MUNICH â€" Where is Muammar Gaddafiâ€™s money?
Rebels pulled the Libyan dictator from a sewage pipe in his hometown of Sirte on October 20, 2011. He was bleeding from his head, and rebels and bystanders joined in beating him and clubbing his groin with a bayonet. Shortly thereafter, this bird of paradise among African autocrats was dead.
But shortly before he died, Gaddafi sold a fifth of Libyaâ€™s gold reserves, and most of the proceeds from this sale are still missing. The so-called Panama Papers could now shed light on the search for this incredible fortune.
Through a network of cryptic corporate investments, secret front companies and hidden bank accounts, Gaddafi had managed to set aside a fortune since the fall of the Libyan king in 1969. Oil had made Libya and, in turn, Gaddafi, rich. The former military captain is said to have been in possession of between $100 million and $200 million. Dozens of international lawsuits and investigations are still underway, with the return of funds as their central aim.
Documents made available to Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) by an anonymous source have now implicated two of Gaddafiâ€™s most trusted advisors: one of his greatest protégés, and his chief investor. The former earned millions through obscure appointments through the state, while to this day the latter is probably hiding billions of dollars at the behest of and for the Gaddafi clan. Both of these men have been on Interpolâ€™s wanted list for years.
A central figure in the search for Gaddafiâ€™s money is a man called Bashir Saleh Bashir, who was once the Libyan leaderâ€™s chief of staff and right-hand man. In Libya, he is still known as â€œGaddafiâ€™s banker.â€ Bashir is alleged to have invested and hidden the private wealth of the Gaddafi clan. In addition, he used to manage a multi-billion-dollar branch of Libyan state funds: namely, the oil-funded money reserve to which Gaddafi had free access. The so-called â€œLibya Africa Investment Portfolioâ€ invested oil business proceeds in other African states, but where exactly the money flowed to can no longer be determined. Many Libyans say that Gaddafi â€" who, depending on his mood, liked to call himself â€œThe Leader of Arab Leaders,â€ the â€œImam of all Muslimsâ€ or simply the â€œKing of Kings of Africaâ€ â€" probably pocketed the money himself.
After Gaddafi responded with military force to demonstrators in February 2011, the United Nations began sanctioning people, properties and companies with ties to his regime. As part of these measures, assets belonging to Gaddafiâ€™s banker, Bashir, were also frozen by the European Union and Switzerland. The state-run Libya Africa Investment Portfolio was, shortly thereafter, included on the sanctions list of the United Nations Security Council, due to its status as a â€œpotential financial resourceâ€ for the Libyan regime. Gaddafi and his protégés were to be kept from doing business or moving money.
Libyans celebrating the first anniversary of the start of the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi in Benghazi, 2012 â€" Photo: Cai Yang/ZUMA
But as the Panama Papers reveal, Bashir had taken a few precautions for just such an eventuality. The Libya Africa Investment Portfolio owned shares of a front company called Vision Oil Services Limited, which the Libya experts SZ contacted had no prior knowledge of.
Vision Oil Services Limited was obviously Gaddafiâ€™s bankerâ€™s little secret. Panama law firm Mossack Feneca founded the company in 2007, but it remained inactive for years because no administrative fees were paid. Only on March 10, 2011, when the end of the Gaddafi regime became apparent, were all outstanding invoices suddenly paid in full and was a â€œCertificate of Good Standingâ€ obtained to reactivate the company. This took place ten days after Gaddafiâ€™s banker Bashir had been sanctioned.
The offshore company was camouflaged perfectly. Neither the Libya Africa Investment Portfolio nor Bashir were officially mentioned in any of the documents. A Saudi Arabian man operating as the firmâ€™s fake director and general manager had the power of attorney to open accounts at the Geneva bank Pictet, the Viennese branch of Landsbanki Luxembourg and Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore. This Saudi Arabian man was said to have previously done business with Jordanian oil smugglers and spent time in a Libyan prison for money-related offenses that maybe have been directly related to Gaddafi.
The Saudi Arabian man resigned as director of Vision Oil Services Limited at the beginning of April 2011, appointing a Briton living in Germany as his successor. In response to SZâ€™s queries, this British national denied having any knowledge of the companyâ€™s dealings. He said that he was merely the employee of the Saudi Arabian man and had worked as a fake director once his employer found himself in a dangerous situation.
