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How Kadafi Went From Foe to Ally

Common cause against Islamic radicals has woven U.S. intelligence ties with Libya, whose secular regime is still listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

September 04, 2005|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."

Reaching Out

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 ... 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.

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