20 Nov 2011

Gaddafi's most feared spymaster surrenders

Lindsey Hilsum blogs on the surrender of Abdullah Senussi, the most feared enforcer of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime.

Abdullah Senussi was a man of the shadows, the most feared enforcer of Colonel Gaddafi‘s regime.

As the head of internal and military security, he was in charge of spies and prisons, never giving public statements or interviews, but always there in the background, ensuring that no-one got away with challenging the regime.

His most notorious moment came in 1996, when political prisoners, mostly Islamists from eastern Libya who had been fighting to overthrow the government, rioted in Abu Salim jail.

Gaddafi had set the tone some years earlier when he urged Libyans to decapitate Islamists and throw their heads into the street, “as if you had found a wolf, fox or scorpion. This is a poison. This is a devil. This is a heretic,” he said.

Senussi was a man of action not words. Called to Abu Salim to negotiate with the prisoners, who were demanding an end to torture and starvation, and for the right to fair trial and family visits, he agreed to some of the demands.

Sick prisoners who had been denied medical care were loaded onto buses to be taken to hospital, while the rest were ushered into a prison yard.

Prisoners in other blocks saw Senussi on the edge of the yard as soldiers gathered on the roof and started to shoot. “I saw the yard walls become red with blood,” said an eyewitness I interviewed earlier this year.

In the end, 1,270 men lay dead. Those on the buses were taken off, blindfolded and bound, and gunned down.

The men who did not die immediately in the prison yard were finished off with pistol shots. It was the worst atrocity of Colonel Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.

Senussi reached his high position because he married Fatima, a sister to Gaddafi’s second wife, Safia. He came from Sabha, in the desert south of Libya, and it was near there, in the house of a relative, that he was captured.

In February, when the eastern city of Benghazi rose against the regime, Gaddafi sent Senussi to crush the revolution.

The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, has defined what happened next as a crime against humanity.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that, once instructed by Muammar Gaddafi to implement the plan to deter and quell civilian demonstrations against his regime in Benghazi, Abdullah Al-Senussi used his powers over the military forces, commanded the forces in Benghazi and directly instructed the troops to attack civilians demonstrating in the city,” he wrote in the warrant for Senussi’s arrest, issued four months later.

The uprising in Benghazi was started by the families of those killed at Abu Salim. Many were elderly women who had spent years demanding to know the truth about their sons and husbands.

Last February, when they came out to protest, thousands of others joined them and that was the beginning of the revolution which eventually toppled Gaddafi.

“We were the torch,” one of the women told me when I met her last March. “We, the Abu Salim families, were the ones who started this revolution.”

They will be celebrating the capture of Abdullah Senussi in Benghazi tonight.

Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News’ international editor, is currently writing a book about Libya. Follow Lindsey on Twitter @lindseyhilsum