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How did a Libyan man kidnapped in Tripoli end up facing trial in US custody?

December 15, 2022 at 12:21 pm

Some of the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 after it crashed onto the town of Lockerbie in Scotland, on 21st December 1988. [Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images]

On 12 December, Libyan citizen Abu Agila Muhammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, 74, appeared in a federal court in Washington D.C., accused of helping blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on 21 December, 1988, Killing 270 people of 21 nationalities.

Mas’ud’s story began when a little after midnight on 16 November, four unmarked cars arrived at his house in the Abu Salim neighbourhood, south of the capital Tripoli. Half a dozen masked and armed men got out and surrounded the house while two forced their way inside. A woman inside the house started wailing loudly, and the entire neighbourhood came out to see what was happening, his nephew Abdel Moneim Al-Maryami and family spokesperson told MEMO. They took the ailing Mas’ud from his bed and shoved him into one of the cars. As the crowd grew outside, some men tried to stop the kidnapping but were threatened by the armed men, telling them, “do not move or we will shoot”, according to Mas’ud’s son, Essam. Abdel Moneim shared that relatives told the small crowd: “Hajj Mas’ud will be safe and home soon.”

Mas’ud, a former Libyan intelligence officer with explosives expertise, faces decades in a US jail if convicted for his alleged role in the Lockerbie bombing. He was first indicted in 2020, when then-US Attorney General William Barr announced the indictment of Mas’ud. Barr stated that this “breakthrough” after three decades came when US law enforcement received word from Libyan militias in 2016 that Mas’ud had told a Libyan law enforcement officer in September 2012 that he had built the bomb that destroyed the doomed flight.

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Back in September 2011, when Tripoli fell to NATO-supported rebels, Mas’ud was kidnapped and imprisoned. By the time Muammar Gaddafi’s government collapsed in October 2011, plunging Libya into chaos, he was juggled between three locations before being taken to a jail in Misrata, east of Tripoli, in 2012. In October, 2014, he was transferred back to Al-Hadba prison, south of Tripoli. Later he was convicted of making car bombs used by the Gaddafi government against the rebels. He served a ten-year sentence and was released last year.

Al-Hadba prison, housing dozens of top Gaddafi-era officials, was run by Khaled Sharif, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, designated by many countries as a terrorist organisation. In 2017, the prison was attacked by another militia called Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, forcing Sharif and his supporters to flee. Much of the building was destroyed, and all prisoners, including Mas’ud, were taken to different locations, while Sharif fled to Turkiye, where he now lives.

On the morning of 17 November, the day after Mas’ud was snatched, his sons and other relatives started their campaign to find his whereabouts. They went to the prime minister’s office, who had already promised to meet, shared Abdel Moneim. Hours passed before one of Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh’s aides told them that his boss was busy and could not meet but “would do whatever” to bring Mas’ud back. “They never told us who kidnapped him and why,” Abdel Moneim added.

They also visited different locations in Tripoli, including one prison south of the capital, trying in vain to find Mas’ud. A couple of days later, Essam and others met one of Libya’s prosecutor general’s assistants who denied any knowledge of what happened, but took their affidavit promising to find out – but he never got back to them. The desperate family continued their search in Tripoli, where it is usually difficult to find where a person is being held.

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Ten days later, Hisham received an anonymous phone call informing him that his father was in Misrata, held by another notorious militia known as the Joint Force, said to be loyal to Prime Minister Dbeibeh. On 24 November, the family visited Mas’ud and found him “in his usual condition,” Essam recounted. His father told his two daughters, two sons and wife that he was in good health and that nobody interrogated him in jail in Tripoli Street, Misrata. Essam later told MEMO that his father was told he was being kept there for his own safety. Essam also shared that his father was aware of the possibility of being handed over to the US. However, nobody explained to the family why their father was being held in the first place and who ordered his abduction.

At exactly 11:31, 11 December, 2022, some Pan Am Flight 103 families received an “urgent update” email from the Scottish authorities: “We write to provide you with an update on our efforts to prosecute Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi.” The message also stated: “The United States has obtained custody of Mas’ud.”

Earlier on 11 December, I was alerted that news about Mas’ud was coming. Shortly after, news broke that he had been kidnapped again, but this time in an “arranged” abduction. Abdel Moneim was shocked when I first told him the news. He told me the entire family had yet to hear.

The fact that the US law enforcement and State Department organised this abduction without any due legal process is scandalous for a country that never stops “preaching about the rule of law,” according to an anonymous legal expert. He added: “The victim (Mas’ud) should have been presented to a Libyan court to decide on his extradition.” But the kidnappers knew that any court would block his extradition because it is illegal, and the US and Libya have no agreement on extraditing suspects or convicts – so the kidnappers took the quick route of abduction.

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After his first abduction, the Justice Ministry and High Council of States issued separate statements about the abduction of Mas’ud and warned against handing him over to the US.

It is likely that Dbeibeh knew about the abduction, but only after it was over. He seemed to have agreed to the idea of handing Mas’ud over, but he was kept in the dark about the details. However, his foreign minister, US-educated Najla Mangoush, appeared open to extraditing him last year. The Presidency Council suspended her, and the enormous public outrage forced her to backtrack, denying that she ever discussed the fate of Mas’ud with anyone.

Mas’ud is due in court on 27 December, when he will officially be charged. In the meantime, the public in Libya is enraged and venting anger on social media. Dbeibeh and his government are yet to comment on what happened. A notable businessperson has already announced on Facebook that he will take care of all expenses relating to Mas’ud’s defence. Mas’ud’s family are receiving overwhelming public support across Libya while trying to adjust to their situation.

Over the last two weeks, all Libyan, US and Scottish relevant authorities have been asked to comment, but none have.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.