Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 6

For decades, the Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi maintained a well documented history of extensive state sponsorship of terrorism. Tacit support, close cooperation, and moral encouragement for a number of terrorist movements and organizations throughout the years have often times served a number of shifting Libyan interests. Indeed the employment of different terrorist groups by the Libyan government was an intrinsic feature of its foreign policy for a number of years and at one point even propelled it into direct military confrontation with the United States. Throughout the years, Libyan ambitions in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as well as aspirations for influence throughout Africa, have been the main drivers of Libyan support for international terrorism.

In recent years, Tripoli has taken many steps to correct its past misdeeds, settle international claims, and disassociate itself from its terrorist past. In the process Libya has benefited greatly, as evidenced by Gadafi’s recent rehabilitation in the west. Indeed American-driven sanctions against Tripoli have ended, and many western analysts advance the argument that Libyan cooperation in the war on terror can do much to combat international Islamist terrorism. The US State Department had claimed until early last year that there have been no cases of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism since 1994; however the failed plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah has yet to be fully investigated.

‘Revolutionary state’

As a ‘revolutionary state’, Libya under the rule of Qadhafi supported a great number of national liberation and guerrilla movements, as well as dedicated terrorist organizations. Anti-imperialist and anti-colonial forces received support through both words and deeds. Much of Libya’s support of terrorism came as a result of Tripoli’s activist intervention in Arab politics. The advancement of Arab nationalism is often cited as the primary driver of Libyan terrorist support and the bulk of the literature on the subject follows this direction. Libya’s terrorist connections were largely a product of Tripoli’s desires to advance a unique interpretation of Arab nationalism, one which placed Colonel Qadhafi at the fore.

Libya also pursued its terrorist related policies in support of hard-line rejectionist Palestinian organizations such as the Abu Nidal Organization and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Similarly, Tripoli repeatedly used these and other terrorist organizations and national liberation movements to weaken and undermine moderate pro-Western Arab states that did not take a hard line on Israel. This strategy was also used throughout Africa in attempts to bring to power Muslim pro-Arab—and pro-Libyan—regimes. Attempts were made on the lives of the leaders Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Zaire, Tunisia, Jordan, and Morocco. Attempts were also made to foster unrest in Algeria, Senegal, Togo, Burkina Faso, and amongst the Tuareg people of the Sahel.

Interestingly the Qadhafi regime also supported Islamic militants in several African countries, in particular Algeria and Morocco. This support was wholly at odds with Qadhafi’s obsessive hatred of Libyan political Islam. At one point Qadhafi even claimed that Islamic militants were more “dangerous than AIDS”, and used the severest methods to suppress domestic Islamic opposition. Libyan support of Islamic militants in neighboring countries must be set in the context of traditional geo-politics and the profound rivalries between North African states. Nevertheless Qadhafi is thought to have severed his support for Algerian and Moroccan Islamists in the early 1990s, as these movements became perilously strong. While Qadhafi needed leverage against his neighbors, he had less desire than most to see Algeria fall into the hands of Islamic militants.

While it was in the business of supporting terrorism, Libya provided its clients with vast amounts of weapons and money. Libyan travel documents are reported to have been widely used by many terrorist groups. Libya also allowed its territory to be used for training and refuge by a wide variety of terrorists from such disparate backgrounds as the Irish Republican Army and the Japanese Red Army. Moreover allegations have been made regarding Libyan support for insurgents in Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as Colombia’s M-19 terrorist organization. Tripoli also maintained relationships with terrorist groups in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. [1]

The most well publicized act of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism is the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. On 15 August 2003, Tripoli accepted “responsibility for the actions of its officials” in the bombing in a letter to the UN Security Council. Two Libyan nationals, Abd al Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifah Fhimah were tried for the bombing, and al-Megrahi—alleged to be a Libyan intelligence agent—was convicted. In exchange for acknowledging its role in the Lockerbie bombing, and for taking responsibility, Tripoli agreed to pay compensation of up to $10 million per victim; payable in several stages as US sanctions are withdrawn. Recently there have been reports of issues arising in the promptness of the delivery of the compensation payments, mostly due to US investigations into the plot against Crown Prince Abdullah.

