LIBYA, RADICAL ISLAM AND THE WAR ON TERROR: A LIBYAN OPPOSITIONIST’S VIEW
Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 3 Issue: 3
Born in 1947, Ashur Shamis was one of the founding members of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya in 1981. He is also a founding member of the London-based Libya Human and Political Development Forum. Shamis is currently the editor of https://www.akhbar-libya,com, an electronic newsletter dedicated to Libyan affairs. This interview was conducted by Mahan Abedin, Editor of Terrorism Monitor, on March 15, 2005 at the London Continental Hotel.
Mahan Abedin: Could you provide a brief description of your political career.
Ashur Shamis: I came to the UK as a student in the late 1960s. When Qadhafi seized power in 1969, I was one of those who were displeased by this development since we saw this as an extension of the chauvinistic and basically anti-Islamic Arab nationalism of Nasser in the Arab world. As a result of my activism I was warned in 1973 not to go back to Libya. My formative years were in the Muslim Brotherhood School of Islamic activism. I had very loose connections with the Muslim Brotherhood organization as there was no organized MB group in Libya at the time. I sympathized with their cause and was educated on their literature. I was one of the founders of the “National Front for the Salvation of Libya” in October 1981 and in 1985 I was elected to become one of the chairmen of its National Congress. At its height the Salvation Front was arguably the largest opposition movement in the entire Arab world and in terms of resources and dedication, it was comparable to the PLO. It received support from a number of Arab regimes and was increasingly courted by the U.S. from the mid 1980s onwards. The support of the U.S. was hugely controversial inside the Front and especially alienated the Islamic elements in the organization. In fact the association with America, among other reasons, caused a fatal split in the NFSL in the early 1990s and greatly diminished its strength and influence.
MA: Are you still active against the regime?
AS: Yes, I have always maintained my opposition to the Qadhafi regime, albeit in different capacities. My activities in the past 4-5 years have consisted of media work, particularly writing and commenting on Libyan affairs. I have tried to highlight problems in the country and force the regime to address these issues. I have also sought to establish strong links with dissatisfied and critical elements inside Libya.
MA: Are you still a target for the regime’s intelligence apparatus?
AS: Yes, absolutely. In October 2001 I set up a Newsletter on the internet, called Akhbar Libya (Libya News), which has been very effective. It has attracted a lot of attention both from the people and regime. Recently writers from inside the country have begun writing for this newsletter, using their real names. This speaks volumes in itself.
MA: I want us to explore the foundations of Islamic militancy in Libya, and I think the best way to go about this is to examine the history of modern political Islam in the country. Let us discuss the Muslim Brotherhood first. Would you say the emergence of the Brotherhood in the country was a wholly Egyptian import?
AS: Yes, it was the Egyptians who brought the Brotherhood to the country in the late 1940’s, when the Brotherhood was being persecuted in their own country. The Brotherhood proved popular amongst students. In 1955 the University of Libya was established in Benghazi, close to the Egyptian border. A lot of Egyptian lecturers were employed by the university and this proved to be another medium for the Brotherhood to promote its ideology in Libya.
MA: Libya seems to have been one of the first points of penetration for the Brotherhood.
AS: Aside from Syria, Libya was the first country to be penetrated by the Brotherhood.
MA: How do you assess the overall historical impact of Dr. Ezzudine Ibrahim, not just on the Muslim Brotherhood, but on the Libyan Islamic movement as a whole?
AS: He was very influential in deepening the influence of the Ikhwan in Libya. But you should note that the Muslim Brotherhood did not develop a coherent and structured organization in Libya until the middle of the 1970s. In the 1950s and 1960s it was basically a religious and intellectual trend in the country and had a large following amongst the intellectuals and university students.
MA: And of course another contrast with the Egyptian Ikhwan is that the Libyan branch never developed an armed wing.
AS: Yes, that is right. The movement confined itself to peaceful social, political and cultural activities.
MA: What about the influence of Sayyid Qutb?
AS: Sayyid Qutb received a lot of attention in Libya, especially from the late 1960s onwards. But again the influence was confined to ideas and cultural trends and did not lead to any militant activities whatsoever. The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya has never been a popular movement as it was limited to the intellectuals. And of course from the mid 1970s onwards—when Qadhafi consolidated his hold on power—the Brotherhood could not function as an open and public organization. It worked clandestinely and moreover had a large following amongst expatriate Libyans, particularly in the U.S. and the UK.
