Los Angeles Times
Common cause against Islamic radicals has woven U.S. intelligence ties with Libya, whose secular regime was then still listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
By Ken Silverstein, Times Staff Writer
LONDON As it struggles to combat Islamic terrorist networks, the Bush administration has quietly built an intelligence alliance with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, a onetime bitter enemy the U.S. had tried for years to isolate, topple or kill.
Kadafi has helped the U.S. pursue Al Qaeda’s network in North Africa by turning radicals over to neighboring pro-Western governments. He also has provided information to the CIA on Libyan nationals with alleged ties to international terrorists.
In turn, the U.S. has handed over to Tripoli some anti-Kadafi Libyans captured in its campaign against terrorism. And Kadafi’s agents have been allowed into the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba to interrogate Libyans being held there.
The rapprochement is partially the result of a decade of efforts by Kadafi to improve relations with the United States and end international sanctions imposed on Libya for bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. But it also reflects the fact that Libya and the United States regard Islamic extremism as a common enemy. Even though he long supported radical causes, Kadafi views religious militants as a menace to his secular regime.
“Their assistance has been genuine, if motivated in large measure by self-preservation,” Bruce Hoffman, director of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency studies at Rand Corp., said of the Libyans. “You have to give Kadafi credit for recognizing the existential threat posed to his rule and revolution by [Osama] bin Laden and Al Qaeda.”
Critics charge that the partnership with Libya, like those with countries such as Sudan, Uzbekistan and Egypt, illustrates how Washington is allowing its war on terrorism to trump its effort to promote democracy and human rights in the Arab world. They say that in cooperating with Kadafi, the U.S. has strengthened his oil-rich regime and permitted him to crack down on political opponents, some with democratic credentials far stronger than his own.
Kadafi’s point man for dealing with Washington is his head of foreign intelligence, who is banned from entering the U.S. because of his suspected involvement in terrorist acts, including the Lockerbie bombing. He also is suspected of taking part in a plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ruler.
Libyan dissidents, who for years thought they could count on American support, have been deeply disappointed by the Bush administration.
“Kadafi was considered to be a dictator and terrorist, and Libya was a rogue regime,” said Ashur Shamis, a prominent London-based Libyan exile and longtime proponent of democratic reform. “Suddenly, everything has changed.
“The Americans no longer want to see Kadafi’s regime destabilized,” he said. “Opponents have written off the possibility of receiving tangible political support from the United States.”
Libya’s decision in 1999 to turn over suspects in the Pan Am bombing, which killed 270 people, and, 4 1/2 years later, its renunciation of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs have been the most public examples of its effort to improve relations.
But experts say Kadafi already had been moving in that direction because sanctions had crippled his economy, causing high unemployment, shortages of consumer goods and political discontent.
Kadafi came to power in 1969 at the age of 27, when he led an army coup that overthrew Libya’s pro-Western monarchy. A decade later, the Carter administration placed Libya on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it remains.
In April 1986, U.S. warplanes attacked Libya in retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin disco that killed three people, including two U.S. soldiers. The U.S. attack killed dozens of people, including Kadafi’s 15-month-old adopted daughter, and nearly killed the Libyan leader himself.
Meanwhile, the CIA funneled millions of dollars in money and equipment to anti-Kadafi rebels.
Kadafi began reaching out to the U.S. as early as the mid-1990s, expelling or severing ties with radical groups. In April 1999, he surrendered two Libyans who were suspected in the Pan Am bombing. The Clinton administration responded by launching secret talks with Tripoli.
The thaw accelerated in January 2001 with the inauguration of President Bush and the conviction of Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi of murder in the Lockerbie case. A Scottish court said Megrahi had acted “in furtherance of the purposes of â€¦ Libyan Intelligence Services,” but it acquitted a second man. In 2003, Libya agreed to a $2.7billion payout to families of the Lockerbie victims. American oil companies, eager to invest in Libya, lobbied the Bush administration to improve ties.
Relations improved markedly after the Sept. 11 attacks, which Kadafi immediately condemned.
The Libyan leader said the United States had the right to retaliate, and urged Libyans to donate blood for American victims. He subsequently said Libya and the U.S. had a common interest in fighting Islamic extremism.
Record on Rights
Kadafi had strong reasons to enlist in the administration’s war on Islamic extremists and ample resources to offer. But his regime’s record on human rights remains a cause of serious concern in Washington.
