Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 6

The United States, until recently, had a tendency to see Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi and Osama bin Laden as ideological soul mates. While bin Laden aspired to cleanse Arabia and the Middle East of the infidel Christian and Jewish influence, Qadhafi aspired to be seen as a great revolutionary leader with a global audience. Far from being soul-mates, Qadhafi and bin Laden have long been at odds; it was Qadhafi who, in March 1998, issued the first Interpol arrest warrant for bin Laden, a fact little known in the West. The warrant was issued in connection with the March 1994 murders of German anti-terrorism agents Silvan and Vera Becker, who were in charge of missions in Africa. Western intelligence agencies for a number of reasons chose to downplay and ignore the warrant; five months later the U.S. embassies in East Africa were bombed.

Qadhafi’s rehabilitation over the past year has been extraordinary, with Libya becoming the Bush administration’s shining example of a country renouncing weapons of mass destruction. In the process, the West has chosen to overlook Qadhafi’s past misdeeds. In 1979, the U.S. listed Libya as a state sponsoring terrorism, while in 1984 Britain broke diplomatic relations with Libya after a policewoman was shot to death outside the Libyan embassy in London. Two years later, the Reagan administration ordered strikes against Tripoli to avenge a Libyan bombing of a disco in Berlin frequented by U.S. servicemen. The event that really etched the image of Qadhafi into the Western consciousness as a master terrorist was the December 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Ironically, the common thread running through Libya, bin Laden and the U.S. is the 1979-1988 Afghan war. Among the Arab volunteers were several thousand Libyans and in the early 1990s Libyan “Afghan vets” formed the shadowy Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG,) whose purpose was to overthrow Qadhafi and establish an Islamic state based on sharia law. The following year, they attempted to assassinate Qadhafi when an LIFG group led by Wadi al-Shateh threw a bomb beneath his motorcade. Qadhafi cracked down and many LIFG members fled to Europe and the Middle East. Another LIFG assassination attempt occurred in 1998 when Qadhafi’s motorcade was attacked. The West’s “master terrorist” was himself under terrorist attack.

However, 9/11 provided Qadhafi an opportunity to redeem himself by signing on to the war on terror. Indeed, Qadhafi was among the first to benefit; on September 25, 2001, President Bush signed an executive order freezing LIFG assets in the U.S., asserting that the group was planning attacks on America. The following month, senior administration officials went to Tripoli to meet with the head of Libya’s External Security Organization Musa Kusa, who handed over information on Libyans who had trained in al-Qaeda facilities, as well as the names of several Libyan militants living in the U.K. The gesture was reciprocated in December when the Bush administration added LIFG to its terrorism exclusion list.

The intense secrecy surrounding the war on terror has made it difficult to ascertain the true facts both about Libyan resistance to Qadhafi and Libyan involvement in al-Qaeda. Nazih Abdul Hamed al-Raghie, better known as Anas al-Libi was one of the FBI’s most wanted, with a $25 million bounty on his head. Al-Libi fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, where he met bin Laden. Al-Libi subsequently moved to Sudan with bin Laden, who sent him in 1996 to establish contact with the Taliban. The 38-year-old Libyan had been living in the U.K., and U.S. intelligence had linked him to the American embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998. On February 5, 2001, al-Libi was named as a conspirator in the embassy bombings in the federal trial of four men accused of involvement. While British police had tracked him to his home in Manchester in May 2000, he eluded their grasp. In early February 2002, al-Libi was captured in Egypt; another source stated that he had been captured in Sudan and was being held in a high-security prison in Khartoum. Another Libyan national, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, was captured in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001/January 2002, fleeing the U.S. attack on Tora Bora.

For Qadhafi, his inability to quash completely LIFG and other dissident groups may well have impelled him to seek rapprochement with the West. A September 2002 “Unclassified: For Official Use Only: Libyan Islamic Fighting Group” Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report labeled LIFG as “the most powerful radical faction waging jihadi against Colonel Qadhafi.” The heavily censored report notes that LIFG is headed by al-Qaeda figure Anas Sebai, and includes about 2,500 “Libyan Afghans” in its ranks. Nor is LIFG Qadhafi’s only tormentor; the Islamic Movement of Martyrs (also containing Libyan “Afghan vets”), Libyan Jihad Movement and Islamic Movement for Change, are all fighting Qadhafi’s regime. The CSIS report asserts that the jihadi organizations could muster “thousands, if not tens of thousands of supporters.”