MA: How do you account for the Ikhwan’s transformation into the Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya al-Libyia in the early 1980s?
AS: There was a lot of internal organizational turmoil in the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the late 1970’s and early 1980s. The release of the leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1973-1975 from prison led to the Egyptian branch declaring that they wanted to unite the global Brotherhood movement under one banner and organization. This prompted various reactions from the different branches of the Brotherhood in Arab countries. Some welcomed the idea while others resisted it. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was badly split over this issue and this led to desertions from the movement. Some of these people were recruited into more militant organizations while others joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya.
MA: When you say militant organizations, are you referring to Salafist groups?
AS: Yes I am referring to the Salafi/Jihadi tendency.
MA: What was the impact of the Iranian revolution on the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood?
AS: I don’t think they had a clear or consistent reaction to the Islamic revolution. This was because at that time they were a wholly clandestine organization. Even now, very few people know the name of the leaders of the Brotherhood and its analysis of national and regional trends. But the international Muslim Brotherhood—I mean the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole—had an ambivalent attitude toward the Islamic revolution. They wanted to engage with the Islamic revolution and establish contacts but at the same time they were constrained by the popular mistrust of Iranians and Shias in the Arab world. In other words they did not want to alienate their core constituencies.
MA: How popular was Hizbut Tahrir in Libya?
AS: Hizbut Tahrir was brought into Libya by Palestinian and Egyptian teachers and university lecturers in the mid 1950s. For a long time it had a small but highly dedicated following inside the country. And of course—like Hizbut Tahrir branches in other countries—it was very militant. Unlike the Brotherhood, Hizbut Tahrir always followed a consistent line and resisted contact with any state authority. But I should add that Hizbut Tahrir in Libya was less extreme than the branches in other countries. They broadly adhered to the party’s ideology, but adapted some of these to suit the Libyan spirit and society.
MA: Does Hizbut Tahrir maintain an organization in Libya today?
AS: As far as I know, they do not. The regime arrested all its leaders in 1973 and these people spent more time in prison than any other Islamic activist group. Many of them died in prison and the ones who survived were only released a couple of years ago. They are now too old to be effective.
MA: Please elaborate more on the internal turmoil of the Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
AS: Many people within the Brotherhood were saying that they needed to identify the movement more with Libya, rather than concentrating on international issues. Consequently, they changed their name into al-Jama’a Islamiya al-Libiya and tried to re-introduce themselves into the Libyan arena.
MA: It seems they were trying to re-brand themselves.
AS: You could say that. It was basically a change of name and did not go very deep. The core of their thinking and activities remained the same. And now they have begun to refer to themselves as the Muslim Brotherhood again.
MA: Were any members of the Brotherhood executed by the Qadhafi regime?
AS: Not as far as I am aware. At least three people from Hizbut Tahrir were executed in the early 1980s, together with a number of other Islamists who were not affiliated with any particular group or organization.
MA: How frequently did the Qadhafi regime resort to these extreme methods against its Islamist opponents?
AS: In the 1980s, these methods were very frequent.
MA: How many people were executed altogether?
AS: Not less than 30 people were executed publicly; dozens of others were executed without trial or publicity. Some were hung publicly, often using very crude methods; others were killed by firing squads. Sometimes the hanging failed to kill the victims and they had to be shot at point blank range. A lot of this is documented on camera and shown on Libyan state television.
MA: Relatively speaking, 30 is not a huge number, especially in a North African or Middle Eastern context.
AS: The over-all toll of extra-judicial killings is far greater than that. In a Libyan context these numbers are substantial, especially when you consider that Libya has never known public hangings of political activists since the days of the Italian occupation. Also, the manner of these hangings was truly shocking. They were not underpinned by any judicial process whatsoever, but ordered and carried out by the so-called revolutionary committees, who were basically hooligans.
MA: Why is Qadhafi’s regime especially deplorable from an Islamic perspective? Some people would argue that Qadhafi’s decades-long defiance of the West should have bought him some loyalty from Islamists.
AS: The problem with Qadhafi is that he wants to be everything to everyone. With the Muslims he is Islamic, and according to his Green Book he adopts the Quran as the “law of society”. With socialists he is a socialist. With the liberals he is a liberal and internationalist. Qadhafi is a heap of contradictions and consequently ends up pleasing nobody.
