While spooks, treasure hunters, and lawyers search for cash, gold, and antiquities, Libya offers a lesson—and 1,001 cautionary tales—about how to recoup loot from kleptocrats.
JUNE 9, 2022
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.”
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.
Tattered though his country’s reputation may be, Mo Mensli made one thing clear: Libya wants its shit back.
Acorpse on the Danube. A hotel near the Thames. An embassy a short drive from the Potomac. In February, I was on a different river—the Seine—in a 1965 Riva Super Florida speedboat.
Cruising past Notre Dame, I was catching up with Tim Lawrence, 52, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Maine whom I first met when he was serving as a U.S. military attaché in Israel, overseeing America’s special-operations portfolio there. With his gregarious, devil-may-care disposition, the Springsteen fanatic (he named his youngest child Bruce) put away the uniform, and in 2014 moved to Tunisia where he began advising and assisting governments across North Africa that were battling insurgents. “Libya has been in chaos and civil strife and various degrees of armed conflict since the fall of Qaddafi,” he remarked. “They now have a prime minister in the east, a prime minister in the west. It’s like those old bars in the States with people banging away on the keys trying to outplay each other. Dueling pianos.”
The U.S. evacuated its diplomats from Tripoli in 2014 and established what amounts to an embassy in exile in Tunis. Ever since, Lawrence has had a front-row seat to the mishigas. Last summer, after decades chasing terrorists, he joined a different quest: helping LARMO try to repossess some of Libya’s loot.
“I dubbed this Operation Rainbow: There may be a pot of gold at the end of it,” he chuckled as we sailed past the Louvre—a fitting backdrop considering that one of the caches on LARMO’s checklist has been exhibited at the museum: four stunning statues pillaged from Cyrene, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in and around the modern-day Libyan city of Shahat. (The museum said that “the artworks presented at the Louvre in this exhibition were deposited by French Customs,” which seized the antiquities in 2012 and 2016. French Customs has said that French law permits the display of illegally trafficked artworks “with a view to their preservation,” and that antiquities will be returned to their “legitimate owner” after a “judicial inquiry.”) Lawrence, whom Mensli enlisted to help with the high-stakes scavenger hunt, grinned as he considered what it has wrought. “When the fairy tales and stories are in the hundreds of billions of dollars, that generates its own counterculture, microcosm, special breed of folks.”
He is not kidding.
In August, a Canadian acquaintance who kept his eyes on the search for the lost Libyan funds hit up Lawrence for help with a “lucrative opportunity” in Ghana, but was cagey about the particulars. After a flurry of encrypted exchanges, Lawrence learned that the undertaking involved retrieving and extracting 60 pallets’ worth of Qaddafi’s cash—labeled “family valuables” on a reputed customs manifest—from a secure storage area. Having served in war zones where Uncle Sam was known to dole out large sums to grease the palms of allies, Lawrence did some back-of-the-envelope math: “You need a forklift to move a single pallet. A single pallet—at a meter and a half by a meter and a half that’s composed of $100 bills—would be $100 million. So 10 of those for $1 billion, multiplied by six.”
After sizing up the logistical and security challenges, he joined forces with a ragtag Canadian American team bound for Ghana. But upon arrival in Accra, the country’s picturesque capital on the Gulf of Guinea, two things became evident. First, there was some uncertainty about the money’s whereabouts: It was said to be in one of two warehouses situated some 20 miles apart. Second, they did not have a plan for how to secure, much less move, the money. And that was where the Tuareg fit in.
By definition, the Tuareg are a nomadic people spread across the Sahel-Sahara, a group Muammar Qaddafi occasionally empowered during his reign—and entrusted before his fall—to protect his family, allies, and interests. Thus, it seemed plausible that a contact they called the Tuareg was what he claimed to be; namely, a dependable custodian for a large cache belonging to the departed Libyan leader. The Americans in the group say they were circumspect. “He’s wearing $10 worth of clothing. He’s basically illiterate and he hasn’t showered in days,” Lawrence remembered. “Is that dude sitting on $6 billion for 10 years? Not unless he’s doing some seriously deep-cover shit. I mean, if you’re caretaking that much money for that long, you’re living in a penthouse.”
