Libya’s Nightmare Factory

A visit to Qaddafi's scariest prison.

Philip Poupin
Philip Poupin

TRIPOLI, Libya — The cells are barely large enough for one person to lie down in. There is no water, no toilet. Light falls through a small hole in the ceiling. Most cells don’t even have a mattress, just a strip of cloth on the floor, a cut-open plastic bottle, and the naked concrete walls, inscribed with memories of those once held here. It is dark — claustrophobic — in the narrow corridors of the cell wings. The entrance is scattered with clothes and medicine; the air thick with decay. Only days ago, the bodies were retrieved from here. After a few minutes the lingering stench grips you at the throat, gagging you.

This is Maktab al-Nasser, a dusty compound of a few buildings that stand deserted in the pale midday sun, only a few minutes away from the infamous Abu Salim prison. Many who ended up in Abu Salim would first be swallowed by this office of the internal security agency. Many never emerged. The grim cells of Maktab al-Nasser offer stark a contrast with the painted rooms at Abu Salim prison, with its kitchen facilities and bathrooms that mask the horrors that doubtlessly took place there. The pain and horror of Maktab al-Nasser seem to have penetrated its very walls and steel doors. It looks like a place one goes to die.

Abu Bashir al-Hajji, a 57-year-old laborer, spent 42 days in Maktab al-Nasser. His face strains with pain when he gets out of the chair. His ribs are broken in three places from the beatings he received. On Feb. 17, he had been out on the streets of Tripoli, demonstrating against Muammar al-Qaddafi and in support of the uprising in Benghazi. Like others, he went to what is now known as Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli. He reached out to the rebels and started to ferry information back and forth between Benghazi and the capital. On March 24, the 18th Brigade broke down his door at 2 o’clock in the morning. They came with five cars. "They knew my family," Abu Bashir explains. "My brother, Jamal al-Hajji, was writing about Qaddafi even before the revolution started."

They threw him in a car, beat him, and pushed him into a tiny cell. "I did not know where I was," he says. "Only later when I was transferred to Abu Salim prison did I understand where I had been."

At Maktab al-Nasser, half the complex is burned out and much has collapsed into itself as a result of the NATO bombing. The outer shell of what looks like an American cruise missile rests outside. Old files are scattered in the office building: Interrogation reports date back as far as the early 1990s, chronicling the activities of individuals and their families over pages and pages amid accusations of espionage and terrorism.

"Many people died in Maktab al-Nasser," Abu Bashir says. "The guards would beat us in the lower abdomen and stomach. Something breaks inside and some people die."

Abu Bashir, now in charge of security in a central area in Tripoli, seems to be on the verge of breaking down as he recollects what happened to him in this place only a few months ago. His head sinks into his hands.

"It was Walid Diab," an internal security agent, says Abu Bashir. "He took me."

"Walid Diab brought me into a room and tied a cable that was hooked to the ceiling around my neck — as if he would hang me. He forced me to stand on Coca-Cola cans. If I moved or even sneezed, I would fall and hang myself."

"He left me like this for 72 hours."

Abu Bashir was later transferred to Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison, where about 1,200 people died in a massacre in 1996. He was freed on Wednesday, Aug. 24, he says, when rebels took over the facility and liberated the inmates.

The man who freed him might have been Mr. Fajallah, who still stands guard at the prison, though its cells are now empty. His leg is bandaged, and a deep scratch traces his face from a ricochet bullet.

"I used the Kalashnikov to shoot the doors open," he explains.

The fighting had come close to Abu Salim, and the ruling family’s Bab al-Aziziya complex had already fallen, when Fajallah and three others went to the prison to tell the remaining guards that the prisoners needed to be released.

"We told them to release the prisoners, but they said they cannot."

The small group went home to get weapons. When they returned, they found the guardrooms deserted; they had fled the prison.

"There were four or five thousand prisoners here. It took five or even six hours to release them all," says Fajallah.

The prison has become a local tourist destination as former prisoners now bring their family and friends to Abu Salim prison to explain what went on there. Small groups walk through the corridors and past the cells, recounting what happened to them. But Maktab al-Nasser stands deserted. Those who survived try to forget about this factory of nightmares.

"Not even a spider can survive in this place," says Bashir, exhaling sharply. He gets up and heads out to look after the rebels under his command as they work to secure the buzzing streets of downtown Tripoli.

Felix Kuehn is co-author of An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010 and co-editor of My Life with the Taliban, the autobiography of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. His research focuses on militant Islamic groups.