31 Mar 2011

Moussa Koussa: is Libyan's defection the tipping point?

Our Foreign Affairs correspondent Jonathan Rugman considers the impact on the Gaddafi regime of its Foreign Minister’s flight to Britain.

Two weeks of coalition airstrikes, a month of uprisings before that, and demands from the international community that he stand down have all failed to dislodge Colonel Gaddafi, so revolt from within his capital may provide perhaps the best opportunity to unseat him.

Nobody knows what form this internal division might take – and we probably won’t know about it till it actually happens.  A rebellious General perhaps, or a challenge to their father’s authority by one of Gaddafi’s sons  – and it is worth remembering that Libya’s Justice and Interior Ministers already defected weeks ago without taking the regime down with them.

The question now is whether the flight and resignation of Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s Foreign Minister since 2009, will prove a tipping point.  Will it trigger a spate of defections which deal such a blow to Libya’s “Brother Leader” that he decides to give up his 41 year hold on power?

Moussa Koussa was apparently not as close to Gaddafi as he had been in previous years, when he served as head of Libyan intelligence.

At press conferences within the past month, he seemed unsure of himself and did not want to answer questions, though that may have been the natural reluctance of a former spy chief to appear in front of television cameras.

“It seems the English are yearning for the colonial era in this part of the world,” Koussa told us on March 7th  ,

accusing western powers of a “tremendous conspiracy” against Libya to secure its oil reserves.

As news of his flight to London emerged last night, an attempt to to disown Koussa began. One Libyan official told me that Koussa had not been good at the job and seemed more interested in foreign ministry salaries than in the business of foreign policy.

“If he is useful, they (the West) will forget about what he did,” the official told me, in a clear reference to Koussa’s alleged role in overseas terrorism, including the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland which killed 270 people.

If Koussa has defected, he may seek asylum in exchange for providing critical information which led to further criminal indictments in the Lockerbie case, beyond the sentencing of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, who was released on medical grounds in 2009.

In 1979 Koussa was head of the Libyan mission to London and de facto Ambassador to Britain, but he was subsequently expelled for his outspoken support for the IRA and his pledge that two Libyan opposition figures would be killed on British soil.

Along with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of the Libyan leader’s sons, Koussa proved instrumental in persuading Libya’s leader to abandon his weapons of mass destruction programme in 2003, in exchange for an end to US sanctions.

Koussa visited London in October 2001, when he is believed to have handed over a list of Libyan suspects in connection with President George Bush’s “war on terror”.

It was then that he began to cultivate contacts with officials in the Foreign Office and MI6 – contacts which may have proved decisive in his decision to fly to Britain on Wednesday and resign.