In the early 1990s, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was founded by a group of Libyans back from battling Soviet troops in Afghanistan alongside Bin Laden and thousands of volunteers. Members of the group, which seeks to replace Kadafi’s regime with a government modeled on Islamic law, tried to assassinate him in 1996 by throwing a bomb under his motorcade.
In response, the government cracked down, arresting hundreds of people, stepping up surveillance and repression of Islamic groups, and launching a major military campaign in regions where the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group enjoyed support. Within a few years, Kadafi’s security forces had largely eliminated the group inside Libya, but its leaders had fled abroad. Musa Kusa, the head of Libya’s foreign intelligence service, has boasted to foreign visitors that his service monitors domestic Islamic extremists so closely that he knows the name of every Libyan with a beard.
In 1998, Libya became the first country to issue an Interpol arrest warrant for Bin Laden, charging that Al Qaeda had collaborated with domestic radicals in the 1994 killing of two German anti-terrorism agents in Libya.
In October 2001, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State William J. Burns traveled to London to meet a delegation headed by Kusa.
Kusa, who earned a degree in sociology from Michigan State University in 1978, had written a fawning political biography of Kadafi for his master’s thesis. The following year, he was posted to London as the head of Libya’s embassy.
In February 1980, Kadafi called for the “physical liquidation” of his exiled opponents. Within months, the colonel’s supporters in London had killed two Libyan dissidents. Britain expelled Kusa after he said in an interview that he approved of such killings and that other exiles would be targeted as well.
A CIA investigation of the Pan Am bombing determined that Kusa had a role in the attack, according to Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA officer who led the agency’s inquiry. At the London meeting with Burns, Kusa provided information to the CIA on Libyan militants living abroad who had allegedly trained at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
“I gritted my teeth when I heard about the talks with Musa Kusa because he was directly involved in Lockerbie, which took American lives,” Cannistraro said. “But that’s the sort of pragmatism you need in the intelligence business. You sometimes have to deal with people with blood on their hands.”
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), who has promoted engagement with Libya, met with Kusa during trips to Libya and Algeria.
“He is extremely intelligent, well informed, sophisticated and a strong proponent of improved U.S.-Libya ties,” said Lantos, a co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. “I have qualms about working with people much nicer than him, but I consider him a valuable asset in building relations with a former rogue state.”
The intelligence partnership has unfolded mostly in private, but both sides have publicly acknowledged its existence. In an accord reached this year, the CIA agreed to offer counter-terrorism training to Libyan security personnel, two U.S. government sources familiar with the deal told the Los Angeles Times.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Libya’s counter-terrorism cooperation was important to the United States and compared it to “the relationship we have with our long-standing friends.”
The official acknowledged that Kusa might have been involved in acts of terrorism in the past, but said he was not under indictment in the U.S. and had been helpful.
“This is a regime that has had its hands dirty in the past. We have to be careful about how to deal with them. The most important thing is to make sure they don’t do it again in the future,” the official said.
“We are exchanging information with the U.S., which allows for greater coordination to combat terrorism,” Ali S. Aujali, Libya’s top diplomat in America, told The Times, adding that he could not provide details because of their sensitivity.
Although Bush has called for greater democratization in the Middle East, Libya’s record on human rights is poor.
In March 2004, Bush praised Libya for freeing the country’s most prominent dissident, Fathi Jahmi. He said that the United States backed “courageous reformers” such as Jahmi and that his release from prison marked an “encouraging step” by Kadafi’s regime. Two weeks later, Jahmi granted interviews to two Arabic-language satellite TV stations in which he called for greater democracy in Libya. Security forces put him back in jail, where he remains.
Kusa, Libya’s primary negotiator with the Bush administration on counter-terrorism and other major issues, has been barred from entering the U.S. because of his suspected involvement in the Lockerbie bombing. Last year, he was named in U.S. court records as a key planner of an alleged plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah, who became king last month after the death of King Fahd.
According to a State Department report this year, Kusa’s agency was part of an “extensive security apparatus” overseeing a “pervasive surveillance system.” Security forces have held numerous detainees for years without charge or trial, and torture was routinely used on political foes, the report says. Methods allegedly included beatings, electric shock, pouring lemon juice on open wounds, breaking fingers “and allowing the joints to heal without medical care,” suffocation with plastic bags and hanging by the wrists.
