Libya’s Al Qaeda Problem

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

February 25, 2011

“Do not be swayed by Bin Laden,” Muammar Qaddafi declared Thursday, as he blamed the master terrorist for the unrest and violence sweeping Libya. This finger-pointing caught many by surprise: Qaddafi, as his sobriquet “the mad dog of the Middle East” suggests, spent many years atop the list of the world’s worst terrorists. Qaddafi’s words are in part a clumsy effort to win international support for his attempt to brutally crush the revolt that has swept Libya by blaming the violence on the man everyone loves to hate. But it’s more than that. For while Osama Bin Laden is not behind the latest unrest, Qaddafi’s hatred of al Qaeda is quite real.

Qaddafi’s ideological guidance for Libya is a bizarre blend of socialism, Arab nationalism, Islam, and Qaddafi’s own ideas. (Check out his famous Green Book to get a sense of the philosophical mash-up.) The growth of religious sentiment throughout the Arab world in the 1970s also touched Libya, and Qaddafi’s attempt to appropriate Islam to legitimate his rule alienated many Libyans. Some small groups organized against the regime in the mid-1980s and one even assassinated a regime official.

The Libyan regime quickly cracked down, and those opponents who were able to flee headed to Afghanistan and Pakistan. There, as various Arab groups gathered to help the Afghans repel the Soviets, Libyans came together to organize and develop their fighting skills. While there, they shared facilities with other radical Arab groups, with their ideas cross-fertilizing. In 1988, Bin Laden and al-Qaida would emerge alongside these groups and, as the years went by, become an increasingly dominant voice in propagating their ideas.

As the Soviet occupation ended and the Afghan struggle turned into a brutal Muslim-on-Muslim civil war, many Libyans returned home, where they began to organize against Qaddafi. Some were jailed and tortured. Many also stayed in Pakistan and Afghanistan and then, in 1992, followed Bin Laden whenhe moved to Sudan, which was welcoming jihadists from around the Arab world. As in Afghanistan, the Libyans organized and trained in preparation for the struggle in their home country. They also worked with new recruits in Libya and those Afghan returnees who had managed to evade Libya’s ruthless security services, forming the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

In 1995, the Libyans had their first falling out with Bin Laden. For even though LIFG members worked closely with Bin Laden, when the Sudanese government began to crack down on Arab jihadists, Bin Laden was unable to protect the Libyans, and they were expelled. Many never forgave him.

As Sudan forced the LIFG fighters out, the struggle within Libya intensified. The LIFG attempted to kill Qaddafi several times and conducted other attacks on regime targets. As it is doing today, the regime responded brutally, arresting thousands, often with only suspicion of jihadist activities. In areas like Darna, where the LIFG had more support, the regime employed thousands of soldiers to crush the revolt. In a particularly horrific act, the regime killed more than 1,000 jihadist prisoners in Abu Salim prison in 1996 after they protested harsh conditions there. At the time, the wider world knew little of this unrest.

Years of repression, and perhaps genuine repentance over the deaths of innocents that come from terrorism, over time would produce a split among Libyan jihadists. Some would reject violence and bitterly denounce al-Qaida. One former senior figure, Noman Benotman, issued an open letter denouncing al Qaeda’s attacks on Western civilians, while other major jihadist figures imprisoned in Libya jointly published a denunciation of al Qaeda and of their own past use of violence. Qaddafi’s regime had courted these figures, encouraging their denunciations and releasing many from prison as a reward. (As part of its effort to improve its international image, the regime tried to promote the forgiveness and re-education program it was using to de-radicalize former jihadists. In 2010, as a guest of the Qaddafi Foundation, I visited Libya to see a mass prison release and interview former jihadists and regime officials.)

At the same time, however, some Libyan jihadists continued to embrace violence and became even more radical. Some fighters fled Libya for Afghanistan when Bin Laden returned there in 1996, again working with the Saudi mastermind. There, again, they ran training camps and shared resources with other jihadist groups, becoming part of Bin Laden’s efforts to knit disparate national groups into one movement. After 9/11, some would fight with Bin Laden against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and many Libyans also went to Iraq to fight after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Today, a number of Bin Laden’s key lieutenants are of Libyan origin.

Until the late 1990s, Libya was a pariah regime. Terrorism was the gravest charge against Qaddafi, with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people, being the most dramatic example for Americans. Qaddafi finally surrendered several of the officials responsible for the bombing so they could be tried, while disclaiming any personal role, even though no such operation could ever have gone forward without his approval. This concession allowed Libya to come in from the cold, albeit slowly, given that the Libyan leader still meddled in Africa and issued bizarre statements that alienated most Arab countries.

Ironically, the one area of solid cooperation between Libya and the United States was against terrorism, which for the first three decades of Qaddafi’s rule had been the sorest point of contention. Given Libya’s long experience with jihadists, and the prominent role of several Libyans in al Qaeda, such cooperation was fruitful for both sides.

Should Qaddafi fall, such cooperation may decrease. A new regime—no one can even guess its composition at this point—would not share Qaddafi’s personal history and hostility toward the jihadist movement. This possible decline in cooperation is a risk worth taking given how loathsome the Qaddafi regime is.

From a counterterrorism point of view, a more serious danger is that the civil war will continue without end. Bin Laden has proved adept at exploiting civil wars and strife. In Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq, among other countries, al Qaeda and like-minded groups initially worked with local fighters motivated primarily to throw out outsiders or redress other local grievances. Slowly but surely they made the struggle more global, casting it as a fight against the United States and making the jihadist component of the resistance larger. Given the strong Libyan representation in al Qaeda and the historic role jihadists played in the anti-Qaddafi struggle, al Qaeda might try to bend this conflict to its will. So Qaddafi’s swift end is all the more necessary.