So, while Gaddafiâ€™s troops and rebels were embroiled in increasingly intense fighting, the Saudi Arabian fake director appointed a British fake director, making the already opaque company structure even more complicated, and thereby adding another layer of protection.
Gaddafi died only a few months after these events took place. The rebels arrested Bashir, whose passport photocopy can be found among the Panama Papers. But he was somehow released in the turmoil of the ensuing civil war.
During these months of unrest, all traces of Vision Oil Services Limited were lost, as well. the local authorities of the British Virgin Islands deactivated the front company due to its outstanding administrative fees. It is not known if potential company assets had been transferred prior to this, and this information cannot be gleaned from the contents of the Panama Papers.
Bashir, however, suddenly re-emerged in Niger before disappearing again. He was sighted in South Africa several times and, according to rumors, lives in Swaziland. He is said to be the only person privy to all the secrets of Libyan investments in Africa, or so suggests the rumor-mill in Tripoli. Bashir does not speak with the press and did not respond to SZâ€™s request for comment.
A breakthrough in the search for Gaddafiâ€™s treasure seemed imminent in 2012, when Libyaâ€™s former head of intelligence services, Abdullah Sanussi, reported that Gaddafi had buried his gold in the Libyan desert. A former Libyan minister also offered to help find Gaddafiâ€™s assets, but he was found dead only days later, drifting face down in the Danube; he died before he could provide any information. In the end, Sanussi did not disclose the exact location of Gaddafiâ€™s gold, either.
While some of Gaddafiâ€™s millions have since turned up in Italy, Germany and the U.S., the majority of his wealth remains unaccounted for. According to reliable sources, investigators searching for Gaddafiâ€™s treasure have set their sights not only on Bashir, but also on a certain Ali Dabaiba, a man who was once part of the dictatorâ€™s inner circle, known to Libyans as â€œthe Fellowship of the Leader.â€
Panama City â€" Photo: Matthew Straubmuller
According to Libyan investigators, the countryâ€™s Organisation for Development of Administrative Centres (ODAC) â€" a gigantic ministry handling all state business and overseen by Dabaiba â€" awarded business contracts worth billions of dollars to numerous companies with direct links to Dabaibaâ€™s family.
According to press reports, when auditors examined these business contracts more closely after Gaddafiâ€™s fall, they discovered creative bookkeeping practices. One of Gaddafiâ€™s advisors explained to investigators that ODAC discrepancies had emerged quite early on, but these were not examined in any detail seeing as Gaddafi and as his sons were â€œinvolved in managing ODAC.â€
Dabaiba did not respond to SZâ€™s request for comment.
Although the disreputable Dabaiba changed sides at the height of the Libyan civil war and financed the rebels in his hometown of Misrata, the new government nonetheless froze his assets and placed his name on a list of men who were suspected of having embezzled state funds. He eventually moved to London, where his family owns a few valuable properties. Libyan investigators accuse Dabaiba of having dished out contracts worth several million dollars to companies either he or one of his relatives managed. He is said to have smuggled the profits from these dealings abroad through a network of shell companies.
To date, Libyan investigators have traced around 100 companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, Malta, Lichtenstein and the UK to Dabaiba, his sons or presumed accomplices. The true ownership structures of these firms remains hazy at best.
However, this might soon change. Many of the front companies, presumably owned by Gaddafiâ€™s loyal cronies, were managed by Mossack Fonseca, the Panama law firm at the heart of the Panama Papers scandal that broke in April of this year.
The name of British national Riad G. appears in the documents repeatedly in connection with several of the front companies that Libyan investigators attribute to Dabaiba.
Riad G. went to school in Libya and attended university in London. His Facebook page indicates that he is connected to the Dabaiba family. He apparently once owned half the shares of a hotel in the Scottish Highlands: the company behind the hotel ownership was used to hide Libyan state funds, according to a document written by Libyan investigators, who were seeking legal help from the British and Scottish authorities. SZ and The Guardian have now been able to access parts of these documents, which accuse Dabaiba of abuse of office and illegal money transfers that harmed the public budget, among other things.
According to the German Trade Register, the company behind the luxury hotel is run by two men who received ODAC contracts worth several million in 2008. Thatâ€™s the same ODAC formerly headed by Dabaiba â€" and so everything has come full circle.
Scottish authorities confirm that investigations into this matter are currently underway.
Investigators, for their part, are disinclined to believe Dabaibaâ€™s most recent declaration of assets, which stated that he only owns a few cars, some jewelry and a farm with four camels.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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