Libya sits at the heart of a region that has witnessed an explosive growth of Islamic extremism. U.S. Marines and Army Special Forces are training the armies of four countries in North Africa to combat radical groups.
Seif Islam Kadafi, the colonel’s son and possible successor, wrote in the journal of the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council in 2003 that as an Arab state, “Libya has been far more adept than the West at infiltrating the fanatical groups that have been behind so much recent violence. The activities in our own country of cells linked organizationally and ideologically to extremism give us a shared interest with the West in stopping them.”
Tripoli’s intelligence-gathering capability is further heightened by its own past support for terrorist groups and insurgent movements. Libya has special access and influence in countries such as Chad and in Muslim areas of Nigeria, a major oil supplier to the United States.
Libyans have held senior positions in Al Qaeda, including Abu Anas Libi, who is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorism suspects and is alleged to have been a key planner of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Libyans also have enlisted in Abu Musab Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda-linked network in Iraq.
“Their files are incredibly helpful in trying to track Al Qaeda and other radical groups, in part because so many Libyans have joined up with” those organizations, said Gary Gambill, who covers Islamic extremism for the Terrorism Monitor, a publication of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.
Kadafi’s actions have led to threats of retaliation. In May, a popular Islamic website carried a statement from a group claiming to represent Al Qaeda in Libya that said “operations will begin soon against the tyrant’s forces.” The same month, Abed Shahada Tahawi, an Al Qaeda militant charged with conspiring to attack U.S. and Israeli embassies in Jordan, criticized Kadafi’s cooperation with the United States. In a statement at his trial, he said the Libyan leader would “end up on the dust heap of history.”
Libya’s decision, brokered by Kusa, to renounce its nuclear program also produced an intelligence bonanza for the U.S.
In addition to turning over 55,000 pounds of nuclear equipment, Libya gave the CIA files with the names of black-market suppliers, front companies and transporters.
“The information they turned over helped us to track down aspects of the [black-market] network and contributed to the shutdown of parts of that network in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates,” said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism analyst with the Congressional Research Service.
Another U.S. official, who tracks Libya’s counter-terrorism effort, and an Arab intelligence official said Libya had extradited Islamic militants to other Arab countries, including Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. Like several other people interviewed for this article, they spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they could not otherwise discuss such matters.
In late 2003, a rebel group in neighboring Chad captured Amari Saifi, the No. 2 figure in the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which is fighting Algeria’s secular government and is a major source of recruits and other support for Al Qaedainspired operations in Europe. Libya helped broker a deal by which the rebel group turned him over to Algeria.
“Libya facilitated the transfer,” said a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the case. “They helped bring together the Algerians and the rebels, and generally served as an honest broker on the deal.”
The cooperation on counter-terrorism has been a two-way street.
In early 2004, security agents in Asia, working with the U.S., detained two senior officials from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, according to Shamis, the Libyan exile, and two acquaintances of the men.
They said that Abdullah Sadeq, who was captured in Thailand, and Abu Munder Saadi, who was seized in Hong Kong, were interrogated by U.S. officials and then sent to Libya, where they are imprisoned.
Shamis and Noman Benotman, a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who now lives in London and who knows the men, told The Times that they learned of the detentions from relatives of the two men in Tripoli. Nasir Benisse, who also lives in London and is Saadi’s brother-in-law, confirmed their accounts.
Benotman fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and said he was grateful to the Reagan administration for its backing then. But he added that intelligence collaboration with the U.S. had “strengthened Kadafi 100%.”
“Now anyone who is an enemy of Kadafi is also an enemy of the United States,” he said.
The CIA has also allowed Kadafi’s intelligence officers to interrogate Libyan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, according to Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney who represents 38 detainees there. Among his clients is Omar Deghayes, whose family fled to Britain from Libya in 1986, six years after Deghayes’ father, a lawyer and dissident, was arrested and executed by Kadafi’s regime.
A devout Muslim, Deghayes traveled to Afghanistan in 2000 to experience life under an Islamic regime, Stafford Smith said. He fled to Pakistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and was arrested by Pakistani forces, who turned him over to the Americans. In September 2002, he was sent to Guantanamo.
Stafford Smith said it appeared his client had been mistaken for a militant in a training video made by Chechen rebels.
