Reuters / BuzzFeed News
A ring of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s henchmen – including military commanders linked to the bloody suppression of the Libyan uprising – have been found living in Britain by BuzzFeed News.
The three men – who all deny any wrongdoing – are on a target list of former regime figures wanted by prosecutors in Tripoli for allegedly fleeing the country with stolen state assets following the collapse of Qaddafi’s dictatorship in 2011. BuzzFeed News can reveal that they have been given safe haven in the UK despite being accused of laundering millions of pounds through British banks and property deals.
General Ahmed Mahmoud Azwai, who maintained Qaddafi’s missile stockpile, is suspected of laundering millions through properties in the Home Counties via a network of offshore companies. BuzzFeed News found him living in an affluent part of Surrey.
Brigadier Guima Elmaarfi, who commanded a brigade in Qaddafi's army, is suspected of escaping the country with a fortune of at least £14 million following the fall of the dictator and is wanted for allegedly laundering stolen assets in the UK. BuzzFeed News tracked him down to a large house in southwest London. It can be revealed that his son, who fled with him to Britain, was jailed two years ago for stabbing a teenager with a kitchen knife and carving his initial into the abdomen of a man who had been beaten unconscious.
BuzzFeed News has been banned from naming the third member of the Qaddafi regime found hiding out in Britain, after he hired the exclusive law firm Mishcon de Reya and top QCs Dinah Rose and Monica Carss-Frisk to obtain a gagging order from the high court on Monday. The injunction is so restrictive that it is not even possible to disclose the grounds on which it was made.
Lawyers and investigators acting for the Libyan state claim that the three former officials are among scores of regime figures suspected of hiding stolen assets worth a total of $10 billion in the UK. They say the British authorities have done nothing to help them investigate, instead allowing all three men to settle in Britain, and granting Elmaarfi and Azwai political asylum.
Elmaarfi categorically denied all the allegations in an interview at his home in southwest London, insisting that he was struggling financially after leaving Libya empty-handed. Azwai denied stealing from the state, before shutting the door of his home in Surrey.
But documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that the Libyan Transitional Government wrote to Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) in 2012 asking for assistance in recovering money allegedly “obtained through corrupt or illegal means” by 240 former regime figures – including the three men found by BuzzFeed News. The letter warned that some of the money had been hidden in the UK, but investigators say Britain gave no assistance.
The revelations raise questions about the government’s repeated pledges to get tough on money laundering, two months after David Cameron promised new measures to shut illicit cash out of the British property market and “send a clear message to the corrupt that there is no home for them here”. The capital was branded a "welcome mat" for corruption in the UK in a report by the home affairs select committee earlier this month, which warned that "poor supervision and enforcement in the London property investment market are making a safe haven for laundering the proceeds of crime".
The Qaddafi regime was accused of multiple atrocities in its brutal suppression of the Libyan uprising in 2011 and investigators told BuzzFeed News that both Elmaarfi and Azwai led the dictator's forces in the fight against the rebels. Elmaarfi headed a military brigade in the town of Tarhuna and helped round up recruits “to sacrifice their lives for the sake of Libya and the great chief Qaddafi”, while Azwai was responsible for maintaining the Scud-B missile stockpile that the dictator unleashed on protesters in the dying days of the regime. Elmaarfi denied allegations that he “terrorised” rebel-held areas during the struggle and said he had simply defended Tarhuna, while Azwai did not respond to questions about his role in Qaddafi's military.
The Libyan city of Misrata, a battleground between rebels and Qaddafi forces, in May 2011.
Rodrigo Abd / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Libya has descended into chaos since the collapse of the regime following NATO's intervention in 2011, with three rival government factions now struggling for control of a nation gripped by civil war. With an economy in deep recession and oil revenues tumbling, the country’s embattled financial authorities are hunting tens of billions of dollars’ worth of missing assets they believe Qaddafi’s top officials looted and hid around the world.
Abdelhamid Eljadi, an investigator appointed by Libya’s transitional government to help with the asset hunt, said $30 billion was found stashed in Swiss bank accounts and $50 billion in the United Arab Emirates, but British authorities had not helped to recover a large portion of the missing assets believed to have been hidden in the UK. “We are aware of $10 billion of stolen assets in UK banks and the British government is aware of that,” he said. “The problem is governments like the UK that tend to be democratic and anti-corruption, they protect these people. They are giving them a safe haven.”
"Looting state coffers is only worth doing if you have somewhere safe to put it and somewhere fun to spend it."
Mohammed Shaban, a London lawyer representing the Libyan government in its efforts to recover money hidden in the UK, was able to reclaim a £10 million London townhouse owned by the dictator’s son Saif Qaddafi through the civil courts in 2012, but says Britain’s law enforcement agencies have been no help with the wider hunt. “I don’t think that the British government is as interested as they say they are in helping Arab countries recover their assets and stopping money laundering,” he said.
Shaban said Libya has struggled to provide the voluminous documentation Britain requires before agreeing to give “mutual legal assistance” to other countries in asset-freezing cases, protesting that the process is prohibitively bureaucratic for a fractured nation engulfed in civil war. “They seem to be dealing with Libya as if it were the United States or France, where they have proper systems, proper record-keeping, rather than a country that has toppled a former dictatorial regime and is trying to find its feet,” he said. But he acknowledged that “Libya hasn’t done themselves any favours in producing the goods”.
The National Crime Agency (NCA), which replaced SOCA in 2013, said in a statement: “The NCA works with UK and viable international partners to prevent corrupt individuals from successfully hiding illegally acquired assets in the UK. We do not routinely confirm or deny specific operational activity, nor discuss the details of engagement with partners. However, this engagement is clearly going to be more difficult in areas of conflict or political instability.”