Just as the Libyan regime has sought to ease its way out from under sanctions by settling the Lockerbie case, in January 2004 Tripoli agreed to pay compensation to the victims of the 1989 UTA bombing. On 19 September 1989, UTA flight 772 exploded in mid-air over Niger, killing 171 passengers and crew. Among the victims was the wife of the US ambassador to Chad. In March 1999, six Libyan nationals were tried and found guilty by a French court in absentia. Western media reports claimed that Abdallah al-Sanussi, Qadhafi’s brother-in-law and deputy head of the Libyan spy agency, the Jamahiriya Security Organization, was one of the six charged individuals.

Also in 1999, Libya finally accepted ‘general responsibility’ for the 1983 murder of British police constable Yvonne Fletcher. Fletcher was killed while on duty by a gunshot fired from within the Libyan People’s Bureau in London. At the time, there were reports that the gunman was spirited out of the country, although this has not been documented. According to reports in the British media, an undisclosed sum was paid to the Fletcher family by the Libyan government in connection with the terms of the ‘settlement’ of responsibility. No one has yet been brought to trial for the murder, and the issue no longer seems to exercise the attention of the British authorities.

On 5 April 1986, Libyan agents placed a bomb in the La Belle Discothèque in West Berlin. Over 220 people were injured, including 63 American soldiers; 2 US servicemen and one Turkish woman were killed in the blast. The US government has alleged that intercepted communications from the Libyan People’s Bureau in East Berlin provided proof of Tripoli’s involvement. Ten days later the Reagan Administration ordered military retaliation against Libyan military installations in Benghazi and Tripoli; the air strikes targeted the al Aziziyah Barracks where Qadhafi often slept. It has been widely argued that the Abu Nidal Organization actually placed the explosives at the behest of the Libyan government. American counterterrorism analysts at the time hoped that the air strikes would curb Libyan state sponsorship of terrorism. However it is much more likely, according to these same analysts, that Libyan authorities simply became much more adept at concealing their involvement in terrorism.

Plot to kill Crown Prince Abdullah

Perhaps the most vexing allegation of Libyan state sponsorship of terrorism arises from the foiled plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Qadhafi has long had an antagonistic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia generally, and with the Crown Prince specifically. [2] As reported in the western media, the two verbally spared at an Arab League summit before the Iraq war, in which Qadhafi menaced the Crown Prince stating “Your lies precede you and your grave is in front of you.”

Abdurahman Alamoudi, an American citizen and former Muslim activist, is reported to have confessed his role in the conspiracy. Alamoudi confessed that he served as a middleman between senior Libyan officials and Saudi dissidents, including several based in the United Kingdom, and others suspected to be residing in Egypt and Syria. Colonel Mohamed Ismael, described as a Libyan intelligence officer, is reported to be held in Saudi custody. Alamoudi and Ismael are said to have independently related details of the assassination plot to both US and Saudi security officials.

Very few details have emerged in open sources regarding the foiled plot. The Saudi press, especially al-Watan, expressed outrage that Qadhafi would target the Crown Prince, after Abdullah stood by Tripoli “in all sincerity during Libya’s days of tribulation.” It is extremely troublesome that while Tripoli was seeking to shed its terrorist image by cooperating with the West, elements in the Libyan regime were actively plotting the overthrow of a key US ally. The destabilization of the kingdom at such a point in time would have a dramatic impact on the war on terror, and could even pose a fatal risk to the Saudi regime at such a time when the House of Saud is engaged in a violent struggle with domestic Islamic terrorists.

Libya under Qadhafi has certainly come a long way, from executing terrorist attacks worldwide to providing moral and material support to a great number of groups. After having renounced weapons of mass destruction Libya seeks to work with the West in the war on terror. Tripoli will likely be able to produce information on a number of individuals and organizations of interest to counter-terrorism officials. As Tripoli now seeks to distance itself from its terrorist past, it must be pressured to fully account for all its activities in support of international terrorism. In the process, it will likely expose many important organizational and ideological ties it nurtured over the years.

Christopher Boucek is the editor of the RUSI/Jane’s Homeland Security & Resilience Monitor at the Royal United Services Institute in London.


1. Donna S. Cueto, “The Europeans need this more than Libya,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 24 August 2004.

2. Based on conversations with sources inside Saudi Arabia.