The team seemed convinced nonetheless, based on an understanding that the Tuareg and another man known simply as the Kurd had previously gone into the warehouse. Inside the facility, the Tuareg, with no small amount of pageantry, opened a sealed pallet chock full of $100 bills. He even provided a couple of Benjamins as a show of good faith, which the Kurd evidently took to a bank where they were judged to be genuine.
Soon, the North American crew would be driving out to the desert to try their luck.
Before Qaddafi arrived on scene, self-determination had been a historical aberration for Libya. Its inhabitants and territory—two and a half times the size of Texas, with 1,100 miles of prime Mediterranean coastline—had been controlled by Hannibal and the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Ottomans, as well as the Italians, British, and French. In 1951, Libya’s only monarch, Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi as-Senussi, took over and during an otherwise unremarkable reign, struck oil, which proved both a blessing and a curse for a country that was among the poorest on the planet. In 1969, Qaddafi, the 27-year-old son of a camel herder, dethroned King Idris.
“He was the Middle Eastern Fidel Castro,” Jonathan Winer, President Obama’s special envoy for Libya, told me, recalling that Qaddafi, after taking power, “wanted to export socialist revolution to the rest of the world. And, like Fidel, he failed almost everywhere. Unlike Fidel, he didn’t need a patron to provide economic support because he had oil. So he was Fidel with oil money and less education.”
Not to mention malevolent intent. Save for a brief respite in the aughts, Qaddafi long bedeviled the West with his erratic ways, theatrical public appearances, and outright brutality. His nation supplied arms to terrorists, allowed insurgents safe harbor, and plotted (unsuccessfully) to assassinate leaders of other countries. In the 1980s, a discotheque attack in Berlin and two airplane bombings, all plotted by Libyan agents, killed hundreds. (After his death, the 2012 assault on the American consulate in Benghazi claimed the lives of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, a State Department employee, and two CIA contractors.)
The Arab Spring, which arose in neighboring Tunisia in 2010, quickly spread to Libya and kickstarted a revolution. “We were focused on getting Qaddafi out,” recalled Ben Fishman, who served as Obama’s NSC point person for Libya and North Africa and is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Once it became apparent that he wouldn’t leave on his own, wouldn’t see or listen to any of our envoys, and said we were all supporting terrorists, we froze everything.” The U.N. Security Council adopted two resolutions. The first ordered the seizure of identifiable assets belonging to Qaddafi, his family, and key allies. The second targeted state-owned entities such as the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). To this day, some $70 billion in LIA funds alone remain frozen.
Jonathan Winer was named special envoy not long after the Benghazi attack became a political minefield, one which career-minded Washingtonians ran from, not toward. “I never would have had the chance to work on Libya if it wasn’t considered a lost cause,” he explained. Acerbic and contrarian, Winer, who worked under Secretary of State John Kerry recalled how Kerry’s deputy, Bill Burns (now the head of the CIA), tasked Winer with the post-Benghazi overhaul: “Chris Stevens was murdered, and they needed somebody who was willing to go in and deal with something that was not likely to succeed.”
Meanwhile, foreign nations and terrorists moved in, jockeying for power and resources. When ISIS swept in, too, seeking to bisect the country in 2014, Washington helped Libya extirpate many of the group’s fighters. “As Samuel Johnson suggested, nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging,” Winer observed. “In this case, there were actual beheadings on the beach.”
In 2020, civil war gave way to a cease-fire and the U.N. helped establish a political process to pick an executive to run the fractured country. The darkhorse victor: a wealthy businessman named Abdulhamid Dabaiba, who in early 2021, assumed the post of interim prime minister in Tripoli, in the western sector of the country. In the arid east, this past February, the Libyan House of Representatives, angered by Dabaiba’s failure to hold national elections as scheduled, picked a rival prime minister, Fathi Bashaga.
