x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Qaddafi's spies fled internet surveillance centre in a hurry

Col Muammar Qaddafi's regime was obsessed with the perils posed by internet activism, especially as Arab Spring upheavals erupted in recent months.

TRIPOLI // The room on the ground floor of this six-storey building in Tripoli is now deathly quiet. The doors of the metal filing cabinets lining the walls fall carelessly open and their contents are scattered across the floor.

But until recently, this was a major hub for Col Muammar Qaddafi's pervasive spy network: an internet surveillance centre for a regime that had become obsessed with the perils posed by internet activism, especially as Arab Spring upheavals erupted in recent months.

It was here that agents working for the colonel eavesdropped on emails and chat messages of Libyans in an attempt to ferret out opposition to the regime. And they did it with the aid of technology acquired from the West.

On the office walls are posters with detailed instructions for the spies on how to operate the surveillance equipment. "How to locate any person owning a cell phone in the country, even in idle mode," says one. "Refreshment rate is every minute," says another.

The laminated posters and English-language training manuals strewn across the internet surveillance centre bear the name of Amesys, a unit of French technology firm Bull SA. A posted warning with the Amesys logo reads: "Help keep our classified business secret. Don't discuss classified information out of the HQ."

With the aid of the sophisticated internet traffic monitoring and filtering equipment, the regime detailed every aspect of the lives of the Libyans caught in its surveillance web. Thousands of dossiers on individual Libyans and left in the basement of the spy centre contain photos and fingerprints, as well as information about their families, the cars they drove and the places they worked. The files also contain transcripts of emails and chat messages.

One transcript, dated December 29, 2010, quotes one email as saying: "There will be a demonstration for water and electricity in the Tripoli neighborhood of Hadba, right in front of al Khadra hospital". The agent in charge of this file, a woman with initials "WG", has underlined the location with a blue pen.

Another transcript is dated January 19, 2011, nearly a month before the anti-Qaddafi uprising began in Benghazi. "Nothing will happen" if we wait for teachers, doctors and lawyers to take to the street, the author of the intercepted message writes. "We need to work on mosques, where all the Libyans go to pray."

Col Qaddafi's electronic snoopers were particularly interested in human-rights monitors such as Heba Morayef of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who oversaw the group's Libya reporting. Files monitoring at least two Libyan activists include emails written by her, as well as messages to her from them.

In one email, dated August 12, 2010, a Libyan activist in Benghazi pleads with Ms Morayef to help him after he and his friends have been accused by authorities of providing information abroad about the human-rights situation in Libya. "We need someone to help," the activist writes.

All of the activist's conversations with reporters at Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, also are transcribed. The transcriptions consist of news of demonstrations taking place in Benghazi.

While Col Qaddafi established an elaborate surveillance network soon after he took power in a military coup nearly 42 years ago, the lifting of trade sanctions by the international community in 2004 in exchange for handing over the suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 and ending his weapons of mass destruction programme proved a great boon. Libya massively upgraded its snooping technology.

The Tripoli spy centre served multiple functions. In addition to electronic snooping, there are thick-walled rooms in the basement that were used as detention cells, says Mahmoud Al Kish, 34, who says he was held there a decade ago.

"I was here for a year," says Mr Al Kish, shaking as he entered the building again. "They arrested me because I had a beard and I was praying at the mosque. They called me a 'terrorist'. Everybody was slapping me."

It is not known how many spies worked here, but they appear to have fled in haste. There appeared to be no attempt to destroy the files. And on Monday, the snooping equipment was still beeping.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae