The plot seemed lifted from an espionage tale. Its setting was the shadowy maze of Cairo’s back alleys. Its characters were by turns cunning, mercenary and inept. But the drama played out by agents of the Libyan and Egyptian intelligence services was altogether real life. And it offered instructive commentary, in this case, on the tradecraft of modern terrorism —and its practitioners.
The first chapter was familiar. On Nov. 16 the Libyan news agency Jana claimed that a Libyan-sponsored assassination team in Cairo had killed Abdul Hamid Bakoush, the nation’s former prime minister and arch-foe of Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Khadafy. In recent years similar hit squads have eliminated dozens of exiled enemies of Khadafy’s radical, pro-Moscow regime. But then, just as Tripoli began revelling in its victorious strike against another “stray dog,” the Egyptians stage-managed a stunning sting operation.
At a Cairo news conference, Egyptian intelligence officials presented the diminutive Bakoush, 46, very much alive and well. Not only had they conned the assassins into believing that Bakoush had died, they had also tricked Khadafy into admitting that he had sponsored the murder attempt. Revealing details of the operation last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Khadafy “an international terrorist,” and said Libyan hit squads had plans to
assassinate other world leaders, including Helmut Kohl of West Germany, Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.
But if Khadafy was humiliated by the Egyptian Mabahis Amn-el Dawla (state security police) sting operation, he did not show it. In Malta, where he was paying an official visit, Khadafy merely declared that the allegations were “to be laughed at and ridiculed,” while the Libyan press warned that Mubarak faced the same fate as his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in October, 1981.
Western intelligence experts gave the Egyptians high marks for execution, but were puzzled that Khadafy’s own security officials had hired agents as unprofessional and incompetent as the two Maltese and two British nationals allegedly retained.
None, Egyptian officials claimed, had any prior experience in terrorism, yet the Libyans had paid them $250,000 to arrange Bakoush’s murder. Uncertain even how to begin the assignment, the four—already under surveillance in Cairo—unwittingly recruited Egyptian intelligence of-
ficials to carry out the act. The Egyptians then staged an elaborate illusion of death, complete with photographs depicting a glassy-eyed Bakoush lying in a pool of blood, a bullet hole in his head. Later, the mercenaries delivered the photographic evidence to Tripoli intelligence, while Bakoush relaxed in the Southern Egyptian city of Aswan.
But Cairo’s sting did not prevent Khadafy from scoring another coup of his own last week. The French government reluctantly admitted that it had blundered badly in implementing a September troop withdrawal agreement with Tripoli. Paris had earlier § announced that both sides had fulfilled the accord by simultaneously removing forces from Chad, the civil war-torn central African nation, thereby ending a tense 15-month confrontation. But armed with U.S. satellite photographs, French President François Mitterrand acknowledged last week that as many as 3,000 Libyans remained in Chad, while French forces had departed. Paris immediately put 1,100 troops on standby to resume their role as a buffer between Chadian President Hissène Habré’s forces and those of his Libyan-backed rival, Goukouni Oueddi.
For Mitterrand, Khadafy’s doublecross represented a political as well as a diplomatic defeat. He faced a storm of criticism, at home and abroad, for his handling of the affair. In Paris, right-wing opponents accused Mitterrand of deliberately concealing the Libyan presence, and called it the worst humiliation France had suffered in years. In Washington, U.S. officials grumbled that France had ignored satellite intelligence exposing the Libyan presence even after the Nov. 10 departure date. Khadafy maintained that he was still “totally committed to the agreement on Chad.” But French officials made it clear that if Libya did not meet a new, unspecified deadline for withdrawal, its own forces would “take all “ necessary measures.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.