Talk about dueling pianos. As Mensli recounted, last June, Dabaiba placed him in charge of the LARMO effort to find and reclaim the country’s missing riches. But even as Mensli moved into new digs on the prime minister’s compound, a man named Anwar Arif—who had been running LARMO since its inception—continued operating from a separate suite of offices on the outskirts of town, according to sources familiar with the situation. That is, until last December, when Arif was called into the Libyan attorney general’s office and detained.
To try and understand why—and why I had been meeting with Mensli in London, instead of his predecessor, Arif—I went to see a bookish 53-year-old attorney named Oren Warshavsky in his spacious office in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Plaza, overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Warshavsky is a partner at BakerHostetler, a prominent firm with roughly a thousand lawyers. He cochairs the company’s Global Fraud and International Asset Tracing and Recovery team, which made its bones by helping to claw back nearly three quarters of the $19.6 billion that Bernie Madoff stole in what remains the largest Ponzi scheme ever. “Within a 12-day period we filed about 1,200 lawsuits against 4,000 parties worldwide,” he said of the Madoff madness. “These Madoff cases allowed us to try new tactics in jurisdictions that otherwise don’t usually allow discovery, like Luxembourg and Monaco, and we challenged bank secrecy practices in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.”
It made a lot of sense, then, that LARMO had enlisted Warshavsky to help the office go after the larcenists who had fleeced Libya. Warshavsky’s firm took on the case, which in time may prove to be “the largest international asset recovery effort of all time.” In December, he lobbed a legal grenade in New York’s Southern District, filing an application on LARMO’s behalf that asked a federal judge to compel eight of the world’s biggest banks to turn over records of Qaddafi’s money movements.
“LARMO’s mandate,” Warshavsky maintained, “is to recover anything stolen or misappropriated from Libya. We quickly started adding things up, based on public sources—like the U.N., WikiLeaks, the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, and so on—and worked with a few different investigators who’ve followed Libya, and whom we trust. Some would say that as much as $300 billion has been stolen. Those sources also indicate that Qaddafi’s family alone may account for $40 to $200 billion. It’s hard to wrap your head around those numbers.”
Days after the filing, Arif was in Libyan custody. Several individuals with knowledge of the matter maintained that he was confined to a detention center in Tripoli run by the Ministry of the Interior. While Arif was allowed access to food and medicine, these sources noted, his communication devices were seized, and he was granted only intermittent visits with his family. These sources told me that Libya’s attorney general did not satisfactorily answer their requests to articulate why, and on whose orders, Arif had been detained in the first place. One U.S. official, echoing the sentiments of others, said she believes Warshavsky’s court filing had been too public a gesture for some members of the Libyan power elite, worried perhaps that legal proceedings in New York might ensnare current officials who themselves had played some role in Qaddafi’s original money grab. “Had Anwar [Arif] continued behind the scenes, doing his work, he might not have ended up in detention.” (Western sources in regular contact with Arif said that he was released after nearly two months, when appellate courts upheld an earlier decision by a government supervisory body—the Administrative Control Authority—declaring that the prime minister’s office lacked the authority to remove and replace Arif.)
While Arif would not agree to comment for this story, some in his camp believe he was relieved of his LARMO duties because Dabaiba wanted to keep Arif’s portfolio well within his bailiwick. Dabaiba’s office, meanwhile, did not provide answers to questions concerning Arif’s ouster or Dabaiba’s motives in placing LARMO under Mensli.
Those in the international community who had come to rely on Arif’s leadership questioned the changing of the guard at LARMO. “Our assumption is that Dabaiba wanted his guy there who would be more pliant and willing to send funds toward the [Dabaiba-led government] for political survival,” said one top U.S. official, who sees the maneuver as part of a broader phenomenon. “Any organization, including LARMO, that is in a position to generate cash is going to come under this kind of pressure as [opposing factions in Libya’s] east and west battle it out.” A key Libyan intelligence figure put it even more bluntly, telling me he sees Arif’s detention as evidence of Dabaiba’s ability to enforce the golden rule: Dabaiba has the gold and makes the rules. That extends, of course, to whom he selects as an emissary to scour the world for the rest of Libya’s gold.
Irrespective of who is at the helm, Warshavsky continues to represent LARMO, calling the pursuit of Muammar Qaddafi’s assets “a once in a lifetime case. It feels a bit like Madoff, in that there are a vast amount of innocent victims who have suffered as a result of theft and the looting of assets. What’s different is: It involves a country which is both one of the richest in the world in terms of natural resources—and historically one of the most corrupt.”
Whether Warshavsky and his counterparts at Holland & Knight (another prominent firm) succeed in prying documents out of Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, UBS, HSBC, Credit Suisse, BNY Mellon, and Deutsche Bank, remains to be seen. (The case is stayed for the time being.) This much is certain, though: Their work has the potential to air a lot of dirty laundry—some of it potentially belonging to Libya’s current leadership.
Prime Minister Dabaiba’s improbable rise, it so happens, had raised eyebrows in Western capitals, not only because he was a political novice, but also based on how he “climbed to the top of the greasy pole”—to quote Benjamin Disraeli’s description of his own ascension to prime minister in Britain in the 19th century. “That was a narrow victory,” one American diplomat confided, “and a surprise one. Nobody expected Abdulhamid [Dabaiba] to win. It’s never been proven that people were bribed, but that is sort of the working [hypothesis] here. And Ali is tied in with that, in the rumor mill.”
“Ali” is none other than the prime minister’s cousin, Ali Ibrahim Dabaiba, who faithfully served Muammar Qaddafi from 1989 until the regime’s fall in 2011. He did so as chairman of the powerful, if blandly named, Organization for Development of Administrative Centers (ODAC), which handed out thousands of public works contracts worth tens of billions of dollars. Drawing on leaked documents from Cyprus, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project observed that, by some accounts, Ali Dabaiba “may have misappropriated between $6 and $7 billion” by “charging excessive ‘commissions’ and awarding tenders to companies that were linked to him or that he secretly owned outright.” During that time, Ali’s cousin, the current prime minister, led a separate but allegedly affiliated state-owned enterprise, the Libyan Investment and Development Company. (In 2016, a lawyer representing the Dabaiba family told The Guardian that the allegations against Ali were “baseless,” and that Ali and his relatives were “not wanted by any judicial, financial or security bodies.” Vanity Fair was unable to reach Ali Dabaiba, though a source in his circle dismissed the allegations as old news.)
When I asked a seasoned Libyan intelligence official about all of this, he snickered, “Of course, Abdulhamid [Dabaiba] is sitting on stolen Qaddafi assets!” (Representatives for the prime minister did not respond to Vanity Fair’s requests for comment.) Libya’s avowed leader, according to senior U.S. sources, has worked to ensure that ODAC is firmly under his control—something that was not the case in earlier post-Qaddafi governments. The move was said to infuriate the prime minister’s political opponents.
Back in Ghana, Tim Lawrence still had doubts about the pallets of cash. To cover their flank, the fortune seekers, according to Lawrence, were accompanied by some Ghanaian heavy hitters, including a “captain” who presented himself as the president’s director of security and an officer with the country’s national investigations bureau. Both men were supportive of the mission, Lawrence said; so was another American in the group and one of their Canadian compatriots. They nicknamed one of the local intelligence operatives Archie Bunker. “Every time we saw Archie, he would be in a different car without plates,” one of the men remembered. “A white Jaguar. Then a black Mercedes or BMW and another one after that. He always made sure to show us the gun he had in the vehicle.” Beyond the flash and bang, Lawrence recalled, another Ghanaian gun-toter was kind enough to bring out bolt cutters when the group rolled up on the first target, adjacent to Kotoka International Airport.
“We hit the first warehouse and there’s nothing there,” Lawrence recounted. “Then we’re told, ‘Wait, the real stuff is at the warehouse in Tema,’ an industrial area on the outskirts of Accra.” Eventually, the group piled into an Uber—an unorthodox but zeitgeisty mode of transport for a takedown—and headed due west.
