Decades after the disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr, the mystery remains

According to Mahmoud Jibril, head of Libya's national transitional council in 2011, the search for the missing imam and his companions resulted in a dead end.

Imam Musa al Sadr, a charismatic leader whose disappearance is sill a mystery. AFP/File

The fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 raised hopes that the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr on Aug 31, 1978 would finally be explained. But the Libyan dictator and several of his loyal lieutenants have died–their secrets buried with them–and other regime insiders, now in prison or exile, are still adhering to a code of silence.

After entering Tripoli in August 2011, Libya’s new authorities believed for a moment that they had found the remains of Imam al-Sadr, the charismatic Lebanese Shiite leader. A guard at the dreaded Abu Salim prison claimed to have kept watch over a prisoner who matched al-Sadr’s description and who died in jail. But DNA analysis revealed that the remains actually belonged to Mansour Kikhia, a prominent Libyan opposition leader who was kidnapped by Gaddafi’s henchmen in Cairo in 1993, Mahmoud Jibril, former president of the National Transitional Council (NTC) set up following the Libyan rebellion in 2011, told L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).

The story of al-Sadr’s disappearance is as implausible as it is peculiar. The only verified fact is that he arrived in Libya at the end of August 1978 with two companions, Sheikh Mohammad Yaacoub and the journalist Abbas Badreddine. According to the Gaddafi regime’s version of events, the trio boarded a flight to Italy on Aug. 31. But al-Sadr and his companions never arrived at their supposed destination.

The final night

August 1978. In the lobby of the al-Chati hotel in Tripoli, politicians, journalists and intellectuals from across the Arab world are gathered to participate in the 9th annual celebration of the Libyan revolution, set to take place on Sept. 1. But one man stands out from the crowd, looking less enthusiastic: Imam Musa al-Sadr. He arrived in Tripoli on Aug. 25 and had been waiting for an audience with the unpredictable Gaddafi, who had a reputation for making hosts and guests wait for days–and sometimes even weeks–before meeting with them. According to numerous sources, al-Sadr was in Tripoli on the advice of Algerian President Houari Boumedienne and was seeking to clarify things with Gaddafi, who was accused of fueling the civil war in Lebanon by financing several armed movements. The relationship between the two men was not at its best.

Jordanian journalist Shaker Jawhari tells OLJ that he saw al-Sadr in the lobby of the hotel on Aug. 28. "His eyes were red and he seemed worried, anxious; constantly looking around,” said Jawhari, who was working for a Kuwaiti magazine at the time.

Three days later, Jawhari saw the Imam at the hotel reception in the morning with two suitcases next to him. "I asked him if he could grant me an interview, and he said, ‘I'm leaving for Paris now.’ I pointed out to him that he was going to miss the celebrations of the anniversary of the revolution, to which he replied, ‘I really need to go to Paris.’” His wife was sick and receiving treatment there.

Jawhari’s account was supported by Talal Salman, owner of the as-Safir newspaper, who was invited by the Gaddafi regime to attend the anniversary, along with other Lebanese journalists. Salman was staying in the same hotel and met al-Sadr. "We knew he was waiting to be received by Gaddafi, but we did not know if the interview had taken place," he told OLJ.

Gaddafi received Salman and other attendees from Lebanon, including Mohammad Kabbani and Bechara Merhej (both of whom became MPs later), the day before al-Sadr’s departure. “The meeting lasted four or five hours," Salman recalled. “It was a dialogue dedicated to his political vision." The vision was laid out in Gaddafi’s famous Green Book and called, among other incoherences, for a third path between Marxism and capitalism.

When Salman returned to the hotel on the night of Aug. 30, he saw al-Sadr for the last time. Al-Sadr was invited to a Ramadan iftar hosted by the Lebanese charge d'affaires, Nizar Farhat, but insisted on returning to the hotel early, hoping that he would have an audience with Gaddafi. "The imam told us he was going to leave Libya because he did not want to participate in the festivities,” Salman said. "He told me, 'I do not want to sit on the podium behind Gaddafi who will be insulting Arab leaders.'"

Jawhari claims to be the last person to have seen al-Sadr and his two companions, Badreddine and Yaacoub, before they left the hotel in an official Libyan car for the airport on the morning of Aug. 31. "I helped him carry one of his suitcases. The three men took place in a black (Libyan) protocol Peugeot, and I personally shut the car door," he said.

