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Libya's coup: Turning militants against Al Qaeda

Kadafi's government is touting its success in persuading the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to renounce Osama bin Laden's tactics.

December 15, 2009|By Borzou Daragahi
  • An unidentified former militant, left, is greeted by relatives after being released from prison in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. Dozens of members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had their life sentences commuted.
An unidentified former militant, left, is greeted by relatives after being… (Abdel Magid Al Fergany /…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — A nation the West once considered a major sponsor of terrorism may have pulled off a groundbreaking coup against Al Qaeda: coaxing a group once strongly allied with Osama bin Laden to renounce its onetime partner as un-Islamic.

Libya's government is trumpeting its success in persuading leaders and foot soldiers of the extremist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to reject Al Qaeda's brand of violence. The decision, recounted by former members of the group and Libyan officials, offers a unique example of reconciliation between a government and a violent Islamic group once devoted to overthrowing it.

"The government learned to sit with people who were opposed to them and have dialogue and understand them," said Abubakir Armela, a leader of the group who returned from exile in 2005.

The effort also provides lessons that might be applied in other countries where local insurgents have joined forces with Al Qaeda, including Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco and Algeria.

"I used to believe that the only way to change the system was through war or fighting," said Tarek Mufteh Ghunnay, who, like dozens of other members of the group, was released from prison last month after his life sentence was commuted. "Now, on the contrary, I believe in dialogue and the peaceful way."

The defanging of a group that the U.S. has listed as a terrorist organization since 2004 is the fruit of a years-long dialogue between the militants and the government. The effort was launched by Saif Islam Kadafi, the Western-educated son of aging Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi who many say is being positioned to replace him.

Pacifying militants out to overthrow the government bolsters the younger Kadafi's authority and smooths any future transfer of power. It may also help Libya's attempts to improve its battered image in the West. Tripoli had been ostracized until it dismantled its clandestine nuclear program in 2004, and it sparked further outrage this year when it welcomed home the only man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, after he was freed from a Scottish prison.

"This group was not just related to Al Qaeda. They were in bed deeply with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and later," said Robert Pape, a specialist on Al Qaeda at the University of Chicago and the sole scholar among a small of group of U.S. journalists recently invited to Tripoli by a Libyan charity, the Kadafi Foundation, to meet the former militants.

"This is a splitting of Al Qaeda," he said. "I can't remember that ever happening."

The trajectory of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is a chapter in the history of Al Qaeda's rise, expansion and eventual weakening. Its members could provide a potential trove of intelligence for Western security officials seeking to divide and conquer the terrorist network and capture Bin Laden.

Members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group trained in Afghanistan with Bin Laden, followed him during his years in Sudan and shared personnel, tactics and a puritanical Salafist religious outlook with Al Qaeda until earlier this decade. On the run throughout the Middle East, many of them were caught, sent home and sentenced to life in prison.

They broke off their partnership with Al Qaeda and denounced its brand of violence in a 400-page document completed in September and titled "Revised Studies." Vahid Brown of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point described it in an online analysis "as a very sweeping repudiation not just of Salafi jihadism but of all forms of revolutionary Islamism in general."

Former fighter Ghunnay said his enthusiasm for political violence had already faded by 1999, when he found himself shackled, loaded onto a plane in Jordan and sent back to his native Libya to face charges of being a member of a terrorist organization.

He was just 17 when he heeded the call to jihad in 1990. Moammar Kadafi had launched a widespread crackdown on Islamic groups after a January 1989 uprising against his rule. Ghunnay, a student of the Koran at a religious school, was summoned for questioning and kept under watch.

Captivated by videos showing Soviet brutality in Afghanistan and encouraged by fiery Muslim clerics, he created a fake passport, teamed up with six other Libyans and traveled through Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan before traversing the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan.

Ghunnay spent two months learning the art of combat at the infamous Al Farouq training camp, which produced many of Al Qaeda's best-known alums, including "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh and four of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.

"I was going to fight over there," he said in an interview at his home, off an alleyway in a run-down section of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. "I was seeing what the Soviets were doing in Afghanistan, what murders and horrible things were happening. I was looking to be killed and die for Islam."

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