Deghayes told Stafford Smith that four Libyan intelligence officers had interrogated him and other Libyans in September 2004. He said he was fully shackled when the Libyans questioned him Sept. 9 about alleged anti-Kadafi activities, in the presence of three Americans in civilian clothes. Two days later, the Libyans questioned him again, this time about anti-Kadafi exiles based in Britain.
According to Deghayes, Kadafi’s agents showed him pictures of badly beaten Libyan detainees, and one of the agents told him: “You will be brought to judgment in Libya, and when we bring you to Libya, I will personally teach you the meaning of this. In here I cannot do anything, but if I meet you [later], I will kill you.”
In late 2004, the Bush administration designated the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group a terrorist organization. Earlier in the year, during testimony before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet included it among small extremist groups that posed an especially potent threat to the United States.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has long focused exclusively on seeking Kadafi’s overthrow and does not publicly endorse terrorism, but the State Department says that in recent years it has “embraced [Al Qaeda's] global jihadist agenda.”
European anti-terrorism officials say the group has helped Al Qaeda link up with North African radicals and assisted in the training and operations of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, which was involved in attacks in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2003 and Madrid in 2004.
Labeling the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group a terrorist organization increases the risk that its members living abroad could be detained and returned to Libya, Gambill, of Terrorism Monitor, said.
“A lot of countries aren’t going to take the risk of harboring the Fighting Group’s members or giving them any type of support because it could cause trouble with the U.S.,” he said.
Some intelligence experts and observers say Kadafi has exploited counter-terrorism cooperation to tar his political foes.
In October 2001, Libya’s Justice Ministry offered $1 million for information leading to the detention of six exiles, including Shamis, who was accused of funneling money from a bank robbery in Libya to Al Qaeda. The following year, Interpol issued a “wanted” notice for Shamis and several other Kadafi foes on the basis of a request from the Libyan government. Shamis was charged with terrorism and illegal possession of firearms.
Shamis, who has been a vocal critic of Al Qaeda and who has lived near London for most of the last 30 years, was detained at the Orlando, Fla., airport when he came to the U.S. in 2002. He was questioned by local authorities and the FBI, who acknowledged, he said, that he was being interrogated on the basis of information from the Libyan government. Shamis returned to Britain after a night in jail.
“I said to the [U.S. authorities], ‘Kadafi used to be Public Enemy No. 1 and now you are arresting people based on his information,’ ” Shamis said. “The Americans are desperate for any and all information after 9/11, and Kadafi is happy to capitalize on that.”
Though the CIA declined to comment for this article, a former senior agency official familiar with counter-terrorism cooperation with Libya said Libyan officials “are probably sharing as much as possible to try to impress us and to dig out from the hole they are in.”
The former official said the CIA was aware of the possibility that Kadafi would seek to unfairly discredit his political enemies and was guarding against it “at the highest levels on down.”
Plot Against King
The primary obstacle to continued warming of U.S.-Libyan relations is the unresolved charge that the Kadafi regime tried to orchestrate the assassination of then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
In July 2004, Abdulrahman M. Alamoudi, a naturalized U.S. citizen and founder of the American Muslim Council, pleaded guilty in federal court to illegal business dealings with Libya stemming from his part in the plot and was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
He told prosecutors that he was acting at the behest of Libyan officials after Kadafi and Abdullah got into an argument at an Arab League conference in March 2003. The dispute ended with Abdullah telling Kadafi, “Your lies precede you, while your grave is ahead of you,” according to court records.
Alamoudi was summoned to Tripoli, where, over the next several months, the court records say, he held a series of meetings with six senior Libyan officials who put together the alleged plot against Abdullah. Alamoudi subsequently recruited Saudi exiles in London and arranged the transfer to them of hundreds of thousands of dollars from Libya.
The six Libyans are named only in a classified section of the court records, but a U.S. law enforcement official with knowledge of the case said Kusa, the Libyan foreign intelligence chief, was identified by Alamoudi as a principal planner of the plot who personally delivered at least $250,000 that was funneled to the Saudi exiles. (Alamoudi also named Kadafi, who the law enforcement source said was identified in the public records only as “Libyan Government Official #5,” a sponsor of the plot).
U.S. law enforcement officials investigating money transfers from Libya to Alamoudi detained him at Dulles airport near Washington in September 2003.
The Saudis subsequently arrested 13 suspects, including four Libyan intelligence agents, whom they charged with conspiring to assassinate Abdullah. The Saudi government initially said the suspects would be tried publicly, but early last month it pardoned the four Libyans.