The men were never seen again.

Flight 881 to Rome

Forty-one years later, there are still many unanswered questions: was the imam, a man of moderation and dialogue, in conflict with Gaddafi, who was adding fuel to the conflict in Lebanon? Did al-Sadr meet Gaddafi before he disappeared as some Lebanese sources, who say the meeting didn’t go well, claim?

According to Jawhari, the former second in command of the Palestinian Liberation Organizations (PLO), Abu Iyad, told him that he asked Gaddafi years later whether it was possible his security services disposed of al-Sadr without Gaddafi’s knowledge. “Possible,” was Gaddafi’s alleged single-word response.

The Gaddafi regime’s official stance is that al-Sadr and his companions took Alitalia flight 881 to rome on the evening of Aug. 31. But al-Sadr never mentioned that he was planning to fly to the Italian capital. When he was in Tripoli, al-Sadr even asked Farhat, the Lebanese chargé d'affaires, to verify that the French visas on his passport and his companions’ passports were valid. Farhat confirmed that al-Sadr and Yaacoub’s visas were valid, but had to obtain an urgent visa for Badreddine from the French Embassy in Tripoli.

In mid September, Omar Messeika, director general of the presidency of the council, was dispatched to the Libyan capital by Lebanese authorities, who were alarmed by the disappearance of al-Sadr. Following many delays, Messeika told the newspaper al-Liwa that he was received by Abdessalam Jalloud, the second in command in Libya.

Jalloud was in charge of the Lebanese file and told Messeika that al-Sadr and his companions had taken flight 881 to Rome, providing the passengers list for the flight with the three names on it and departure cards from the airport in Tripoli as evidence. However, the crew and passengers on the flight, which was two hours late, all claimed to Italian investigators that they had not seen a man resembling al-Sadr, noticeably tall and who would have been wearing religious clothing, onboard.

Jalloud told Messeika that al-Sadr “did not seem pleased with his stay because we were busy with dozens of delegations and hundreds of personalities" and that he "decided to leave without telling us." Al-Sadr was born in Iran, and Jalloud hinted that he may have been kidnapped in Italy by the Shah’s government, which had revoked his citizenship.

A disturbing fact emerged from the Italian chargé d'affaires who said that he issued visas to al-Sadr and two of his companions on Aug. 31 after their passports arrived at the consulate via courier without any recommendation from the Lebanese embassy.

The revelations of Nouri al-Mesmari, a former Libyan regime official who defected in 2010 and who was chief of protocol at the time of al-Sadr’s disappearance, shed some light on this part of the mystery. In an interview with al-Hayat newspaper in 2012, al-Mesmari said that Abdullah Senoussi, the future head of Libyan intelligence who was an officer in the military information at the time, sent him three passports, including al-Sadr’s, asking him for Italian visa stamps. Al-Mesmari called the Italian ambassador in Tripoli and urgently sent him the travel documents to receive the visas. “[Al-Sadr] did not enter Italy, and this country has no connection whatsoever with his fate," al-Mesmari told al-Hayat.

Al-Mesmari currently lives in exile. "The person who went to Italy is someone who pretended to be the imam. He is an intelligence officer who was chosen for his high stature and his resemblance to Sadr,” he said. The three men who pretended to be al-Sadr and his companions entered Italy with the passports of the three Lebanese, which they later left in a hotel in Rome, according to al-Mesmari, "and returned to Libya with Libyan diplomatic passports.”

Italian investigators reported that two men, including one dressed as a Muslim cleric, arrived at the Holiday Inn in Rome on Sept. 1 and registed under the names of Musa al-Sadr and Mohammad Yaacoub. They booked two adjoining rooms and paid in advance for a one week stay. Ten minutes later, they came out of their room and left the hotel. The man who had entered wearing religious clothing was now dressed in civilian clothing, and the men never returned to the hotel. The hotel staff found the passports belonging to al-Sadr and his two companions in one of the rooms as well as their luggage. Their clothes were mixed up in the suitcases, and al-Sadr’s watch was in one of the bags, broken and without a band.

In July 2015, following a 34 year legal investigation, Italian authorities concluded that al-Sadr never set foot in the country.

The most plausible hypothesis

Between 1978 and the fall of the Gaddafi regime, some dissidents claimed that al-Sadr and his companions had been killed, but were unable to provide any evidence.

