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Moussa Ibrahim: How Libya's voice was shaped in Britain

02 April 11 02:49
Moussa Ibrahim
By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

His daily appearances in front of the world's media have made Moussa Ibrahim a familiar face. Col Gaddafi's information minister spent 15 years in the UK, but how much do we really know about him?

With his smooth, confident demeanour, crisp dress sense and impeccable English, he is the face that the beleaguered leadership in Tripoli wants to show the world.

Like Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf - the Iraqi information minister during the 2003 invasion, nicknamed Comical Ali for his lurid and improbable claims - Moussa Ibrahim has become familiar to millions as the mouthpiece for a regime under fire.

But Ibrahim is no figure of fun, as shown by his icy attempts to discredit a Libyan woman who told foreign journalists she had been raped by members of a government militia.

His laconic, quietly forceful delivery gives him a gravitas not normally associated with Gaddafi and his associates, while his drive is reflected in his rapid elevation from unknown to government spokesman to information minister.

What British audiences watching may not realise is that this Gaddafi advocate, with his neatly-trimmed goatee beard and open-neck shirts, spent 15 years in the UK gaining his education.

Ibrahim, who has a German-born wife and a young son, studied politics at the University of Exeter in the early 2000s and worked on a PhD in media arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, completing his final exam in May 2010 - although he has not formally received his doctorate as supervisors are awaiting a small number of required amendments to his thesis.

Those who knew him in his student days describe a serious, friendly but short-tempered young man who caused a diplomatic incident on a university trip and attracted the attentions of the police in an ice cream-throwing incident.

"I lived in London for 15 years," he told Sky News in a recent interview. "I know every street in London. I know how decent the British people are."

Born in 1974 into Gaddafi's Qadhadhfa tribe, Ibrahim benefited from belonging to the same clan as the dictator, an association which would have made it easier for him to gain a place on the payroll of the state.

One former visitor to his home in Libya recalls his family had a street reserved for themselves and enjoyed a visible level of wealth.

Dr Larbi Sadiki, a lecturer at Exeter who taught Ibrahim, remembers him as an engaging, friendly but serious student - "a nice guy but with a short fuse".

According to Dr Sadiki, Ibrahim asked him not to disclose his connections to the Gaddafi regime although the student made no secret of his loyalty to his clan or his support for the dictator's son Saif. "He was being cultivated to protect the dynasty and serve it," the academic remembers.

Dr Sadiki says Ibrahim joined his courses despite knowing that the lecturer was a critic of Gaddafi and an advocate of political reform in the Middle East. Like Saif Gaddafi, Dr Sadiki says, Ibrahim spoke the language of democracy although "the practice is something else".

Two incidents from a university trip to Jordan in 2000 stick in Dr Sadiki's mind.

In the first, the academic had to intervene to keep Ibrahim out of Jordanian police custody after the student threw an ice cream at a street vendor in the archaeological site Petra.

The second occurred as the university party passed the heavily-fortified US embassy in Amman in a minibus. Suddenly the vehicle was surrounded by embassy security and Jordanian intelligence intelligence officers: someone on board had been filming the building with a video camera.

Ibrahim, it transpired, was the culprit - and given that Libya was still, at the time, an international pariah, the ramifications were potentially serious.

"I spent the rest of the day in Jordanian intelligence HQ whilst Moussa, my student, was being interrogated," Dr Sadiki recalls.

"The night before, luckily we had a reception at the UK ambassador's residence. So I re-connected with the UK ambassador whose intervention secured Moussa's release 12 hours later.

"Like in a spy film, a UK ambassador's rep and myself waited for Moussa at the Hilton until intelligence brought him back at around midnight."

Another witness who remembers both incidents was Brieg Powel - then a politics undergraduate on the same course as Ibrahim, now a lecturer in international relations at the University of Plymouth.

His memory is of a sociable character who nonetheless appeared older than his years.

"When I saw him on TV he actually seemed younger than he did back then," Dr Powel says.

"He was an amiable guy. He was obviously quite wealthy because he used to turn up with all these gadgets - the video camera, of course, and dictaphones. I remember he used to go off to London a lot."

However he spent his time in the capital, it was not with its community of Libyan exiles - most of whom were opponents of Gaddafi.

Ashur Shamis, a London-based Libyan dissident, says most of his compatriots had not even heard of Ibrahim until he began appearing on news bulletins at the start of the conflict.

"He wouldn't have come near us because of his closeness to the Gaddafi regime, because he was an acolyte," Mr Shamis says.

"Very quickly he rose up. One minute he's a spokesman, the next minute he's the minister of information. He's obviously well connected."

In the fast-moving events shaking Libya, it is impossible to predict what will happen to Ibrahim. But although his dedication to the Gaddafi regime has always defined him, so too must his years in the UK have left their mark.

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