MA: How do you explain the fact that a substantial number of people—particularly in black Africa—still argue that Qadhafi’s regime, through its revolutionary committees, has a democratic component?
AS: I don’t think these people truly understand the situation and are probably benefiting from Qadhafi’s patronage. Anybody who looks at Libya objectively can only arrive at the conclusion that the whole Qadhafi experience has been an unmitigated failure, a total and complete waste of time and valuable national resources. In fact it has set the country back by more than 50 years. Libya was far better off, as a country and as a society during the monarchy, between 195-1969, than it has ever been under Qadhafi.
MA: Focusing on the emergence of violent Islamism in Libya, how influential were the Libyan Afghan vets?
AS: Different forms of political Islam were all invariably imported into Libya. None of the movements that we have discussed thus far were indigenous. Accordingly when radical Islam became ascendant in the 1980s, Libya was inevitably affected, in varying degrees, by all the prevalent trends. When the Afghan Jihad started in the early and mid 1980s, many young Libyans decided to join it.
MA: How influential were they in the emergence of violent radical Islam in the country?
AS: Of course they were very influential. The Libyan people, by nature, are not violent and aggressive. As soon as the Afghani Jihad against the Soviets ended in 1989 a lot of Libyans retuned to the country to resume their struggle, and they began organizing against the Qadhafi regime.
MA: Were they the key factor in the emergence of violent groups?
AS: They were not the key factor but they were a very important one…
MA: So what was the key factor?
AS: The intimidation and antagonism of the regime was the key. The draconian and repressive attitude of the regime toward dissent seriously antagonized and alienated politically inclined young people. Autocratic methods of government, Qadhafi’s monopolistic grip on power, alienation of political opponents, police-state tactics, and the general oppressive climate engineered by the regime, all led to the thinking that violence was the only way, the last resort, to influence change in the country. This was the prevalent opinion amongst Islamists, and indeed non-Islamists for that matter, in the 1980s. This reached its climax in the late 1980s.
MA: But there was a revival of militant Islam in the early to mid 1990s.
AS: The revival was not indigenous and confined mostly to the Afghan vets. There was no real appetite for violence anymore and this was the key factor in the failure of the limited insurgency of the 1990’s. The Jihadis were desperados and their insurgency was badly planned and doomed to failure from the start.
MA: Going back to the 1980s, why did violence fail then also?
AS: Violent Islamism in Libya was never a popular phenomenon. It was always confined to a narrow group of people with exclusive ideologies and agendas. Moreover the regime resorted to very brutal and extreme methods to suppress these groups.
MA: Did the armed groups underestimate the resilience of the Qadhafi regime?
AS: Yes, they underestimated its resilience and its sheer ruthlessness. The regime was prepared to wipe out whole movements. It destroyed dissidents’ homes and used collective punishment tactics to deprive them of support and protection.
MA: Did the regime have a more powerful ideology than the Islamists?
AS: Ideology has always been Qadhafi’s weakest point. The Qadhafi regime has no ideological basis and rules through sheer force and patronage. Even the people inside the regime don’t believe in Qadhafi’s quixotic, eccentric and convoluted ideology.
MA: How important was Bin Laden and the embryonic al-Qaeda’s influence on the Libyan militant scene of the 1990s.
AS: I don’t believe it was substantial at all. I believe the Afghanistan experience and the whole notion of martyrdom and sacrifice in the battlefields, was much more of a motivating factor for Libyan Islamists.
MA: How influential was Zawahiri on the Libyan Afghans?
AS: I don’t think he had any real influence.
MA: What has been the lasting legacy of the militant Islamists?
AS: These small but highly determined and dedicated groups of people destroyed the aura of invincibility carefully erected around the Qadhafi regime from the early 1970s onwards. They showed that the regime could be successfully resisted and seriously destabilized, given the right amount of dedication and resources.
MA: Could you name some of the influential leaders of the militant Libyan Islamic movement.
AS: No individuals really stand out. Competent and charismatic leadership was never a strong point of these groups.
MA: Do you think the violence of the Islamists hurt the cause of the Libyan opposition in its entirety?
AS: As with many other countries, the use of force by small groups against an established regime is a lost cause. This was proven very starkly in the Libyan context.
MA: How would you characterize the Islamic opposition to Qadhafi today?
AS: The Islamic opposition by the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the militant organizations is still significant. The Muslim Brotherhood for instance remains the largest and most influential Libyan opposition group. The militant trend can still pose a threat to the regime.