With their vehicle idling in the summer heat, the buccaneers co-opted a guard and made their way into a corrugated metal building resembling an aircraft hangar. Once inside, they found dozens of wooden pallets wrapped in orange cargo netting—of the exact dimensions Lawrence had sketched out—as well as shelves packed to the rafters with colorful boxes of a uniform shape and size.
Finally, they thought, they had hit pay dirt. Until they hadn’t.
“The warehouse is real,” Tim Lawrence said, referring to the escapade as if it were happening in real time. “The pallets are real. But the real pallets are empty.” Apparently, the Tuareg and some unidentified coconspirators had done their own calculations and arranged the construction of a Potemkin vault complete with enough pallets to credibly house billions of dollars. As for the container stuffed with $100 bills that the Tuareg showed one of their associates, “It had a false bottom,” explained Lawrence.
The elaborate ruse backfired. The Tuareg was hauled in by the intelligence service, which sounds almost textbook, except that the Tuareg spoke only Tamashek and passable French. So, it fell to Lawrence, who speaks fluent French and passable Arabic, to assist in the questioning. “I bet if you went to that warehouse in Tema today,” he told me, “The same scam would be up and running.”
“Have you heard about Sukarno gold?” Jonathan Winer asked me, referring to the man who led Indonesia’s independence movement and served as its first president. When Sukarno died in 1970, a quixotic quest began for bullion belonging to the strongman that was supposedly kept locked in European bank vaults. For years, Winer said, a parade of shifty characters appeared, offering financial instruments that would grant their holder access to a treasure trove—Willy Wonka–style. “I saw the certificates at the time [but] I was never convinced it was anything more than a giant scam,” Winer recalled. “I don’t know how much of Qaddafi’s hidden assets are Sukarno gold, the key to the Lost Ark of the Covenant kind of stuff. Some of it is real and still exists and probably can be found and held and eventually repatriated to Libyan hands. But who knows?”
There does, however, appear to be one class of assets that clearly are authentic and ripe for repatriation: antiquities.
As fate would have it, the acceleration of Libya’s asset recovery efforts has dovetailed with a push by American and European authorities to crack down on the trafficking of looted artifacts, which historically has been treated as a victimless crime whose offenders have at times been treated with kid gloves. “It’s basically about one rich guy in Paris or Munich or New York, potentially defrauding another rich guy, say, a collector—and, frankly, nobody cares,” explained Anya Neistat, a legal director at the Clooney Foundation for Justice, an organization founded by actor George Clooney and his wife, Amal, a Lebanese-British barrister renowned for her human rights work.
Neistat, 46, was born in the Soviet Union and studied law in the U.S. After a stint as a journalist, she spent years at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, where she and her husband led investigations in conflict zones around the world. Two years ago, the Clooneys put her in charge of the Docket, as their foundation’s investigations and legal action arm is known. “Traditional human rights advocacy doesn’t quite work anymore,” she told me when we met up in Paris. “The perpetrators have become quite impervious. Naming and shaming just doesn’t cut it. I was very keen to spend whatever is left of my professional career putting criminals behind bars rather than criticizing them in reports.”
She began by focusing on how conflicts—and the human rights violations that almost inevitably flow from them—are financed. “Very soon, and somewhat to our surprise,” Neistat said, “we came to the issue of antiquities.” (This week, in fact, Neistat is in Washington to release a new report titled, “Conflict Antiquities: The Need for Prosecuting Participants in the Illegal Antiquities Trade.”)
In the 1990s, as nations like Greece, Egypt, and Turkey tightened controls over archaeological sites and exports, smuggling networks trained their sights elsewhere, including Libya. Qaddafi, at a minimum, looked the other way as rare pieces appeared for sale in the West and ended up in prominent museums and private hands. After the Libyan leader met his maker, a different set of ne’er-do-wells got in on the act.
“It’s pretty much any armed actor that operated in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen,” Neistat noted. The Islamic State, for example, had a dedicated office for antiquities that was led by senior operatives, which is understandable considering that, according to the Docket, stolen artifacts, along with oil and ransom payments, have been among the terror group’s biggest sources of income. “You don’t have to walk very far in Paris or New York to see the galleries, the dealers, the collectors who we believe have been involved in selling items looted by groups like ISIS.”
