Even as the Swiss-registered private jet carrying Moussa Koussa and members of his family made its final approach to Farnborough Airport on Wednesday evening, the Gaddafi regime insisted it was business-as-usual.
While Mr Koussa was shaking hands with British officials in Hampshire, his deputy told journalists he was due to meet his boss in Tripoli.
The confusion at the heart of the Libyan leadership as to the whereabouts of the man described by British diplomats as a ‘pillar of the [Gaddafi] temple’ was evidence of the success of the clandestine operation which had begun on Monday evening when a convoy of official vehicles thundered through the Ras Jdir border with Tunisia.
Ironically, it was the same crossing used weeks earlier by thousands of migrant workers fleeing the brutal oppression of Libya’s uprising.
Inside the convoy was Mr Koussa and at least one of his sons en route to Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, for what media said was a “private visit”.
News of the presence of Mr Gaddafi’s foreign minister in a neighbouring capital brought suggestions – denied in Tripoli – that a defection was imminent.
A flustered Libyan government spokesman said Mr Koussa was on a “diplomatic mission”.
What had apparently escaped the attention of Colonel Gaddafi’s apparatchiks is that Mr Koussa, once the Libyan leader’s head of intelligence and one of his most feared and blood-splattered enforcers, was indeed on a mission, that of putting the finishing touches to a deal overseen by MI6 and involving a cast of players including a former Libyan jihadi to finally disentangle himself the Tripoli regime.
His destination was Britain, a country from which he was once expelled following an extraordinary interview in which he boasted his government intended to kill two Libyan dissidents.
Mr Koussa has had dealings with British intelligence for a long time and it was comparatively easy for channels of communications to be set up once he had decided to defect. Security sources insist it was the Libyan who had made the approach, through a ‘third party’ diplomat, to go to the UK.
In 2003 Mr Koussa flew into London and met MI6 officers at the Travellers Club in Pall Mall for initial discussions which would start to bring Libya back in from the cold.
In return for paying compensation to the bereaved families of the Lockerbie bombing – which many intelligence officials believe he masterminded – handing over the suspects for the attack for trial and providing vital information on the nuclear black-market run by the Pakistani scientist AQ Khan, the US and UK would, in time, lift sanctions against Libya. As head of the country’s foreign intelligence service, he was a steady source of data on Islamist terrorism.
According to Western diplomats, Mr Koussa played a part in heavy sentences being passed on Libyan Islamists in 2003, to show the West that Tripoli remained steadfast in the war against Islamist terrorism.
Some of those former prisoners are now fighting on the rebel side being backed by the UK and the West.
One former MI6 officer said last night that he was not surprised by Mr Koussa’s defection. “We have found him to be pragmatic and someone who felt that Libya’s interests lay maintaining good relations with the West,” the former officer said. “Whatever one thinks of the government he served, he was helpful in providing some useful stuff on Islamists.”
If that had ever endeared him to the regime, his departure has rendered him a bitter enemy of Gaddafi. In a tale with many telling ironies, Whitehall sources last night let it be known that the decision on Wednesday to expel five diplomats from the Libyan embassy in Knightsbridge on grounds that they ‘could pose a threat’ to national security was at least partly informed by the imminent arrival of Mr Koussa.
By early afternoon on Wednesday, it was clear that whatever undertakings the foreign minister needed from London had been granted, albeit with the notable absence of any pledge of immunity from prosecution.
With the help of London-based intermediaries, Mr Koussa is understood to have needed time to settle matters such as transferring funds to support himself and his family before finally travelling to Britain.
At around 4pm, Mr Koussa and several family members boarded a business jet at the airport in the Tunisian resort of Djerba, some 250 miles south of Tunis. Shortly before 10pm, the Swiss-registered plane touched down at Farnborough Airport, a former RAF base in Hampshire now favoured as a hub for users of private aircraft in need of a discreet entry into the UK.
British officials were yesterday at pains to underline that the Western-educated minister had arrived in London of his own accord.
Reports that it was a British military plane – or even British-chartered – which had carried Mr Koussa, were firmly knocked down by a Foreign Office spokesman, who said only that the biggest prize yet in the subterfuge being fought out between London and Tripoli was speaking with officials in a ‘secure location’.
But there seemed little doubt that the British Government was aware of Mr Koussa’s true intentions when he arrived in Tunisia on Monday at a very early – if not the earliest – stage.
Downing Street confirmed yesterday that Prime Minister David Cameron had validated the decision to allow the Libyan spy chief into Britain, while William Hague, the foreign secretary, said that Mr Moussa had been his regular channel of communication with the Gaddafi regime in recent weeks.
The extent to which the Government was prepared for Mr Koussa’s arrival was underlined by the fact that the Foreign Office had a press statement announcing his arrival primed for release “the moment the wheels hit the runway at Farnborough”.
The presence of Mr Koussa on British soil is, at least in part, due to the efforts of Noman Benotman, a friend and formerly an ardent jihadi with links to Osama bin Laden, who now works for the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation. The foundation said yesterday that Mr Benotman had been “heavily involved” in encouraging and co-ordinating the defection.
Mr Benotman said Mr Koussa, who is a native of the city of Benghazi, which the seat of the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi, had grown disaffected: “He wasn’t happy at all. He doesn’t support the government’s attacks on civilians. He’s seeking refuge in Britain and hopes he will be treated well.”
At least in public, the Libyan leadership had given no inkling that it knew of the true intentions of the man who was the only figure outside the Gaddafi family to be trusted with the most sensitive issues – and according to American intelligence sources, the dirtiest secrets – of the regime.
While Mr Koussa’s plane was en route to Hampshire, his deputy Khaled Kaim insisted his boss was already back in Libya. Mr Kaim said: “I plan to meet with him this evening”.
If that really was his plan, it was soon to be dashed beyond all doubt.