Standing inside Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s bedouin tent outside Tripoli, Tony Blair smiled broadly as he extended Britain’s historic “hand of friendship” to the Libyan dictator.
The 2004 deal in the desert was supposed to mark the moment when “Mad Dog” Gadaffi was transformed from an international pariah who sponsored the IRA and other terrorists into a “strong partner” of the western world.
In exchange for surrendering his chemical and nuclear weapons programmes and helping the West in the fight against global terrorism, Britain’s then prime minister agreed to reopen diplomatic and trade links, thus allowing the Libyan dictator to rebrand himself as a man the civilised world could do business with.
More than seven years on, Blair has conceded to being appalled that Gadaffi, with whom he was on first-name terms, has been ordering the killing of his own civilians. He nevertheless maintains that his original decision to bring Gadaffi in from the cold was right.
This weekend, as a new Libya rises from the wreckage of the fugitive dictator’s former regime, compelling evidence is emerging to suggest that history may not view Blair’s initiative in quite so sympathetic a light.
Among discarded papers seen in the British embassy in Tripoli by The Sunday Times last week are MI5 and MI6 documents that chronicle the more shadowy — and morally ambiguous — fallout from the desert deal.
They show that as part of the Libyan rapprochement, Britain agreed to send a delegation of MI5 officers to meet their opposite numbers in the Libyan secret service in Tripoli in February 2005.
An MI5 document prepared for this visit — headed “UK/Libya eyes only” — lists the names, dates of birth, roles and locations in Britain of up to 50 exiled members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a militant organisation opposed to Gadaffi’s regime. MI5 had been investigating the group since members first settled in Britain using the liberal asylum rules of the early 1990s.
The agency believed it had growing links with Al-Qaeda. Members were suspected of supplying cash and false documents. It was believed they also helped to organise travel for jihadists from Britain to Iraq to fight western forces.
Some hardliners had recently joined the group in Britain. That led MI5 to fear they might be actively involved in planning terrorist attacks against the West.
The MI5 report summarising this material included a formal request to the Libyan regime. This explained that both MI5 and Libyan intelligence had a mutual interest in thwarting the activities of the LIFG. The paper conveyed a request for “co-operation” from Libyan intelligence chiefs.
It said: “We would value your co-operation in the following areas to enable us to achieve our shared objectives … Sharing intelligence on the activities of members in the UK.
“Such intelligence — particularly information relating to any financial transactions or to actual operational activity — is key to the security service working with the police to prosecute members of the group. The more timely information the better.”
The MI5 paper listed the details of dozens of LIFG members in Britain. A chart in one document identifies 17 key individuals in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Wales where key group members were based.
A rider to the report says the information is being communicated “to the recipient government [Libya] … for research and analysis purposes only” and should not be the basis for any action.
Human rights campaigners said there was no reason why Libya would ever comply with such conditions.
Gavin Millar QC, a barrister who has acted in terrorrelated torture cases in the British courts, said: “These documents show MI5 acting on its own, without any CIA involvement, and dealing directly with an evil regime. ”
A senior Whitehall official declined to discuss details of the intelligence-sharing agreement. But he said it was not the practice of MI5 to condone, engage in or encourage others to engage in torture or other forms of mistreatment.
Those comments reflect official policy but may not reassure those who warned years ago that new Labour’s decision to cosy up to the colonel might one day prove to have been ill-advised.