Muammar Gaddafi warned Tony Blair in two fraught phone conversations in 2011 that his removal from the Libyan leadership would open a space for al-Qaida to seize control of the country and even launch an invasion of Europe.
The transcripts of the conversations have been published with Blair’s agreement by the UK foreign affairs select committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the western air campaign that led to the ousting and killing of Gaddafi in October 2011.
In the two calls the former British prime minister pleaded with Gaddafi to stand aside or end the violence. The transcripts reveal the gulf in understanding between Gaddafi and the west over what was occurring in his country and the nature of the threat he was facing.
In the first call, at 11.15am on 25 February 2011, Gaddafi gave a warning in part borne out by future events: “They [jihadis] want to control the Mediterranean and then they will attack Europe.”
In the second call, at 3.25pm the same day, the Libyan leader said: “We are not fighting them, they are attacking us. I want to tell you the truth. It is not a difficult situation at all. The story is simply this: an organisation has laid down sleeping cells in north Africa. Called the al-Qaida organisation in north Africa … The sleeping cells in Libya are similar to dormant cells in America before 9/11.”
Gaddafi added: “I will have to arm the people and get ready for a fight. Libyan people will die, damage will be on the Med, Europe and the whole world. These armed groups are using the situation [in Libya] as a justification – and we shall fight them.”
Three weeks after the calls, a Nato-led coalition that included Britain began bombing raids that led to the overthrow of Gaddafi. He was finally deposed in August and murdered by opponents of his regime in October.
At one point in the conversations Gaddafi urged Blair to go to Libya to see the lack of violence in Tripoli, and held the telephone to a TV screen so Blair could hear people voicing their support for Gaddafi in the streets.
Blair said he had decided to act as an intermediary due to the contact he had with Gaddafi when he was prime minister. Both Washington and London knew of his phone calls to Gaddafi, he said.
During the calls Blair suggested he could engineer a peaceful exit for Gaddafi if he agreed to leave. Referring to him as the leader, Blair also insisted there was no attempt to colonise Libya. Gaddafi said he had to defy colonisation, insisting: “There is nothing here. No fight, no bloodshed. Come see yourself.”
Blair urged Gaddafi to give him a phone number so he could contact him urgently, and beseeched him to “do something that allows the process to start, end the bloodshed, start a new constitution”.
He told Gaddafi that if he made the right statements, ended violence, and lowered the political temperature, it might be possible to get the US and the EU to hold back from interfering.
“If you have a safe place to go, you should go there because this will not end peacefully and there has to be a process of change; that process of change can be managed and we have to find a way of managing it,” Blair said. “The US and the EU are in a tough position right now and I need to take something back to them which ensures this ends peacefully. If people saw the leader stand aside people would be content with that. If this goes on for another day or two days, we will go past that point. I am saying this because I believe it deeply. If we cannot find a way out very quickly, we will be past the point of no return. If this does not happen very fast the people of Libya will make this very destructive.”
Blair ended the call by saying: “ I would like to offer a way out that is peaceful … keep the lines open.”
Commenting on the exchanges on Thursday, the foreign select committee chair, Crispin Blunt, said: “The transcripts supplied by Mr Blair provide a new insight into the private views of Colonel Gaddafi as his dictatorship began to crumble around him. The failure to follow Mr Blair’s calls to ‘keep the lines open’ and for these early conversations to initiate any peaceful compromise continue to reverberate.
“The committee will want to consider whether Gaddafi’s prophetic warning of the rise of extremist militant groups following the collapse of the regime was wrongly ignored because of Gaddafi’s otherwise delusional take on international affairs. The evidence that the committee has taken so far in this inquiry suggests that western policymakers were rather less perceptive than Gaddafi about the risks of intervention for both the Libyan people and the western interests.”
In one of the deadliest attacks since the fall of Gaddafi, dozens of people were killed on Thursday in an apparent suicide bombing at a police training centre in the Libyan town of Zliten.
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