MA: What many analysts find interesting is that while the influence of the Islamic organizations has diminished, the religiosity of ordinary Libyans has increased. How do you explain this phenomenon?
AS: The policies of the regime—particularly its profligacy and Qadhafi’s amateurish and downright blasphemous interpretations of Islam—have seriously antagonized the people and consequently strengthened their religious faith. We know that when despair, injustice and frustration set in, people find comfort in the certainties of their faith.
MA: As a religious Muslim do you regard Qadhafi as an apostate?
AS: I am not a religious scholar and can’t pass such judgment. But I would say that Qadhafi has done and said things that seriously violate Islamic norms and consequently antagonized Muslim opinion.
MA: What was the impact of 9/11 on the Libyan Islamic movement, violent or otherwise?
AS: It showed these organizations and the people as a whole, the futility and dangers of violent action. The Qadhafi regime—true to its opportunistic and unprincipled nature—aligned itself with the U.S. and used the opportunity to smear its opposition as “terrorist”. I myself was branded a terrorist by the regime for the first time. The regime adapted the same language used by the US Administration and this seriously unsettled the Islamic opposition, who became more cautious and discreet as a result. I have an unfortunate personal experience to recount here. I was prevented from entering the U.S. when I tried visiting the country in October 2002.
AS: The US authorities were working from information put up by Libyan intelligence on the internet in November 2001. The website—which is no longer in service—was called libjust.com. There were some concocted charges against me; namely that I had smuggled money–netted in an armed robbery of a bank in Benghazi—out of Libya and had subsequently passed it onto an al-Qaeda operative in England who gave it to Bin Laden. They also charged that I had gone to Pakistan and Afghanistan and had trained with al-Qaeda. They played up the fact that I had studied aeronautical engineering at university, insinuating that I had done so presumably in anticipation of a suicide mission! They were trying to build up a case against me as a “terrorist” and had resorted to the kind of outrageous fabrications favored by Arab intelligence services. Unfortunately the US authorities took this information seriously and acted upon it.
MA: What was the purpose of your trip?
AS: I was going there to visit friends. I was detained at Orlando airport and questioned by FBI officers. The FBI people were working on information gleaned from that website. But in the end they realized their mistake and apologized to me.
MA: How were you treated?
AS: The interrogation was friendly but I had to spend a whole night in prison. Altogether I spent 30 hours in detention. I was asking my interrogators about the source of their information but they kept insisting that they could not reveal their sources. I suggested to them that they had got all of it from that website and contended it was hugely puzzling that they were relying on information that even a child would immediately recognize as propaganda in its most amateurish and outrageous form.
MA: Were you allowed to enter the United States?
AS: No, because they said I had to be fully investigated before I could be allowed to enter. Consequently I caught the earliest flight I could back to the UK.
MA: What was the Libyan Islamic organizations’ instinctive reaction to 9/11?
AS: It is very difficult to evaluate that. There were some who were appalled by it and others who probably supported it.
MA: What is the general attitude of the Libyans toward the U.S. and the west?
AS: I don’t think Libya is different from other Arab societies. There is widespread and deep-rooted resentment of U.S. policies, especially its interference in the Muslim world. Also many Libyans have long suspected the U.S. of secretly supporting the Qadhafi regime, both before and after 9/11. But as far as the American people are concerned, I do not think Libyans have any problems with them.
MA: Why did Qadhafi align himself with the U.S. on the war on terror?
AS: Qadhafi read the mood correctly and feared, given his record, that he might end up as a potential target in the war on terror. Moreover he saw the whole trend as one big opportunity to settle scores with the opposition, Islamic and otherwise. The regime branded whole movements and entirely respectable people as terrorists, often with the blessing of the Americans. The US authorities, for their part, decided to showcase Qadhafi—their new ally in the Muslim world—as a reformed dictator and a model to emulate.
MA: How extensive has their cooperation been with the US government?
AS: It has been extremely extensive, especially in the intelligence field. The Libyans have given the Americans enormous amount of information, and the Americans have reciprocated, albeit to a lesser degree. Qadhafi was hoping that the Americans and the British would hand certain people over to him, but so far this has not happened. The Americans have exploited Qadhafi’s weaknesses to a large degree and extracted an extraordinary amount of information and concessions from him.
MA: Why were the Americans so interested in the Libyans’ information?
