Libyan spies emerge from the shadows to talk about what it’s like to fight a secret war against ISIS. Borzou Daragahi travelled to the Mediterranean island of Malta for a rare meeting with the men who run the feared mukhabarat.
A pudgy, graying middle-aged man in a brown sweater vest sat quietly sipping tea in the hotel lobby. If you noticed him at all, you might have thought he was a businessman, or an engineer, maybe a mid-ranking civil servant. He frowned occasionally as he contemplated the messages on his smartphone.
He allowed a smile as two men approached. They greeted each other as old friends, exchanging embraces, asking after relatives. One of the men complained a little about the state of business in the region, and warned he might have to head off at some point: “My daughter has a ballet recital.”
The entourage moved to a darkly lit corner of the hotel, their voices dropping, sometimes to a whisper. They looked up with paranoid glares each time a waiter or hotel guest walked by. The three men knew they could never be too careful.
The newcomers were retired colleagues; the first, a balding man in his sixties, works for a charity that helps African migrants in Libya; the second, in his late forties, is a real estate developer, dividing his time between the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and Europe.
But this was no workaday meeting of middle-aged businessmen. The three men are operatives from one of the most feared institutions in the Middle East: Libya’s mukhabarat, or intelligence agency. Formed shortly after the Second World War, the mukhabarat has worked behind the scenes to monitor and manipulate Libya for decades. And they have now joined the war against ISIS, as well as al-Qaeda and loyalists to the former regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. They have made many, many enemies over the years.
“Extremists are extremists,” said the man in the sweater vest, a senior ranking official of the agency’s counter-terrorism division. “It doesn’t matter if they’re government militias, ISIS, or Qaddafi loyalists. In my focus, I target them all. Political extremists are all the same. And I want stability.”
Faced with the rising threat of ISIS, authorities in Tripoli have allowed the country’s dilapidated professional spy service to reassemble. In the last 18 months, the mukhabarat has begun to tighten its grip on security matters across much of the country. It has grown to much of its capacity under Qaddafi and is conducting investigations, running operations, and re-establishing ties with foreign intelligence agencies, including those of the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Italy, France, Malta, Spain, Turkey, Tunisia, Austria, Serbia, Jordan, and Morocco.
“The old channels are still there,” said the senior mukhabarat official. “Some embassy types are still in Tripoli. The French, Americans — all have assets in the city. We even give them permits to carry guns and have nondiplomatic license plates. The guys who deal with us are Americans.”
Libya remains locked in a messy civil war, pitting several rival governments, a kaleidoscope of militias, and tribes against each other for control of the oil-rich country. But the spies, who ostensibly answer to the government in Tripoli, boast that they maintain networks across the country, including areas under the control of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the mustachioed former Qaddafi army officer whose forces and loyalists control much of eastern Libya and are fighting Tripoli. Despite the political hostility, there is still contact between security officials of the various competing powers on overarching matters of counter-terrorism. The spies proudly describe themselves as mandarins of Libya’s “deep state.”
“We are the long-term security apparatus,” said the senior official. “More than 75% of the security people who worked before are back. Some never left. Some retired and came back.”
Though they say they are beholden to no political player or ideology and are simply looking to provide security to a fractured country, they work for an organization that has a long history of torture, assassinations, and international subterfuge of the sort that has earned them a terrifying reputation.
The men insisted their hands were clean, and said they agreed to speak to BuzzFeed News because they were worried that Western powers seeking partners in the fight against ISIS were cultivating the wrong interlocutors, including militia groups and Haftar, whom they despise as another incarnation of Qaddafi. The three spies decided to step out of the shadows in an effort to promote themselves as key players in the ongoing global war against ISIS.
“[The West] is working with everybody,” said the balding former official. “They’re using everybody as a source of information. The problem is, sometimes it’s misinformation.”
The men agreed to talk in Malta, the sunny, ancient Mediterranean Island where Libyan officials and their Western counterparts frequently meet. The sit-down came after weeks of negotiations through an intermediary, a colorful onetime guerrilla fighter from South Asia with a résumé that includes ties to the U.S. military, academia, and global finance, as well as a stint as an adviser to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Based in New York, he now runs a small Malta think tank, the Institute for Strategic Studies and Democracy. “The purpose of the think tank so far has been to create a safe space for Western interests to talk to Libyan interests and to find a Libyan-to-Libyan solution to the current impasse in the country,” he said.
The three spies agreed to talk to BuzzFeed News on the condition that their names, and large elements of their personal history, remained undisclosed. During several hours of conversation, they frequently grew annoyed at questions about specific cases and recent successes. “Wait 30, 40 years and those files will be opened,” said the senior official.
As with most spies, especially ones rooted in repressive Arab dictatorships, they are typically averse to any kind of public scrutiny or attention. But the men wanted to open a window to their secretive world because of what they described as increasing frustration at the lack of support and cooperation they say the organization gets from Western counterparts.
To cite one example, the men claimed the mukhabarat learned from a captured ISIS operative in the autumn of 2015 that the group was planning something big in Paris. The fortysomething former spy, who served as an analyst for the mukhabarat, said a name came up in the investigation: Salah Abdeslam, alleged to be a ringleader of the November Paris attacks, who was captured last month in Belgium, just days before coordinated suicide bombings at the airport and metro station in Brussels killed at least 31 people and injured 270 more.
“His guys were telling us he was planning something on French soil,” he said. The former analyst said the Libyans sought to reach out to a European counterpart, a claim that could not be verified.
“We sought to open a channel,” he said. “We didn’t get a line. The line was cut.”
Several weeks later, the Paris attacks unfolded. Abdeslam was the alleged ringleader of a prolonged multipronged night of terror that left 130 dead and transformed security calculations throughout Europe.
“After that,” said the analyst, “they opened the line.”
Borzou Daragahi is a Middle East correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Istanbul.