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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

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.

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