Libyans fear the scorpion sting of Gaddafi’s informers

Locals call them pimps or snitches. They wear plain clothes, drive unmarked cars and are as numerous as scorpions in the Libyan desert, only more dangerous. Loathed and feared in equal measure, they are the eyes and ears of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and a large part of the reason that Tripoli has not been able to join the revolt sweeping the country.

The informers’ work has caused hundreds of men and women, perhaps many more, to be swept up into interrogation centres for the merest hint of dissent since Libya’s uprising began four months ago. A stroll through the capital’s old city on Friday morning, which started with a cup of tea and ended in the back of a battered pick-up surrounded by screaming men with cocked AK-47s, offered an insight into their methods.

Together with Martin Fletcher, a Times reporter, I had planned to spend Friday morning in Tripoli’s picturesque medina, killing time until lunchtime prayers. Then we would take a taxi to a suburb called Tajura where, according to rumours sweeping the city, an anti-Gaddafi protest was planned for the afternoon.

We slipped out of the Rixos hotel, where all foreign journalists have to stay, at 8.45am, minutes before the government minders instructed the guards not to let anyone else through the gate, and took a taxi to the seafront. It being a Friday — the Arab equivalent of a Sunday — the downtown area was quiet.

At a sidewalk café we had a cup of tea, and made small talk with the Algerian and Tunisian staff. A middle-aged man in a brown shirt seated near us was paying too much attention, so we quickly moved on. One of the customers ran after us with two cans of Coke, a gift in keeping with ordinary Libyans’ unfailing generosity.

We strolled down Omar Mukhtar Street, where five men smoking shisha pipes invited us to sit down for a coffee. Two of them spoke English. They discussed the situation in Libya, choosing their words wisely, and invited us to visit the city when the war was over. They took our business cards, but declined to give their own phone numbers.

‘Be careful what you say’
“I think you know why,” one of the men said. The phone lines have ears too.

When the man began to talk about Nato, the other English speaker, a genial man with a yellow nicotine stain on his silver moustache, hissed: “Be careful what you say.” Suddenly, they all stood up and left, wishing us well. Something had made them feel uneasy.

Further up the road, we stopped at the ambitiously named Four Seasons hotel, which had three large pictures of Gaddafi at the reception desk. As we sat on the terrace, a slim young man with a crisp white T-shirt tucked into his jeans arrived and took a seat nearby. Martin walked across the road to make a phone call and I wrote in my notebook. A friendly young Egyptian waiter told us there were no milkshakes — we were getting bored of tea and coffee — so we moved on.

A few blocks away, we noticed the man in the white T-shirt loitering on the corner. As we walked on, he followed us, so we doubled back past him, and slipped into the narrow streets of the labyrinth-like medina.We emerged onto the corniche where, while admiring the cobalt sea, we realised we had a new tail. Or rather two tails; one in red shirt with a straw hat, the other in a blue and white sport shirt. Soon, the man in the white T-shirt joined them.

Suddenly a red pick-up screeched to a halt next to us. Five men, one in a khaki uniform but the others in plain clothes, jumped out, pointing their AK-47s at us. “Get in, get in!” they shouted. When we resisted they cocked their guns. We got in.

The pick-up sped off, with our three “tails” now on the back. The gunmen inside screamed “Shut up!” and “No English” as we tried to explain that we were journalists. Racing along the seafront, we pulled up behind a police van at Green Square, in the heart of the city. Immediately another dozen or so unmarked police cars, surrounded us.

The man in the white T-shirt took Martin’s satellite phone and passport, and demanded my notebook. I refused, handing over my journalist card instead. Shouting at us all the while, the security agents, now more than 20, most of them out of uniform, started arguing among themselves over what to do. Eventually they allowed us out of the car, where we saw that they had arrested the young Egyptian waiter from the coffee shop and brought him here. He looked terrified.

A sinister-looking man called Mortaza — camouflage pants, slicked backed hair, beard, sunglasses — turned out to be the most reasonable. After we told him that the Egyptian had barely spoken to us, he ordered him released. The man in the white T-shirt fumed, and shouted “Liar, liar” at Martin.

A smart black sedan with tinted windows and a huge security agent in the passenger seat took us back to the hotel. As we got out, the bodyguard said gruffly: “We are sorry.” –


Mabuza’s ‘distant relative’ scored big

Eskom’s woes are often because of boiler problems at its power plants. R50-billion has been set aside to fix them, but some of the contracts are going to questionable entities

ANC faction gunning for Gordhan

The ambush will take place at an NEC meeting about Eskom. But the real target is Cyril Ramaphosa

What the law could clarify this year

Lawfare: Major developments are on the cards where law and politics meet, including the first amendment to South Africa’s Bill of Rights

The secret ‘Warmonger’ at the SSA

A listening device acquired by the agency is at the centre of an alleged R600-million fraud operation

Press Releases

New-style star accretion bursts dazzle astronomers

Associate Professor James O Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever are part of an international team of astronomers studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar.

2020 risk outlook: Use GRC to build resilience

GRC activities can be used profitably to develop an integrated risk picture and response, says ContinuitySA.

MTN voted best mobile network

An independent report found MTN to be the best mobile network in SA in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Is your tertiary institution is accredited?

Rosebank College is an educational brand of The Independent Institute of Education, which is registered with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Is your tertiary institution accredited?

Rosebank College is an educational brand of The Independent Institute of Education, which is registered with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

VUT chancellor, Dr Xolani Mkhwanazi, dies

The university conferred the degree of Doctor of Science Honoris Causa on Dr Xolani Mkhwanazi for his outstanding leadership contributions to maths and science education development.

Innovate4AMR now in second year

SA's Team pill-Alert aims to tackle antimicrobial resistance by implementing their strategic intervention that ensures patients comply with treatment.

Medical students present solution in Geneva

Kapil Narain and Mohamed Hoosen Suleman were selected to present their strategic intervention to tackle antimicrobial resistance to an international panel of experts.