The Gaddafi Regime Suffers A Huge Defection
In a thundering blow to Muammar Gaddafi's standing and the morale of his regime, Libya's Foreign Minister Moussa Kusa defected to London on Wednesday night, in the regime's most high-profile break since the Western bombing campaign began nearly two weeks agoâ?”if not, indeed, the most momentous split in the Libyan
government in years.
Kusa, who has long been one of Gaddafi's most trusted aides, landed at London's Farnborough Airport at about 9 p.m., after slipping across Libya's border into Tunisia earlier this week. He landed apparently without forewarning British authorities, and immediately requested political asylum. "Kusa is not happy about how the government has handled the conflict," said his friend, Noman Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was aligned with al-Qaeda until 2008, speaking to TIME late Wednesday night. Benotman said Kusa revealed earlier this month that he was distressed that Gaddafi had once again turned Libya into a pariah state, after years of Kusa's careful work in restoring its standing in the U.S. and Europe. "He was the key figure to rehabilitate Libya with the international community," Benotman said by phone. "Now it is all gone."
Kusa's defection comes just one day after Western and Arab leaders met in London for a key coalition meeting to decide the next steps in their campaign against Gaddafi. There, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other leaders warned Gaddafi that his time in power was quickly running out, and invited those around him to ditch the regime before it was too late. Kusa appears to have been the first to flee â?” but
Benotman says he is unlikely to be the last. "I'm aware of dozens of people in Tripoli who are not happy," said Benotman, who was in Tripoli when the revolt erupted in mid-February, and who has close contacts with high-level Libyan officials. "The message being delivered is that they have to make a decision now."
Kusa is more than just a familiar face to Western leaders. He has fled Libya carrying a wealth of information which could prove extremely valuable to the coalition, as they try to assess how to end the military conflict and get Gaddafi to step down after nearly 42 years in power. As one of Gaddafi's closest aides, Kusa presumably would be informed about Gaddafi's current war plans and his state of mind after 11 days of the coalition's aerial bombing, as well as whether he might be open to negotiating a deal regarding exile for Gaddafi and his family.
In addition, Kusa was a long-standing chief of Libya's intelligence service, before being appointed Foreign Minister in 2009. That means he likely holds critical information which could ultimately lead to international indictments against Gaddafi and his family, including whether the Libyan leader ordered the PanAm jet to be shot down over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1989, an attack which killed 270 people. He might also provide insights and information about more recent events, including the military's decision to shoot unarmed protesters in Benghazi and other towns in eastern Libya in mid-February. Those actions are believed to be the most likely bases for a possible indictment of crimes against humanity, which could be handed down by the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The question remains whether Kusa himself, as a knowledgeable insider in Gaddafi's court, would be
immune to charges.
Despite his close ties to Gaddafi, Kusa also has long-held connections to the U.S., with a Master's degree from Michigan State University. As a fluent English speaker who understood something about America, Kusa was a central figure in helping to negotiate Libya's dÃ?tente with the U.S. in 2003. Along with Saif al-Islam, he
persuaded Gaddafi to abandon his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and opted to share intelligence information with the U.S. on al-Qaeda operatives in Libya. It was Kusa's sharp instincts which in fact led to the drastic change in Libya's political international standing in 2003. The idea of the U.S. lifting sanctions in exchange for Libya abandoning its weapons of mass destruction emerged out of a casual conversation between Kusa and CIA officials while they were discussing how to cooperate on intelligence issues, according to TIME interviews with those who were involved in the secret, early talks between U.S. and Libyan officials in 2003; they say Kusa believed he and Saif al-Islam could together persuade Gaddafi to change tack after years of hostility against the West. In a Wikileaks cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Kusa is described as "mostly cooperative in liaison channels and key to our re-engagement." (See dispatches from Tripoli.)
In Tripoli, the government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denied that Kusa had defected, telling reporters that he was "on a diplomatic mission" to London. Kusa's painstaking intelligence and diplomatic work was shattered the moment Gaddafi's forces opened fire on protesters in Benghazi and other eastern cities in mid-February, prompting a return to international sanctionsâ?”and soon after, to
Western military attacks.
Yet even after those attacks, Kusa strongly defended Gaddafi's actions during a series of press conferences in Tripoli. In March 7, for example, he told reporters that "there is clear evidence that these superpowers [Britain and the U.S.] are undertaking a plot against Libya." Then, he accused the rebels of being "affiliated with al-Qaeda," plotting to split the country into two parts. "The territorial integrity is something sacrosanct," he said. "We will die for it."