In the early morning hours of January 5, 2018, Manhattan assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos and Homeland Security Investigations special agent J.P. Labbat waited in the cold outside a tony apartment building on Fifth Avenue. With teams at the front and the rear, they were outfitted for a raid, replete with weapons, windbreakers, and department shields. “Dawn. It’s when people are tired,” Bogdanos noted. “They’re slow. They’re sluggish. They’re less of a threat to you or themselves. And when you go into any warrant…you go in assuming the worst. You maintain the security and safety of the team, and the integrity of the crime scene.”
But the scene that morning was not a stash house. It was a triplex belonging to a billionaire named Michael Steinhardt, a pioneer of the modern hedge fund and a prominent philanthropist whose name was emblazoned on prominent institutions, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to NYU to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “I’ll admit,” said Bogdanos, “we don’t ordinarily execute warrants where the building has a doorman.”
At 64, Bogdanos is himself something of a New York institution. Born to Greek immigrants on the Lower East Side, he had trained to become a professional boxer—with dreams of running his parents’ restaurant someday. Instead, he joined the Marines, eventually landing at Columbia Law, where he interned for New York State Supreme Court justice Harold Rothwax. It was an indelible experience that changed his career trajectory: He ended up in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, where he became a homicide prosecutor. After 9/11, however, he was recalled to active duty, sent to Afghanistan, and, in 2003, to Iraq. “We were in Basra,” he reflected, “and I’ll never forget the day some reporter came running up to me, screaming that the finest museum in the world had just been looted. I had taken a single course in Mesopotamian archaeology. I knew she had to be talking about the Iraq Museum.”
Bogdanos went to his superiors at U.S. Central Command and asked them to redirect some of his task force’s efforts so they could investigate the theft of invaluable Iraqi artifacts. “I said these exact words, ‘Come on, general, I’m a New York City homicide prosecutor. I will have this wrapped up in three to five days.’ Fast-forward, the investigation took about five years.” In that time, though, Bogdanos and company concluded that the looting had been anything but indiscriminate. “We ultimately developed informants who told us that there were individuals who came in from all around the world and who walked through the museum as if checking off a shopping list and stole some of the most extraordinary pieces that humanity has ever seen.” In the end, Bogdanos and his team recovered thousands of items, including the roughly 5,000-year-old Sacred Vase of Warka and Mask of Warka, which are said to be among the first known naturalist depictions of human life and the human face.
When he returned to civilian life, Bogdanos paired what had become twin passions—chasing criminals and stolen artifacts—by forming the Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU) in the New York D.A.’s office. It is the only prosecutorial team of its kind in the U.S., and its 16 members, working closely with the Department of Homeland Security, have seized roughly 4,500 antiquities—all of which prosecutors say were looted—from more than two dozen nations. Few cases, however, measured up to Steinhardt’s.
“The day we did the first warrant at the Steinhardt home—the big one—we had a whole hallway full of agents, sort of stacked,” Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agent J.P. Labbat remembered, as we drove through Lower Manhattan in an undercover Dodge Charger. “I was at the very front with the prosecutor and we were the first two knocking on the door when Steinhardt opened it.” As Labbat and Bogdanos raced up a stately internal staircase to conduct a safety sweep, they could hardly believe their eyes. “We went in, and it was like a museum.”
All three floors of the apartment were jammed with artifacts in every nook and cranny, Labbat recalled. “On top of the cupboards, in the bathroom, in a little closet space, there were artifacts everywhere.” For Bogdanos, the scene was a throwback. “It looked exactly to me like the basement storage rooms of the Iraq Museum, and the material was extraordinary.”
After executing 17 search warrants, the team concluded that Steinhardt had acquired and sold over 1,000 antiquities since the 1980s, valued at more than $200 million at the time of purchase, which, since then, had doubled in value. Of those, prosecutors claimed that 180 had originally been stolen from 11 countries. One item, found in Steinhardt’s living room, was a larger-than-life bust of a woman with an ornately carved head covering. According to the D.A.’s office, the piece, sculpted from reddish marble and dating back to 4th century BCE, was looted from a tomb in Cyrene, an archaeological wonder in northwest Libya. The figurine first appeared on the international art market in November 2000, a time when Qaddafi’s grip on power was absolute, but his country was under sanction.
