Inside the High-Stakes Race to Recover Qaddafi’s Ill-Gotten Billions

On an April morning in Vienna in 2012, a body was spotted floating in the Danube.

It did not take long for Austrian authorities to identify the deceased: a 69-year-old Libyan named Shukri Ghanem. Though not a household name, Ghanem was an erudite, enigmatic, and powerful figure who, after earning a doctorate at Tufts, rose to become prime minister, and later oil minister, of a country teeming with black gold and corruption. He was preceded in death by his political patron, Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s longtime leader, who six months earlier had been killed by opposition forces in Sirte, his seaside birthplace.

While the gruesome spectacle surrounding Qaddafi’s death had been preserved for posterity on viral video, little fuss was made over Ghanem’s. An inquest by the Viennese state prosecutor’s office ruled out foul play. Officials quietly concluded that he had suffered a heart attack before falling into the water and drowning. Though the Austrians touted their findings with Teutonic certitude, it is hard to find a diplomat, academic, or spy who buys the benign account of his passing. “When Shukri Ghanem died, the estimate was that he had billions,” said an American investigator who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information surrounding the matter. “As head of the National Oil Corporation, he was both skimming and moving money, with Qaddafi’s blessing. No one thinks Shukri’s death was a coincidence. It was a statement.”

Nestled in a quiet corner of London’s Ham Yard Hotel was the man reputed to lead what many consider to be the world’s biggest and most unruly treasure hunt. His operation involves tracing and helping to freeze, seize, and ultimately recover a mind-boggling array of assets: billions in bank accounts, bonds, cash, gold, and real estate as well as scores of rare antiquities. Most were allegedly looted by Qaddafi and his cronies over four decades. Other riches are believed to have been hauled away by an array of politicians, terrorists, and shape-shifters who have sought to fill Libya’s post-Qaddafi power vacuum. At the helm of the hunt is a dapper 60-year-old named Mohamed Ramadan Mensli. Almost everyone calls him Mo.

When I arrived, he was seated in a booth in the hotel restaurant, his elegant blue suit and black horn-rimmed glasses allowing him to blend in amid the bustle of a city where so many people dress like bankers. That façade crumbled as soon as Mo opened his mouth. “I would not be surprised if it’s hundreds of billions and perhaps into the trillions that was stolen,” he suggested, with a mix of awe and disgust. “The system Qaddafi and his people created to evade sanctions and move assets and wealth out of Libya and around the world—it’s a masterpiece. I think Qaddafi was a son of a bitch. But he knew how to play the game.”

Mohamed Mensli in Paris.

Photograph by Jake Burghart.

Muammar Qaddafi, of course, was not the first kleptocrat to grace the world stage over the last half century. Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Mobutu Sese Seko, Saddam Hussein…the list is long and ignominious. But save for Vladimir Putin and his array of oligarchs (who by some estimates may have siphoned off as much as $1 trillion), Qaddafi may well have been the most rapacious. Oil lubricated Libya’s swing toward modernity and underwrote a graft-and-patronage machine that kept him in power for 42 years, enriching those in his orbit in ways that are hard to fathom and may be impervious to an accurate accounting. Now, there is a global endeavor to win some of those riches back.

This story is a deep dive into these efforts—and a chronicle of my encounters with the motley cast of characters who have emerged as Libya has attempted to recoup its purloined wealth—including in recent weeks, its artworks. It is also an exploration of how the obscure outfit Mensli oversees—the Libyan Asset Recovery and Management Office (LARMO)—is working to repossess assets from autocrats and enablers (witting or unwitting), and, as a result, return a modicum of dignity to the Libyan people.

Long before governments around the world began to track down the ill-gotten gains of Russia’s rulers and oligarchs, a similar effort targeted Libya’s counterparts. At the U.N.’s behest, nations—in the lead-up to Qaddafi’s demise—froze the low-hanging fruit: assets in the tens of billions that belonged to the Qaddafi family, its inner circle, or state-sanctioned affiliates. A significant portion of that wealth, however, was hidden, according to intelligence sources, squirreled away by loyalists the Qaddafi clan trusted to provide plausible deniability about the money’s true owner. These individuals are said to range from the obvious (an espionage chieftain, an aide-de-camp, and a translator) to the improbable (a former waiter at a waterfront hamlet frequented by Qaddafi’s sons). Upon the Libyan leader’s death in 2011, his meticulously crafted mechanism for stealing from his people—while often evading international sanctions—collapsed.

As fear of the family’s wrath and reach subsided, several of those tending to Qaddafi’s plunder allegedly diverted it for their own purposes, including some figures who had publicly sided with the opposition. By 2012, treasure hunters—from the pin-striped set to those accustomed to tactical garb—had already begun to swoop in, lured by the promise of a windfall. One American defense contractor cut a deal with the provisional authorities to scour the world for hidden cash and accounts in exchange for a cut of the proceeds and unleashed a team of CIA, DIA, IRS, and NSC veterans in support of the effort. Art-theft experts began looking for priceless artifacts swiped from Libya that, down through the years, had shown up in prominent museums and private hands.

Tripoli became a modern-day Casablanca, a crossroads that conjured characters from Three Kings, Repo Man, and The Bourne Identity. The unholy cadre of spies, guns-for-hire, and straight-up con men who flocked there soon acquired a nickname among the Libyans. They were derisively referred to as “10 percenters” on account of the exorbitant fees they hoped to reap for identifying secret locations said to contain billions in vaults piled high with cash or bullion.

Other swindlers and shadow dwellers sought their commissions up front. “There were all of these people with intelligence, military, financial, and political backgrounds,” a veteran Libyan intelligence operative told me. “They would come to us and say, ‘There’s $1 billion in cash in Benin. Tens of billions in South Africa.’ It made no sense. But they always asked for hundreds of thousands of dollars in advance to unlock the big money—money belonging to the Libyan people.”

LARMO, which Mensli nominally took over last year, was established in 2017—by which point the race to find the loot had become so disjointed it bordered on the comical. As one retired U.S. intelligence official told me, “We actually had a mandate from the Minister of Justice. But when we landed in Switzerland…and visited a bank suspected of holding dirty money, the manager said, ‘Who are you guys? Two weeks ago there were other people here claiming the same thing.’ So, we reported the names to Tripoli and found out the ‘other guys’ were charlatans. In the early days, some charlatans were able to get their hands on [a lot of] the money.”

Mensli seems to have had some success by centralizing the search and elbowing out the hucksters. Over lunch, he described the leads his team has been chasing down, occasionally scrolling through his phone to offer examples. “This one shows $32 billion in dollar-denominated accounts in European banks,” he said excitedly. “We have 58 properties in Paris alone—all Libyan assets. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” As our conversation drifted into the late afternoon, the promise and peril of his mission came into focus. One moment he was justifying the detention of the man who used to run LARMO. The next, he was phoning a Qaddafi confidant who is on a U.S. blacklist. Soon, he had the Libyan embassy in Washington on the line, discussing the latest in what would prove to be a series of seizures by law enforcement officials of rare antiquities—priceless pieces that had been spirited out of his country over the years—from high-profile collections, including The Met and that of an American billionaire.

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