Jibril, president of the Libyan NTC from March 23 to Oct 23, 2011, told OLJ that the country’s new authorities tried in vain to solve the mystery. "When we entered Tripoli, we wanted to try to clarify the mysteries regarding the disappearance of two personalities: Imam Musa al-Sadr and Mansour Kikhia (former Libyan Minister of Foreign Affairs who defected in 1980)... When we started our investigation, we interviewed a guard from Abu Salim prison who told us that he was in charge of supervising a prisoner held in solitary confinement who was tall, had a fair complexion and was suffering from diabetes," characteristics shared by al-Sadr and Kikhia, Jibril explained.

"According to the prison guard, the prisoner died later on due to diabetes, and his body was put in a freezer which was placed in the cell, and which he was instructed to watch for years. At the time of the fall of Tripoli in August 2011, the electricity was cut off, the ice melted, and the body was dragged outside the cell and taken to a hospital. We thought it might be the imam's, but the DNA analysis revealed that it was Mansour Kikhia," he continued.

Jibril said that he was in contact with Nagib Mikati, prime minister of Lebanon at the time, and that Adnan Mansour, Lebanon’s minister of foreign affairs at the time, came to Tripoli and a group of Libyan investigators went to Lebanon to inform Lebanese officials of the result of the preliminary investigation. "Until now, we do not know who is responsible for the crime of his disappearance, and every time we kept on reaching a dead end,” Jibril said. “None of those who came to power after Feb. 17 (the day the Libyan revolution began) knows the fate of Imam al-Sadr, and those who claim to do so are lying… Those who were involved in this case are extremely few.”

"Some say that the imam was killed and that his body was thrown into the sea or buried in the desert, but these are just speculations,” Jibril continued.

Immediately following the fall of the Gaddafi regime, the outgoing Libyan representative to the Arab League, Abdel Moneim al-Honi, said: "Musa al-Sadr was killed during his infamous visit to Libya and was buried in the region of Sebha (in the south of the country).” But Libyan sources point out that al-Honi was part of the opposition in 1978 and could not be aware of what happened.

Another Libyan official, Mohammad Ismail, told the New York Times in 2016 that al-Sadr "was killed" after a "dispute with the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi... We said that he went to Italy.” In reality, his body was thrown into the sea, according to Ismail. The same Libyan source said that Ismail, who was close to Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, was too young at the time to remember or be aware of the case.

Jibril said that the former head of Libyan intelligence, the much feared Senoussi, who was also Gaddafi’s brother-in-law, was interrogated by several intelligence services, including the Lebanese, in Mauritania, but denied being linked to the case. Senoussi, who was a major figure in Libya, was arrested in March 2012 at the airport in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, after arriving from Casablanca. He had a fake Malian passport and was handed over to Libyan authorities in September of that year.

Jalloud, Gaddafi’s second in command who was in charge of the Lebanon and Syria files and who is currently in exile in Europe, claims to know nothing about what happened to al-Sadr and says that Gaddafi refused to bring up the subject.

"The most likely assumption is that he was eliminated, but nobody knows the real truth,” Jibril said.

The imam and the shah

It remains to be seen who benefited from the crime. When al-Sadr disappeared, many witnesses said there had been tensions between Gaddafi and the imam over Lebanese politics, the actions of Palestinian organizations financed by Libya in south Lebanon, or even financial or theological conflicts with Gaddafi.

But a book about the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, “The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran”, offers a fresh perspective, suggesting that the Iranian revolutionary mullahs, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in exile at the time, believed that al-Sadr was a threat. The book’s author, Andrew S. Cooper, a Middle East specialist and professor at Columbia University who met many of the Shah’s relatives, said that the Shah and al-Sadr were secretly in contact despite appearing to be in conflict in public. The Iranian monarch, according to Cooper, wanted al-Sadr to return to Iran a couple of months before he was overthrown to counteract Khomeini’s revolutionary ambitions.

"The shah was willing to start a dialogue with Musa al-Sadr," Cooper told the New York Times. “I would say that he was the biggest hope in terms of coexistence between Shiism and modernity. His disappearance put an end to this, and opened the way to a militant Islam in Iran."

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on September 1, 2018)

The fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 raised hopes that the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr on Aug 31, 1978 would finally be explained. But the Libyan dictator and several of his loyal lieutenants have died–their secrets buried with them–and other regime insiders, now in prison or exile, are still adhering to a code of silence. After entering Tripoli in August...