AS: They were desperate to understand their adversaries, as they really did not have a detailed knowledge of al-Qaeda. They also wanted to deepen their understanding of the wider currents of radical Islam. They thought Arab intelligence services could help them in this respect.
MA: Is it true that Libyan intelligence has been granted access to Guantanamo Bay?
AS: Yes, there is the case of Omar Deghayes—who used to live in the UK—but who has been incarcerated in Guantanamo for some time now. His lawyer has said that the Americans allowed Libyan intelligence to interrogate him. In the process they mistreated him and even threatened to kill him. They were pressuring him into confessing to al-Qaeda membership but they could not, since this was not the case. This is all documented and accessible on the internet.
MA: Any other interesting information pointing to American-Libyan cooperation?
AS: Yes, 2 leaders of the Fighting Islamic Group in Libya were detained by the Americans in Bangkok and Hong Kong in 2004 and subsequently handed over to Libyan intelligence.
MA: What were these two individuals doing in the Far East?
AS: They were fleeing from the Libyans and the Americans! But the very fact that the Americans handed them over to the Libyans proves they had no connection to al-Qaeda.
MA: Do you think Qadhafi has fully relinquished state sponsored terrorism?
AS: Qadhafi no longer has the capabilities or the incentive to pursue these policies. Whether he has the will or the desire, is another matter altogether.
MA: When would you say Qadhafi abandoned terrorism?
AS: There is no specific date, especially since the regime continued, until recently, to hunt down and kill people, especially Libyans. In any case the Qadhafi regime may have abandoned terrorism against other countries, but it still terrorizes Libyans, in particular people like me.
MA: What methods do they use to terrorize the exiled opposition?
AS: They use various methods. They have used kidnapping; for instance a prominent Libyan opposition figure was kidnapped in Egypt in 1993. They use murder and threaten violence. I was attacked during a public lecture here in London in 2001.
MA: How did that happen?
AS: I was attending a public seminar at the London School of Oriental and African Studies in March 2001 when I was assaulted by someone, who turned out to be the cultural attaché at the Libyan embassy! He tried to hit me with a metal object in front of a respectable audience, which included the Libyan ambassador to the UK. Moreover in November 2001, Libyan intelligence set up a website offering $1 Million reward each for the handing over of six opposition figures, including myself.
MA: How demoralizing has Qadhafi’s rehabilitation been to the opposition?
AS: It has been very disappointing, especially since it lends legitimacy to the Qadhafi regime. We have been fighting this regime, which the West agreed was a terrorist regime, for more than 30 years and suddenly the West, led by the U.S., are telling us that Qadhafi is reforming.
MA: How do you see the future of political Islam in Libya?
AS: There is a ground swell of opposition to what Qadhafi represents and what the regime has done to the country. The mass of people want peaceful political change.
MA: Can we expect a resumption of the violence?
AS: There is a small possibility, but much depends on how the regime treats dissent in the decisive years ahead. But the overall international trend is not conducive for the resumption of violent activities.
MA: Moving beyond Libya, how do you see the war on terror?
AS: I think it is a huge waste of resources and energy. Of course I understand the motivation and the causal factors from the American point of view, but the Americans have put themselves in an impossible position. They are over-interfering in other countries’ affairs and this is most unfortunate because it is counter-productive and is creating more hostility towards the United States.
MA: How serious is the threat from al-Qaeda and its satellite networks today?
AS: I think the more serious threat emanates from civil strife and the destruction of the existing social order in the Arab and Muslim countries. In the long run this will create many more militants or terrorists. I refer specifically to the American behavior in the region, in particular its occupation of Iraq and the manner in which it is threatening Iran and Syria today. This arrogance and vulgar flaunting of power strikes most rational and fair people as unjust and will inevitably impact adversely on the United States. The Americans want to impose “safe” democracies that make the “right” choices as far as U.S. geo-political interests are concerned. What we need in the Arab and Muslim world is not American democracy, but more openness and the opportunity for democratic forces to shape their own countries’ destiny and forge their own indigenous brand of democracy.
MA: But people have been saying this for decades and nothing tangible has ever come out of it. What the Americans seem to be saying is that the whole region needs a massive shock to force it to change for the better.
AS: The Americans and the Europeans have been supporting tyrannies in our part of the world for decades and now they want people to believe they have switched sides. The credibility gap is too wide to ignore.