Campaigners called on UK authorities to come to the aid of Libyan investigators struggling to hunt down the country's missing assets. “Looting state coffers is only worth doing if you have somewhere safe to put it and somewhere fun to spend it," said Chido Dunn of the transparency watchdog Global Witness. “For many years the UK government has allowed corrupt leaders and their cronies to buy up luxury property and travel to and live freely here.”
Robert Barrington, executive director of the campaign group Transparency International, said the government must proactively investigate any former Qaddafi official suspected of living in Britain on embezzled funds. “It’s unjust that the UK has a situation where these people can be living in luxury while their home economy implodes,” he said.
The story of how a clutch of senior Qaddafi officials escaped to a comfortable new life in Britain as Libya slid into chaos can today be told for the first time.
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Colonel Qaddafi had only his most loyal commanders still by his side as he waged a bloody onslaught on the rebel-held coastal town of Misrata in the spring and summer of 2011, killing indiscriminately in a firestorm of shelling, missile strikes, and cluster bombs. The dictator’s troops, military chiefs, and ministers were deserting in their hundreds as rebel forces advanced on land and aerial strikes rained down from NATO fighter jets overhead. But, investigators say, General Ahmed Azwai stayed true.
The white-haired military chief had held a glittering array of senior roles since helping to lead the coup that brought Qaddafi to power in 1969, investigators told BuzzFeed News, and four independent sources said he commanded loyalist forces fighting the rebellion in the western area of Libya as the regime crumbled.
Azwai’s most important role, investigators say, was heading Qaddafi’s Central Organisation for Electronic Research (COER), responsible for the long-range missile stockpile that the dictator began to unleash on his own people in the dying days of his regime. Qaddafi had promised to eliminate his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in December 2003, but diplomatic cables reveal Azwai refused to surrender Libya’s cache of Soviet-era Scud-B missiles unless a “satisfactory replacement” was found. In one tense encounter in February 2010, the missile chief had told the US ambassador Gene Cretz: “I will not allow 12,000 Libyan soldiers to remain unarmed and vulnerable. If I give up their weapons before I have a replacement, they will turn on me.”
The following year, as the regime’s troops deserted in droves, Qaddafi began firing the notoriously indiscriminate Scud-B missiles into rebel-held towns. Though the warheads were believed to have landed on the coast without casualties, NATO condemned their “utterly irresponsible” use as “a weapon of terror” against civilians. The COER was bombed by British jets in July 2011 and the Royal Air Force issued a statement saying the centre had “long been a cover for the regime’s nefarious activities” and “was still being actively used by [Qaddafi’s] security apparatus to repress the civilian population”.
General Azwai (third from left, bottom row) pictured with other military commanders at the fourth Africa Conference of Commandants in Uganda, November 2010. / Via acoc-africa.org
Thousands of civilians died in the siege on Misrata and other rebel-held areas before Qaddafi was finally killed near his hometown of Sirte in October 2011. It is not known exactly when Azwai finally fled Libya, but documents seen by BuzzFeed News suggest he was formally retired in 2012, the year after Qaddafi’s fall.
Five years on from the Libyan revolution and thousands of miles away from the political and economic uncertainty facing the country today, Azwai has been tracked down by BuzzFeed News to a prosperous neighbourhood in Surrey, where average property prices top £1 million. His detached house is surrounded by 8-foot hedges with an intercom at the large iron gate, and gleaming BMWs and Audis often roll up the paved drive.
Azwai photographed by BuzzFeed News at his home in Surrey.
Will Wintercross for BuzzFeed News
Sources say Azwai was granted political asylum after he arrived in Britain and his life here is quiet: During three days of surveillance by BuzzFeed News he did not leave his house once, instead spending hours sitting by the window of his living room reading Arabic literature. But he has been unable to leave his past behind completely.
For the past four years, lawyers and investigators working for the fractured government in Libya have been searching for Azwai and millions of pounds of public money he is suspected of having laundered through the UK. They suspect he and a second former official who can't be named due to the gagging order have laundered millions of pounds siphoned off from the regime by buying property in the Home Counties through a network of offshore firms that they are alleged to beneficially own.
Michele Alliot-Marie (left), then French defence minister, poses with Major General Ahmed Mahmoud Azwai in Tripoli, 4 February 2005.
Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images
Abdelhamid Eljadi, the investigator who was appointed by Libya’s transitional government as a point of contact with SOCA in 2012, told BuzzFeed News that the money Azwai is accused of laundering in the UK is suspected to be a fraction of the total fortune he allegedly amassed throughout Qaddafi’s reign. “Those funds are spread all over the world: Switzerland, UK, Germany, and others,” he claimed.
Eljadi claims that when Qaddafi assigned Azwai to head up the COER, overseeing the development of medium- and long-range missiles, the general was suspected of taking large bribes from other countries and companies. This claim was made by another Libyan corruption expert close to the case who wanted to remain anonymous because of her work in Tripoli.
Azwai was a personal friend of Qaddafi, according to Eljadi, and the men were so close that when the dictator asked Azwai for his daughter’s hand in marriage to a suitor he didn’t think was right for his own daughter, the general obliged.
Azwai's home in Surrey
Will Wintercross for BuzzFeed News
BuzzFeed News has established that two neighbouring addresses where Azwai previously lived in Surrey were bought for a total of £1 million by ATT Universal Holdings Ltd, one of the offshore firms he and the other regime official are alleged to own. Azwai has since moved to a new address nearby, where he was located by BuzzFeed News.
Approached for comment at his home in Surrey, Azwai said "I didn't steal", before shutting the door on reporters. He did not reply to a detailed letter requesting his response to allegations that he laundered money or played a role in suppressing the rebellion against Qaddafi.
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