Analysis: Gaddafi's love-hate relationship with Libya's Islamists

Why is Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi about to release from jail some 90 Islamists who tried to assassinate him.

Gaddafi 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Gaddafi 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Afghanistan War of 1979-88 symbolized Islamic rejection of foreign influence on their soil. It was a fight to push out communism and implement Shari'a law on what had for centuries been Muslim land. Muslims from across the Arab world and Africa arrived in Afghanistan ready to die in their fight against the Soviet Union's occupation. The Muslim victory over a better equipped and trained Soviet army helped instill confidence in Muslims - specifically Afghan veterans - that the time had come to pursue a global Jihad. Shari'a-pursuing jihadist organizations began to sprout up after the war; in 1988 Osama Bin Ladin founded a loosely confederated terrorist organization, Al-Qa'ida and in 1995 the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) officially announced its formation. While in exile the LIFG developed close ties with Al-Qa'ida. It was a likely match because both groups were made up of Afghan veterans, who had fought side by side through the 1980s. By the year 2000 the LIFG had become a fundamental ally of Al-Qa'ida. In November 2007 LIFG leader Abu Layth Al-Libbi announced on A- Sahab (Al-Qa'ida's media wing) that the LIFG would pledge its allegiance and be incorporated into Al-Qa'ida. "What it [LIFG] has to gain by joining Al-Qa'ida is access to greater funding, greater materials, weapons expertise," says David Hartwell of Jane's Country Risk. "Two to three years ago the LIFG was a group on the decline; really it posed no serious threat to the Gaddafi regime and arguably hasn't since the mid Nineties. The LIFG had struggled to make an impact even in Libya," he said. The LIFG was established with the purpose of overthrowing Col. Mu'ammar Gaddafi's regime and recreating Libya as an Islamic state based on Shari'a law, causing the ideology of a global jihad to take a backseat to internal Libyan affairs. Between 1996 and 1998 the LIFG attempted to assassinate Gaddafi several times. Gaddafi is no stranger to terrorism as Libya, under his control, was accused by the West of being a state sponsor of terror, and he knew he must overpower the LIFG. Libyan security forces aggressively pursued the jihadists throughout the country. The crackdown crippled the LIFG's infrastructure. This, coupled with the LIFG's failure to win public support, resulted in those members of the group who were not arrested or executed being forced to flee to the Middle East, Asia or other parts of Africa and Europe. Libyan fighters constituted 18.8 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq, second to only Saudi Arabia's 41 percent. However, Libyans had the greatest number of fighters per capita, at just under 20 fighters per 1 million residents in their home country, according to a study from the Combating Terror Center at West Point (US Military Academy). After the 9/11 terrorist attacks Gaddafi, who had sponsored terrorism for years, ironically joined the Bush administration in the war on terror. "One of the purposes of the renewed American Libyan relationship was a common counter-terrorism interest," says Prof. Lisa Anderson, a professor of International Relations at Columbia University. Al-Gaddafi was rewarded for his new position on terrorism when, on September 25, 2001, the LIFG was designated for asset freeze by US Executive Order 13224 and UNSCR 1333 in 2001. Gaddafi's enlistment in the war on terror made sense as it brought financial trouble and negative worldwide attention to the organization that had been trying to remove him from power for over a decade. However, as reported by The Media Line on February 25, 2008, a foundation led by Al-Gaddafi's most trusted envoy, his son Seif Gaddafi, has engaged in negotiations to release approximately 90 LIFG prisoners. "Al-Gaddafi has no love for Islamist extremism. On one level he is trying to buy them off to cool off their campaign and to curtail their violent opposition to his government," says Hartwell. ".one possible form of the contract [for their release] would be for them to absent themselves from any sort of political activity." The questions that need to be answered are what motive would Gaddafi have to release prisoners who swore to overthrow his regime, and what does Gaddafi stand to gain by releasing the prisoners? "There is not much domestic Libyan rationale for the release. There certainly is a way to construe this as an expression of Libyan frustration with the United States. In a sense this release is largely theatrical," suggests Anderson. "It would be wrong to suggest that it [the prisoner release] is somehow Gaddafi mischief making," Hartwell argues. ".the idea that Gaddafi is somehow returning to his worse ways of supporting international terror would be wrong. If he thought that the people he was contemplating releasing posed a threat to security, like former Iraqi fighters, .they simply wouldn't be released," he says. A member of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an opposition party in exile, Muhammad 'Ali 'Abdallah finds this to be "a paradox in itself." "In the last two years Gaddafi has tried to distance himself from his past. He has tried to build a superficial image of his regime, yet he has been stuck in a lot of oxymoronic behavior. On the one hand he calls them terrorists. On the other hand, he is negotiating with some of their leaders to release them; it is very schizophrenic," Abdallah notes. Gaddafi, true to form, will do what serves his regime's interest. What Anderson suggests is that Al-Gaddafi feels the United States is dragging its feet in terms of sending an ambassador to Libya. With his massive oil reserves, anti-Jihad perspective and his recent rejection of terrorism, Gaddafi has earned respectability with the United States and Europe. However, his core motives and role likely remain the same: he is still a Pan-African, Pan-Islamic, anti-Western revolutionist.