Libya this week arrested 17 members of a group it believes is linked to the al-Qaeda network, who were attempting an illegal entry into the country. Libyan Public Order Minister Nasser al-Mabruk remained non-committal on the nature of the links but gave their identity as ‘from the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia’, suggesting Pakistani and Uzbek nationality. The arrest excited immediate interest from Cairo, searching for possible connections to the co-ordinated bombings carried out at Taba on October 7, which claimed the lives of 34, mostly Israeli holidaymakers and Egyptian employees.
The possibility of movement of jihadist militants across Libya focuses attention on the particular position of this North African country. Unlike most Arab leadership, as the official Libyan news agency JANA highlighted, Tripoli has come out in open support of what it terms the ‘Iraqi resistance’. But Islamist militants are unlikely to seek refuge in Libya since the regime of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi has a long and bloody record of repression of fundamentalist currents.
Where Middle Eastern regimes appealed to various shades of socialist, nationalist or pan-Arabist ideologies, Libya under Qadhafi made strenuous efforts to wrap itself in the banner of Islam, presenting the state revolutionary ideology, as presented in the Green Book, as a unique fusion of nationalism and Islam. However, attempts by the regime to reduce the influence of the traditional Ulema created a counter-effect. This groundwork of discontent was exploited by militant Islamists in the mid-1980s, who portrayed Qadhafi as an apostate. The Islamist militant current in the country was reinvigorated by Libyan veterans of the Afghan war, who formed groups such as the Islamic Martyrs’ Movement and the Libyan Islamic Group to wage all-out jihad on his regime. After some near misses, including a daring attack in 1998 by the Islamic Martyrs’ Movement on Qadhafi’s convoy near Benghazi, in which the leader was injured, it took Tripoli the best part of a decade to regain the initiative.
At present, the Islamist opposition remains weakened and fragmented, but the regime nevertheless remains jittery about the threat from Islamic political movements. This last week Al-Amin Belhadj, head of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, issued a press release on the Arabic language section of Libya-Watch, (Mu’assasat al-Raqib li-Huqquq al-Insan) calling for urgent action on behalf of 86 Brotherhood members imprisoned since 1998 at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison and on hunger strike since October 7. So far 10 of the inmates have been transferred to the hospital in failing health, but the claims of the movement to eschew violence are unlikely, without foreign pressure, to sway Tripoli’s suspicions of its political agenda given the strong admixture of civil rights and political liberalization claims included in the Press statement calling for their release.
Libya does, nevertheless, have to tread carefully with its international image. It has invested heavily, in both monetary and domestic political terms in its rehabilitation into the international system after decades of isolation. In March of last year Tripoli reached a political agreement with the United States and Britain to accept civil responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, and a agreed to pay up to $10 million per victim, about $2.7 billion in total. This was followed in January with a $170 million compensation deal for the families of those killed in the French UTA airliner bombing, and last month’s deal to pay $35 million compensation to more than 160 victims of the 1986 Berlin nightclub bombing. Most significant of all was the agreement to give up its WMD program, as a result of which Washington lifted its trade embargo against the country and EU foreign ministers, last Monday, agreed to lift the arms embargo imposed nearly 20 years ago, pending further political developments in Libya. Libya still remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a perception that Qadhafi’s comments on Iraq will not help to dispel. At the same time, if the arrestees are who the Libyan authorities said they are, the implication is that Libya may well see a reprise of terrorist problems closer to home.