Inside the high-stakes race to recoup Gaddafi’s ill-gotten billions

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One April morning in Vienna in 2012, a body was spotted floating in the Danube.

It didn’t take Austrian authorities long to identify the deceased: a 69-year-old Libyan man named Shukri Ghanem. Although not a household name, Ghanem was an erudite, enigmatic and powerful figure who, after earning a doctorate at Tufts, became prime minister, then oil minister, of a country teeming with wealth. gold and corruption. He was predeceased by his political boss, Libya’s longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, who six months earlier had been killed by opposition forces in his seaside hometown of Sirte.

While the gruesome spectacle surrounding Gaddafi’s death was preserved for posterity on a viral video, little noise was made about Ghanem’s. An investigation by the Vienna public prosecutor’s office ruled out a criminal act. Authorities quietly concluded that he suffered a heart attack before falling into the water and drowning. Although the Austrians touted their findings with Teutonic certainty, it is hard to find a diplomat, scholar or spy who buys the benign account of his death. “When Shukri Ghanem died, it was believed he had billions,” said a US investigator who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information surrounding the case. “As head of the National Oil Corporation, he skimmed and transferred money, with Gaddafi’s blessing. No one thinks Shukri’s death was a coincidence. It was a statement. »

Tucked away in a quiet corner of London’s Ham Yard Hotel was the man renowned for leading what many consider to be the world’s largest and most unruly treasure hunt. His operation involves tracing and helping to freeze, seize and ultimately recover a mind-boggling array of assets: billions in bank accounts, bonds, cash, gold and real estate as well as dozens of rare antiquities. Most are believed to have been looted by Gaddafi and his cronies over four decades. Other wealth is believed to have been taken away by an array of politicians, terrorists and shape-shifters who sought to fill Libya’s post-Gaddafi power vacuum. At the controls of the hunt is a dapper sixty-something named Mohamed Ramadan Mensli. Almost everyone calls him Mo.

When I arrived, he was seated in a banquette in the hotel restaurant, his smart blue suit and black tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses allowing him to blend in with the hustle and bustle of a city where so many people dress like bankers. This facade crumbled as soon as Mo opened his mouth. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s hundreds of billions and maybe even trillions that have been stolen,” he suggested, with a mixture of admiration and disgust. “The system that Gaddafi and his people have created to evade sanctions and move assets and wealth out of Libya and around the world is a masterpiece. I think Gaddafi was a son of a bitch. But he knew how to play the game.

Mohammad Mensli in Paris.

Photograph by Jake Burghart.

Muammar Gaddafi, of course, was not the first kleptocrat to grace the world stage in the past half-century. Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Mobutu Sese Seko, Saddam Hussein… the list is long and ignominious. But with the exception of Vladimir Putin and his panoply of oligarchs (who by some estimates may have siphoned off as much as $1 trillion), Gaddafi may well have been the most rapacious. Oil lubricated Libya’s shift to modernity and sustained a machine of graft and patronage that kept it in power for 42 years, enriching those in its orbit in ways that are hard to fathom and can be impervious to accurate accounting. Now there is a worldwide effort to recover some of this wealth.

This story is a deep dive into those efforts – and a chronicle of my encounters with the motley cast of characters that emerged as Libya attempted to reclaim its stolen wealth – including in recent weeks, its works of art. It is also an exploration of how the shadowy organization that Mensli oversees – the Libyan Asset Recovery and Management Office (LARMO) – works to repossess the assets of autocrats and enablers (consciously or not) and, therefore, to render a minimum of dignity. to the Libyan people.

Long before governments around the world began hunting down the ill-gotten gains of Russian rulers and oligarchs, a similar effort was aimed at Libyan counterparts. At the request of the UN, nations – in the run-up to Gaddafi’s demise – froze the fruits at hand: assets worth tens of billions that belonged to the Gaddafi family, his inner circle or affiliates sanctioned by the state. A significant portion of this wealth, however, was hidden, according to intelligence sources, hijacked by loyalists trusted by the Gaddafi clan to provide plausible denial about the real owner of the money. These individuals are said to range from the obvious (a spy chief, aide and translator) to the unlikely (a former waiter in a waterside hamlet frequented by Gaddafi’s sons). When the Libyan leader died in 2011, his meticulously designed mechanism to rob his people – while often avoiding international sanctions – fell apart.

As fear of the family’s wrath and reach faded, several of those dealing with Gaddafi’s looting are said to have hijacked him for their own ends, including some prominent figures who publicly sided with him. of the opposition. By 2012, treasure hunters – from striped ensembles to those accustomed to tactical gear – had already started flocking, lured by the promise of a bargain. A U.S. defense contractor has struck a deal with the interim authorities to scour the world for money and hidden accounts in exchange for cuts in revenue and freed a team of veteran CIA, DIA , IRS and NSC to support the effort. Art theft experts began searching for priceless artifacts stolen from Libya that over the years had appeared in prominent museums and private hands.

Tripoli became a modern-day Casablanca, a crossroads that evoked characters three kings, Repo Man, and The Bourne identity. The unholy cadre of spies, guns and crooks who flocked there quickly earned a nickname among Libyans. They were derisively called “10 percent” because of the exorbitant fees they hoped to reap for identifying secret locations believed to hold billions in vaults full of cash or bullion.

Other con artists and shadow dwellers sought their commissions in advance. “There were all these people with military, financial and political backgrounds,” a veteran of Libya’s intelligence services told me. “They would come to us and say, ‘There’s $1 billion in cash in Benin. Tens of billions in South Africa. It made no sense. But they always asked for hundreds of thousands of dollars in advance to release the big money, the money belonging to the Libyan people.

LARMO, which Mensli officially took over last year, premiered in 2017 – by then the race to find the loot had become so disjointed it bordered on comical. As one retired US intelligence official told me, “We actually had a warrant from the Attorney General. But when we landed in Switzerland… and visited a bank suspected of holding dirty money, the manager said, ‘Who are you guys? Two weeks ago, other people here were claiming the same thing. So we took the names back to Tripoli and found out the “other guys” were charlatans. At first, some charlatans were able to get their hands on [a lot of] the money.”

Mensli seems to have had some success in centralizing research and eliminating peddlers. Over lunch, he described the leads his team was pursuing, sometimes scrolling through his phone to give examples. “This shows $32 billion in dollar-denominated accounts at European banks,” he enthused. “We have 58 properties in Paris alone, all Libyan assets. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As our conversation progressed towards the end of the afternoon, the promise and the peril of his mission became evident. For a moment, he justified the detention of the man who used to run LARMO. The next day, he telephoned a confidant of Gaddafi who is on an American blacklist. Soon he had the Libyan Embassy in Washington online, discussing the latest in what would turn out to be a string of seizures by law enforcement officials of rare antiquities – priceless pieces that had been expelled from his country over the years – from high – profile collections, including The Met and that of an American billionaire.

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