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.
SLIEMA, Malta — 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.”