. The idea that London was neutral in the matter is now unsustainable. The Sunday Telegraph, perhaps, sums up best what many Brits—and Americans—now feel about the whole sorry episode:

“Across the world, there is little doubt that the British government is perceived as responsible for the Megrahi affair. Diplomatic relations with America have been strained, because Britain has broken a promise given to the U.S. government that the Libyan would not be released before he had served his minimum sentence of 20 years. Worse, Britain is now identified with a policy of preferring money to justice, and being prepared to sell criminals in exchange for trade deals and concessions. That sets an ominous precedent.

“The government is now making the case for Megrahi's release by insisting that contracts with Libya—including BP's £545 million deal involving exploration for new oil reserves in that country—depended on it: not in the sense that there was a formal agreement with Libya stating ‘we free Megrahi and you give us the oil deal’, but in the sense of an informal understanding that the one gesture would be reciprocated by the other.”

Nor does the Scottish administration come out well. It has wrapped itself in the Scottish flag and claimed Megrahi was released only because of the Scottish legal system’s supposedly unique capacity for “compassion.” Now we learn that the Scottish government had been lobbied not just by the British business group eager to increase ties with Libya but by the government of Qatar, the gas-rich state from which Scotland is hoping to raise capital investment for infrastructure. Scottish papers are also reporting that Scotland’s somewhat self-righteous justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, was worried about terrorist attacks if Megrahi died in his Scottish cell.

Think it can’t get worse? Oh yes it can. It has now been revealed that three of the doctors who opined that Megrahi had only three months to live were not just paid by Libya but were encouraged by Tripoli to say three months—because that’s when so-called compassionate release can click in under Scottish law. Doctors had previously given him up to 10 months or more.

I began this piece by saying it was hard to know where to begin. But this would seem a suitably sorry point at which to end—at least for now.

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.