Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Libyan Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A’al spoke about the security situation in his country, arms smuggling and the forthcoming trials of a number of senior Gaddafi regime figures.
Asharq Al-Awsat caught up with the Libyan Interior Ministry just days after Tripoli had secured the return of former Libyan Intelligence Chief Abdullah al-Senussi from Mauritania. He guaranteed al-Senussi’s safety in Libyan custody and promised that the former spy chief would be given a fair trial.
Libyan Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A’al previously resigned late last month in the wake of controversy surrounding the security forces performance during a surge of violence that has rocked Libya, including attacks on a number of shrines across the country. However Abdel A’al later retracted this resignation just two days later announcing that he was ready to continue his mission.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There has been criticism of some of Libya’s rebels and their leadership, particularly regarding the recent attacks on Sufi shrines. As a former Libyan rebel yourself, do you accept this criticism?
[Abdel A’al] This is completely rejected, when others were licking Gaddafi’s boots and accepting everything that he was doing, these rebels came out with voices raised and told Gaddafi and his government: no. I believe that they have won the respect and appreciation of the Libyan people for this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With the return of Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, is Libya capable of securing him and guaranteeing his safety prior to trial?
[Abdel A’al] Of course, we have a large number of members of the former regime and we have guaranteed their security. They are being tried for their crimes, and are safe from harm, whilst we have also ensured that they cannot escape.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When will al-Senussi’s trial begin?
[Abdel A’al] Al-Senussi is a criminal and his presence in Libya today is a victory for the Libyan people, Arabs and world. As for his trial, this issue is subject to legal procedures as the Public Prosecution investigation is still ongoing. Following this, the case will be transferred from the Public Prosecution to the Criminal Court. These are nothing more than routine procedures.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about Saif al-Islam Gaddafi? When will his trial get underway?
[Abdel A’al] I believe that this trial will begin soon because the Attorney General’s office is very close to completing its case against him.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are we talking a matter of days or weeks?
[Abdel A’al] Let us say weeks.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it true that the Zintan rebels that are holding Saif al-Islam Gaddafi are refusing to surrender him to the government’s security apparatus?
[Abdel A’al] I do not think this is an issue of the rebels rejecting this now, rather I believe that in the past a group harbored certain concerns, however I also believe that this period is better. I do not believe that any Libyans reject this trial, and I hope that the trial will be fair and in accordance with Libyan and international standards, and that these criminals are punished justly.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are fears that Saif al-Islam could be killed before the trial, how do you respond to this?
[Abdel A’al] I do not give such fears credence, otherwise how did he remain alive until now? He could have been killed in the desert when he was arrested by the rebels and there was nobody to witness this except God Almighty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who is behind the recent string of attacks and bombings in Tripoli and Benghazi?
[Abdel A’al] Members of the former regime are behind this, and we have confessions in this regard. Incidentally, the first suspect was arrested just 3 hours after the bombing. Investigations are ongoing, and we have confessions and evidence which we will release to the media next week.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You say members of the former regime, but who precisely do you mean? Are you talking about Gaddafi’s children who are present in Algeria and Niger, or some of his former followers who are now present in Egypt?
[Abdel A’al] This series of attacks is tied to leadership groups present in Egypt and Algeria, and they have an operations room in Tunisia, whilst they are utilizing some cells on the ground in Libya.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you cooperating with these states to pursue those responsible for the attacks?
[Abdel A’al] There is high-level coordination between Libya and Tunisia in this regard, and weak coordination with Egypt, although I believe that this will improve in the coming days.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why is the coordination with the Egyptian authorities not at the required levels?
[Abdel A’al] I believe that many changes have taken place in Egypt, for Egypt only recently formed its government. This is a transitional stage, and this has had an impact on coordination. I believe that the situation in Egypt now is excellent, and the government has taken over its tasks and things are good so this situation will improve.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We have heard numerous reports about arms being smuggled from Libya into Egypt. Do you have any information on this? Who is behind this arms smuggling?
[Abdel A’al] There can be no doubt that there are operations to smuggle arms and drugs between neighboring countries, and this is not new or unexpected. It is well known that the Libyan national arsenal was not in anybody’s control and being distributed throughout the Sahara desert following the collapse of the regime. There are many remote places [where the regime stored arms]. The former regime also purchased huge and countless quantities of arms from the Soviet Union and socialist countries over the years. All of this has granted arms dealers the opportunity to make gains and smuggle arms between Libya and other countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any statistics regarding the number of arms that have been smuggled out of Libya?
[Abdel A’al] Unfortunately, we do not have any accurate information regarding precisely what arms, and how many, were present in the country in the first place. These were all parts of secret deals that were carried out in various ways. We still do not possess all the means to uncover the amount of weapons that were on the ground in Libya in the first place, so that we can discover what is missing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] These weapons are also appearing within Libya itself. What efforts is the Libyan government taking to seize these arms or persuade the Libyan rebels to put down their weapons and integrate into state security?
[Abdel A’al] There are a number of plans, including attempts to integrate the Libyan rebel fighters as armed brigades within the Libyan Shield, which is a reserve army force. I believe that this is part of the solution, whilst the Interior Ministry has also integrated armed rebel fighters into the security apparatus. We are also, in one way or another, trying to neutralize the largest possible number of weapons, whilst also attempting to control arms, ammunition and arms stores located in places near and fear. I believe that we are in need of a pan-national plan, involving countries that have previous relations or experience, and I believe that the United Nations [UN] will also play a role, as will Libya’s neighboring countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There have been reports that some security elements are involved in the demolition of Sufi shrines in Libya, or that they are turning a blind eye to this. Are there measures in place to punish security officers involved in this?
[Abdel A’al] We tasked the General Administration of Criminal Investigations to investigate this, and anybody who is implicated in crimes or dereliction of duty will be brought to trial
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You previously stated, during a press conference, that you were not going to engage in a battle with those responsible for demolishing shrines. If the security apparatus is unwilling to do this, then who will?
[Abdel A’al] The issue is not about bloodshed or war, and the Prophet (peace be upon him) said that it would be better to destroy the Kaaba than shed the blood of Muslims. The issue is ideological, and we must begin by conducting dialogue with these people and dealing with them. The decision must be at the national level in order to address this strongly. This is something that happened in the past, and some people tried to destroy these shrines and they were prevented and dialogue was conducted with them. Arrangements were made with them; however they went back on this agreement and did what they did. Let me tell you frankly, the issue of the demolition or blessing of shrines is not the most important one; rather the most important thing here is how to deal with this situation.