During a July 2002 interview with CNN’s Johannesburg bureau, Qadhafi admitted that “a number of elements” from Afghanistan had infiltrated Libya and caused “quite a lot of trouble.” Qadhafi said of al-Qaeda and bin Laden: “Actually, we are not in need of bin Laden. We don’t need his money, we don’t need his protection, we don’t want to use him or be used by him. We just want to defend ourselves,” adding that Libya would arrest and put on trial any al-Qaeda members it found. For Qadhafi, the payoff was simple: the vast Western intelligence networks could neutralize threats to his regime abroad, making cooperation a logical choice. By December 2002, the British media was reporting that Libya had provided Western intelligence agencies with data on “hundreds of al-Qaeda and Islamic militants.”

As if symbolizing the growing convergence of U.S. and Libyan interests in seeing terrorism as a mutual threat, the success of the U.S.-led war on al-Qaeda promoted a Libyan to a leadership position in the organization. Abu Faraj al-Libi succeeded Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as al-Qaeda’s operational head following his capture in Rawalpindi on March 1, 2003. A Pakistani investigator speaking on condition of anonymity said Abu Faraj al-Libi was immediately elevated to the terrorist network’s top position because he was the “right-hand man of Mohammad and was personally trusted by bin Laden due to his past role.”

Meanwhile, the Bush administration elevated LIFG to the status of al-Qaeda affiliate and potential menace to the U.S. On February 24, 2004, Former CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that, “one of the most immediate threats is from smaller Sunni extremist groups that have benefited from al-Qaida links. They include…the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” an assertion Tenet repeated to the 9/11 Commission the following month.

Tenet’s and Qadhafi’s concerns seemed vindicated when on June 24, 2004 Libyan forces discovered a Groupe Salafiste de Predication et de Combat (GSPC – Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) camp near Libya’s border with Chad. [1] GSPC is North Africa’s largest, best-organized and wealthiest organization, and is dedicated to establishing an Islamic state in Algeria. GSPC issued a call on its website declaring a jihadi against “every infidel foreigner” in Algeria, which was signed by its leader Abu Ibrahim Mustafa. More ominously for Tripoli, the GSPC had earlier announced in March its affinity to al-Qaeda, which spurred neighboring Algeria to grow even closer to Washington. Concerned about growing GSPC activity and rising radicalism in neighboring Niger, Mali and Chad, Washington began quietly building a huge military surveillance base at Tamanrasset in the heart of the Sahara in southern Algeria under agreements signed during Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 2003 visit to Washington.

By October 10, Libya’s rehabilitation was going so well that National Security Minister Nasser al-Mabruk announced, “Libya has got its hands on a group whose members are from the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia and are suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda.” [2]

While it is still not entirely clear why Qadhafi chose to side with the West in the war on terror, a number of points seem evident. The nature of Qadhafi’s regime excluded dissidents from any meaningful participation in the political life of the regime. When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it gave disaffected Muslim dissidents the opportunity to pursue a valid cause abroad. Not surprisingly, those who survived were battle-hardened and imbued with the belief that if they could humble the world’s second superpower, they could effect change at home. As Libyan “Afghan vets” slowly trickled home, Qadhafi was chafing under Western sanctions as it slowly dawned on him that neither his Arab nationalist nor pan-African rhetoric had any sizeable audience. At the same time as LIFG was attempting to overthrow his regime, Qadhafi could look across the Sahara to see the chaos that determined Algerian Islamic militants were causing. 9/11 provided him with an opportunity to tone down the speeches and make common cause with the Western powers against a common enemy.

Dr. John C.K. Daly is an international correspondent with UPI and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.


1. Le Journal de Dimance 4 Juillet 2004.

2. “Libya holds al-Qaeda suspects” News 24 (South Africa) 10 October 2004.