“You can’t value these things, they’re priceless,” Bogdanos explained while sitting in his office filled with ephemera from a life spent taking people down—boxing opponents, murderers, and antiquities traffickers. “But if you have to, [the Libyan piece] was valued at $1.2 million.” Both Bogdanos and his boss, District Attorney Alvin Bragg, have made anti-trafficking efforts a priority for their office. “The beauty and meaning of the antiquities on display in [New York City’s] museums are undermined if they are stolen and brought here illegally,” said Bragg. “We’ve sent a clear message that these pieces cannot just be sold at the behest of high-net worth individuals who are seeking to turn a profit—they belong in their country of origin. The days of turning a blind eye to antiquities trafficking is over.”
In December 2021—the same week, by sheer coincidence, that Warshavsky filed his LARMO request—Steinhardt signed a deferred prosecution agreement, pursuant to which he surrendered the items and agreed to a lifetime ban from acquiring antiquities. (For his part, Steinhardt issued a statement declaring he was “pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges,” adding that “items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries.”)
Some six weeks later, the D.A.’s office and Homeland Security team were at it again, seizing another antiquity that they said had been looted from Libya. This bust, however, was on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which contended that it had been “fully supportive” of the item’s return to Libya. With an almost translucent veil covering one eye, the sculpture is eerie and entrancing, which is what ancient Greek artisans intended by placing it between the living and the dead in Cyrene’s necropolis.
Dr. Morgan Belzic was beaming. One of archaeology’s true boy wonders, the 36-year-old researcher for France’s Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art was attending a ceremony at One Hogan Place, home to the Manhattan D.A.’s office, which is recognizable to anyone who has seen an episode of Law & Order. Bogdanos, Labbat, and their respective units were taking part in the formal handover to Libyan officials of two stunning busts—including the “Veiled Head of a Lady,” seized from The Met, that, with Belzic’s help, they had determined had been looted. Khaled Daief, Libya’s chargé d’affaires and acting ambassador to Washington, was emotional at the prospect of repatriating the artifacts. The event was brief, by design: The antiquities trafficking teams had a joint raid planned for a few hours later.
The Libyans had plans of their own. Ahmed Alshanta, an embassy employee, carefully crated the Cyrenaican sculptures and affixed tamper-proof seals, identifying them as inviolable diplomatic pouches under Article 27.3 of the Vienna Convention—to ward off customs agents who might seek to open them. Along with Daief, Alshanta escorted the precious cargo out to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey where it was loaded onto a Gulfstream G550, along with boxes containing Libyan-bound items seized in earlier raids, including the one at Steinhardt’s triplex.
Belzic took a seat across from me on the plane. Though his passport lists 1985 as his birth year, the French archaeologist looks like a teenager, with his mop of brown hair, hipster clothes, and a distressed leather iPad case resembling an ancient manuscript. Belzic was born to a middle-class family in the Loire Valley, famous for its magnificent castles. As a child, he was fascinated by art and history, subjects he would go on to study at the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne. His doctoral work in Greek archaeology had a unique focus: Libya’s Cyrene, the 20-square-mile City of the Dead, and its intricately carved funerary sculptures, hundreds of which have since found their way, illegally, to virtually every continent.
Nowadays, a key component of Belzic’s job—literally—is to combat tomb raiders, along with the networks that support them, including smugglers, gallery owners, and public and private collectors who are too often lax about the provenance of what they buy and display. For this reason, he has become a key ally to prosecutors like Bogdanos and civil society groups like the Clooney Foundation. It is also why he was on board: to ensure that the items he had established had been looted were safely returned to their country of origin.
