The third Lockerbie bombing suspect currently facing trial in the United States was reportedly flown out of Libya by US agents “against his will” on a private jet to Malta after he had been kidnapped by militia groups who handed him over to US operatives.
From Malta, he was then controversially extradited to the United States.
Mohammed Abouagela Masud appeared in court in Washington DC on Monday charged with having set the timer for the bomb that took down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people on 21 December 1988 as it was en route from Frankfurt to New York .
The bomb had been loaded into the system at Malta International Airport by Libyan operatives.
The Guardian is citing Libyan officials with knowledge of the case saying that on around 1 December Masud had been flown out of Libya to Malta by US agents “against his will” – in a déjà vu of the extraordinary rendition flights the Maltese government had allowed to stop over in Malta on multiple occasions back in 2005 and 2006.
Before being forcibly flown to Malta, the same officials tell The Guardian that Masud had been seized from his home in Tripoli on 17 November by forces linked to infamous Libyan militia commander Abdel Ghani al-Kikli. He was then handed over to another militia group that held him for two weeks before transferring him to US government agents as a “gift”.
Masud had been serving a 10-year prison sentence in Libya up until six months ago for crimes committed while serving as an intelligence operative under Moammar Gaddafi.
“He was basically a free man. He was just at home. There was no warrant out for him or anything of that nature. The Americans knew this of course,” one Libyan official told The Guardian.
After being abducted, Masud was transferred to a heavily armed paramilitary unit called the Joint Force in the port city of Misrata. The force was set up a year ago by Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh as a personal guard. It is described as “very well-armed, small, very nasty and able to get things done”.
Masud’s nephew Abdulmenam Marimi told Reuters this week that the family only learned he had been transferred to the US from the media.
Masud was taken in a ‘lawful manner’ – Washington
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan insisted at a press briefing on Monday that Masud had been brought to the US “in a lawful manner, according to established procedures”.
Libya and the US do not have a bilateral extradition agreement and American authorities did not disclose how he was arrested.
Masud’s arrest stoked anger against Dbeibah’s Government of National Unity (GNU), but the US Ambassador in Tripoli, Richard Norland, stressed the US respects the country’s sovereignty and that the operation had been conducted according to legal procedures.
Libyan Interim Prime Minister of the Government of National Stability on Tuesday, however, demanded Masud’s release, questioning the way he was transferred to the US, via Malta.
“My question directed to the American administration is how…he reached Washington,” he told a local Libyan television channel.
“What we think is that he was kidnapped. Of course, this is outside the legal, judicial and legitimacy framework, and this is something I reject and do not recognize. At all.”
The High Council of State said it held Dbeibah’s government “legally, morally and historically” responsible for “shamefully” turning over Masud to American authorities.
It called on the presidential council, parliament and general prosecutor to take the necessary measures to end such meddling in Libyan affairs and urged the country’s security agencies to clarify how Masud “disappeared and was turned over to the US”.
The Union of Libyan Tribes on Tuesday also called for protests against Washington’s “heinous criminal behaviour” against a Libyan national.
It demanded that the general prosecution bring to justice all people complicit in “treason, collaborating with foreign intelligence and undermining national sovereignty.”
Libyan outrage and demands for investigations
88 members of the Libyan House of Representatives have meanwhile called on the Presidency to hold an emergency session, saying in a statement that, “Handing over Masud and reopening Lockerbie file was a high treason”.
“We called on the Public Prosecutor to investigate, and local and international measures must be taken to return Masud safe to his family.”
The heads of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees of the Libyan Parliament – Talal al-Mihoub and Youssef al-Aqouri – also called for an urgent investigation into the extradition.
In a joint statement, they said they considered Masud’s extradition a blatant violation of national sovereignty and an infringement of the rights of the Libyan citizen.
They highlighted the Parliament’s refusal to reopen the file of the Lockerbie case, pointing out that the case had been completely closed both politically and legally by the text of the agreement signed between the United States and Libya in 2003.
They affirmed that extradition was illegal since there was no extradition agreement with the United States and that Libyan sovereignty requires the accused be tried before the Libyan courts.
Masud’s US indictment
A newly unsealed US Justice Department indictment includes three charges related to the explosion including the destruction of an aircraft resulting in death. Prosecutors said in court they would not be pursuing the death penalty because that punishment was not available for those specific crimes at the time of the bombing.
A breakthrough in the Justice Department’s investigation came when US officials in 2017 received a copy of an interview that Masud, a longtime explosives expert for Libya’s intelligence service, had given to Libyan law enforcement in 2012 after being taken into custody in the wake of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.
US officials said that in that interview Masud admitted to building the bomb and working with two other conspirators to carry out the attack. He also said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Gaddafi thanked him and other members of the team after the attack, according to an FBI affidavit.
That affidavit said Masud told Libyan law enforcement that he flew to Malta to meet Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.
It said he handed Fhimah a medium-sized Samsonite suitcase containing a bomb, having already been instructed to set the timer so that the device would explode exactly 11 hours later, according to the document.
He then flew back to Tripoli, the FBI said in its indictment.