However, a Saudi official familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government did not regard the pardons as an exoneration. “We have all the evidence to support their involvement in the case,” he said of the Libyan suspects.
The official said that Kadafi’s regime had been making a series of overtures to the kingdom, such as sending a delegation to King Fahd’s funeral, and that the pardons were a recognition of such steps.
Aujali, Libya’s representative in Washington, denied that Tripoli had played any role in a plot against Abdullah.
State Department officials say they take Alamoudi’s allegations seriously and that they are continuing to evaluate Libya’s role in the affair.
Despite the Alamoudi case, U.S. engagement with Libya appears to be slowly deepening on all fronts.
In April 2004, seven months after Alamoudi’s arrest, Bush declared that “Libya has turned its back on terror.”
Two months later, Assistant Secretary of State Burns and J. Cofer Black, then-U.S. coordinator for counter-terrorism, traveled to Libya and met with Kadafi.
During the visit, the U.S. formally reestablished direct diplomatic ties with Libya.
In September, the administration lifted sanctions barring most U.S. trade with Libya.
Four months later, U.S. oil firms won lucrative rights in Libya, beating out European competitors. Pentagon officials say that if relations continue to improve, the U.S. would like to include Libya in a proposed $500-million program along with nine other countries that would be aimed at countering Al Qaeda in the region.
“Libya may not be a model of democracy, but we’ve got it out of the [weapons of mass destruction] business, and it is no longer playing a role [in sponsoring] terrorism,” said Mark R. Parris, a former U.S. diplomat who has worked to improve ties with Libya through the Corporate Council on Africa. “They are trying to become a world citizen, and it’s worth the experiment to see if we can help achieve that. The results so far tend to validate it.”
But critics say Washington is helping Kadafi stay in power.
“The fundamental nature of the Libyan government has not changed,” said Thomas Donnelly, a national security specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. “We shouldn’t be fighting a war on terrorism to preserve regimes like Kadafi’s.”
* (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Population: 5.8 million (86.3% urban)
Area: 679,363 sq. mi. (four times the size of California)
Median age: 22.7
Life expectancy at birth: 76.5
Ethnicity: 97% Arab and Berber
Religion: 97% Muslim (mostly Sunni)
Literacy (ages 15 and over): 82.6%
Unemployment rate: 30% (2004)
Top industries: Oil, food processing, textiles, handicrafts, cement
Major crops: Wheat, barley, olives, dates, citrus, vegetables, peanuts, soybeans
Geography: more than 90% desert or semidesert
Chief of state: Moammar Kadafi, since 1969; he holds no official title, but is the de facto ruler
Head of government: Prime Minister Shukri Mohammed Ghanim, since June 2003
* Sources: CIA Factbook; ESRI; 2005 World Almanac
* (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Some of the key events in Moammar Kadafi’s rule:
1969: Lt. Col. Moammar Kadafi comes to power at age 27, when he leads a coup against Libya’s pro-Western monarchy.
1979: The Carter administration places Libya on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it remains.
1981: The U.S. closes down the Libyan Embassy in Washington and expels its diplomats. American F-14s shoot down Libyan fighters over the Gulf of Sidra.
1986: The Reagan administration accuses Libyan agents of placing a bomb in a Berlin disco that kills three people, including two American soldiers. In response, American planes bomb targets in Libya, killing dozens of civilians, including Kadafi’s infant adopted daughter.
1988: Libya comes under suspicion in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which kills 270 people.
1992: The United Nations imposes sanctions after Libya refuses to hand over two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing.
1998: Libya becomes the first country to issue an international arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden.
1999: Kadafi surrenders the two suspects in the Pan Am attack, and the U.N. suspends economic sanctions.
2001: A court convicts Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi of murder in the Lockerbie case. The second Libyan defendant is acquitted. Kadafi strongly condemns the Sept. 11 attacks, urging Libyans to donate blood for the victims.
2003: The U.N. lifts its weapons and travel embargoes against Libya after the government accepts responsibility for the 1988 airliner bombing.
2003: Libya renounces its nuclear program and hands over documents that help the CIA and European authorities unmask suspects in a nuclear black market.
2004: President Bush lifts most U.S. trade sanctions against the country.
Compiled by Julie Sheer and John Jackson; sources: Times research, Associated Press