Early the next morning, we arrived in Basel to change to a Swiss tail-numbered aircraft that had been authorized to fly into Tripoli, a dicey destination that, over the years, civil aviation authorities have subjected to no-fly orders. As Swiss customs officers pressed the Libyans about the contents of their diplomatic pouch—to precisely no effect—a new passenger came on board: Antonia De Meo, director of the U.N.’s Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI). UNICRI is a small U.N. entity with an eclectic portfolio that includes artificial intelligence, radiological and nuclear threats, countering political radicalization—and asset recovery.
“We’ve been able to identify $54 billion of assets that have been illegally removed from Libya,” the California-born De Meo explained as we flew over the Med. “Those can be financial assets, they can be cultural property, they can be airplanes. If even a small percentage could be returned, it can really make a difference to the Libyan people.” It is a country she cares about deeply, having served in senior roles there for the U.N. during a bleak time. “The airport that we’re about to land in—Mitiga,” she pointed out, “was subject to numerous attacks during the conflict in 2019 and 2020. I was actually in Libya in April of 2019 when armed forces from the east tried to attack Tripoli. It’s a day I will never forget.”
De Meo’s return to her old posting—and the beleaguered airport—was not without its risks. Yet she could not pass up the chance to witness the handover of such precious goods, especially given the fact that UNICRI had played a vital role in establishing LARMO and has been along for its occasionally bumpy ride on the road to credibility and legitimacy.
As we taxied toward the VIP terminal at Mitiga, fire trucks trained water hoses over our plane—a sign of respect—creating a rainbowed archway. An honor guard stood in formation. We disembarked to find a long greeting line of Libyan officials and foreign dignitaries. At the front, sandwiched between Libya’s antiquities chief and its special envoy to the United States, was Mo Mensli, grinning from ear to ear.
After some opening remarks at the airport, we drove in a high-speed convoy to the Red Castle, which over time has housed various rulers and now contains a small museum. Cameras flashed as the crates were opened and the funereal sculptures were put on display. De Meo addressed a packed house. Ambassador Richard Norland, the U.S. special envoy to Libya, provided videotaped remarks, later telling Vanity Fair, “The historic return of ten artifacts, stolen from the ancient city of Cyrene, demonstrates the commitment of the United States to protect cultural heritage; it’s a victory for international cooperation and the rule of law.”
Through it all, Mensli was in the catbird seat. He had very publicly defied the doubters by arranging the return of a unique class of assets that were now, thanks to the work of archaeologists and American law enforcement, too high-profile to steal—something that cannot be said of the pallets of cash or bullion that may remain at large.
Next up: four pieces previously on display at the Louvre, the exquisite figurines that De Meo and her unit hope to help repatriate. The provenance of the sculptures is hardly a mystery; for months, they were the centerpiece of an exhibit titled, “Antiquities From Libya and Syria: Fighting the Illegal Traffic of Cultural Goods.”
“Getting the antiquities,” Mensli said as we sat for tea the following day, overlooking the lake in Zurich, 1,250 miles from Tripoli, “is the opening salvo in our fight to get what was stolen back to Libya.” But as is often the case in that country, it is easy to mistake motion for progress. Libyan court rulings, whose validity may soon be reviewed by the country’s Supreme Court, found that Prime Minister Dabaiba had overstepped his authority by removing Mensli’s predecessor, Arif, according to several sources conversant with the case.
I asked Mensli about Shukri Ghanem, whose death on the Danube 10 years before had seemed like a cautionary tale. An individual describing himself as a friend of the deceased oil minister had suggested to me that Ghanem may have been killed to ensure his silence. “One month before he died,” said the source, who requested anonymity out of fear that he might meet a similar fate, Ghanem “told me and others that he had written a memoir”—one that would break open the truth about those who had profited from the plunder. “That was the end.”
Mensli did not disagree about the stakes, “This is serious business. It’s life or death. You get labeled a thief for even trying to take back the money [that was stolen]. I have no illusions.”
He does, however, have a message for those hiding Libya’s treasure. “We will achieve our goals with negotiation as a first step. If people help us return assets that don’t belong to them, as we say in Arabic, ‘It’s not our job to hang them in the streets.’ If not, they will face certain justice.”