2003. The Libyan envoy to the United Nations, Ahmed Own, delivers
the following letter to then President of the UN Security Council,
Syrian Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe:
“1. I am pleased to inform you that the remaining issues relating to fulfillment of all Security Council resolutions resulting from the Lockerbie incident have been resolved. (...)
2. The Libyan Arab Jamahiriya has sought to cooperate in good faith throughout the past years to bring about a solution to this matter.
3. In this context, and out of respect for international law and pursuant to the Security Council resolutions, Libya as a sovereign state:
- has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103, and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials;
- has cooperated with the Scottish investigating authorities before and during the trial (...);
- has arranged for the payment of appropriate compensation. (...)
4. The Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, which during the last two decades did, on numerous occasions, condemn all acts of terrorism in its correspondence to the General Assembly and to the Security Council, reaffirms its commitment to this policy.(...)”
By accepting its responsibility for the Pan Am bombing, Colonel Gaddafi paved the way for a new start in his relationship with both the United States and the United Kingdom. By condemning all acts of terrorism, at least officially, Libya asked to cease being a Rogue State. And agreed, on paper, to pursue any official involved in terrorist acts.
The deal included a relief from UN sanctions in exchange for 2.16 billion dollars for the families of the victims on the Pan Am flight. A huge sum of money that was supposed to erase Libya’s shameful past.
The Pan Am flight moving from London to New York exploded while in mid-air on December 28, 1998 over Scotland. An explosive device had been concealed inside a suitcase and 270 people died. The investigations led to two Libyan citizens: Abdelbaset al Megrahi, in charge of security for Libyan Airlines and an intelligence agent, and his colleague, Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, who was later acquitted.
In 2001 Megrahi was convicted to life in prison by a special tribunal set up in the Netherlands and then extradited to Scotland to serve his sentence. During the trial, he never confessed, nor admitted of having acted on behalf of the Libyan regime. After a series of appeals, Abdelbaset al Megrahi was released on medical grounds, he had a prostate cancer that according to doctors left him 3 months to live, in 2009. His homecoming was a national holiday. Gaddafi’s son, Seif al Islam, welcomed him as he descended the steps from the presidential plane. Abdelbaset al Megrahin died in his home in Tripoli in 2012.
As facts have later shown, Megrahi was not released on mere compassionate grounds, but with the aim of improving the relationship between the UK and Libya. But Lockerbie was not the last terrorist attack against the West.
On September 19, 1989 a French commercial flight exploded over Niger because of another bomb. The UTA airplane was flying from N’Djamena to Paris and carried 170 passengers. None of them survived. A French Court has established Libya’s responsibility in the incident, including the role played by Abdullah Senussi, Gaddafi’s brother-in-law, and of Libyan Security Services. They have all been convicted in absentia.
Libya’s terrorist attacks were acts of revenge against the West. The Pan Am flight was targeted after the US bombed Tripoli in 1986. The UTA plane was a revenge attack for the French military intervention in Chad that forced the Libyans on the retreat with heavy casualties.
Silvio Berlusconi and Muhammar Gheddafi
By accepting his part of the blame over Lockerbie, Gaddafi wanted to offer the world a new face, less controversial and more reliable than in the past. He let go of his man over the Scottish incident rather than the French one because he could sacrifice Megrahi, but not his brother-in-law. At the same time he preferred the US and the UK to the French.
The Libyan leader was always careful over who to befriend. He was always prudent and definitely wary. Gaddafi realized that the good old days of when he killed opponents home and abroad, supported militant groups from Ireland to Palestine and carried out his own terrorist attacks were over. He now had to be on the right side of history. He now had to fight terrorism.
Muammar Gaddafi had consolidated his personal power after having been a revolutionary, a Panarabist, a Nasserian, a defender of Islam, a terrorist, anti-Israeli, anti-American and anti-Italian. He now had to come to moderate terms. And the fight against terrorism was just the perfect excuse.
This change of attitude was not dictated by his heart. Terrorism was close to home. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was in Algeria and Islamic extremism was spreading throughout North Africa and in the Sahel. Furthermore, his know how of terrorism could be a valuable asset for future partners in the West.
The cooperation in the fight against terrorism
Following the deal over Lockerbie, CIA and MI6 representatives landed in Tripoli and started cooperating with the regime. The French DGSE also sent an envoy to Libya to work on anti-terrorism. In 2003 the Libyan External Security Service was still under the guidance of one of the most controversial and ruthless personalities of the regime, Musa Kusa, but Western powers didn’t seem to care.
The cooperation became extremely close. This is proven by the Extraordinary Rendition to Libya of LIFG’s leader, Abdelhakim Belhaj, in 2004. The US caught him in Kuala Lumpur, had him briefly jailed in Bangkok before extraditing him to Libya.
Before the Arab Spring
Muammar Gaddafi’s new moderate dress fitted a world fighting against the Islamic terrorist plague. But he was still Gaddafi nonetheless. Even when he asked fellow African presidents to elect him to the presidency of the African Union or, by a bunch of local rulers from across the continent, demanded to be acclaimed as the “King of Kings” of Africa.
By 2009, after the celebrations for his 40 years in power were over – the military parade on the Green Square featured unarmed soldiers who were checked at the metal detector before marching in front of their leader – Gaddafi’s main concern became his handover of power. He did not have any official roles anymore, or at least he claimed, and acted solely as the “Guide”.
The person chosen to replace him was the first son from his second wife, Seif al Islam. Gaddafi first convinced the other fellow members of the Revolutionary Command Council that their powers would not be affected. They were worried about Seif al Islam’s continuous talks of democracy, human rights and power to the people. Muammar then had to convince his own family, and especially Mutassim, who was next in line after Seif and who did not go well with his father’s pick. When this was done, Seif al Islam benefited from a series of changes to the Libyan Constitution, prestigious and internationally recognizable appointments that built around him an aura of both moderation and respectability.
Even the External Security Service changed when its control was handed over from Musa Kusa to Abu Zied Durda, whose past in civilian postings was not paved with the cadavers of the regime’s enemies. The only individual staging a comeback was Gaddafi’s brother-in-law, Abdullah Senussi. After having been put in the sidelines following his conviction in France, he was put in charge of a Committee tasked with fighting human trafficking. This new position allowed him to directly control Libya’s security apparatus.
The Arab Spring
In 2011, when the so called Arab Spring erupted, Libya was a stable country. The dictator had a solid control over his people, with the exception of recurrent protests in Cyrenaica by the families of the detainees of the Abu Salim prison that had been massacred in 1996 under the guidance of Abdullah Senussi. 1200 inmates were slaughtered by the security forces.
After over 40 years at the helm, Gaddafi knew how to deal with the local tribes and, through them, make sure the people were with him. Even the LIFG was not a threat anymore, while the Muslim Brotherhood had accepted a truce and mosques were put under direct government control.
The protests in Tunisia and Ben Ali’s overthrow and Hosni Mubarak’s defenestration in Egypt suddenly put Libya in the crossfire. But when rallies began, and a civil war was in the making, the Libyan regime was still in a position to quash the rebellion and maintain stability. There was only one way of overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi.
In March 2011, NATO forces struck Libya and declared their support for the rebellion. The French were the ones to insist and pressure their allies to intervene. Libyan airspace was first banned to Libyan government planes. Then the air strikes began. The French attacked around Benghazi, while US and UK ships launched their Tomahawks on other military targets. NATO’s “Unified Protector” op eventually led to the downfall of the regime.
On October 20, 2011 Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebels close to Sirte.
Nicolas Sarkozy with Muhammar Gheddaf
What followed the regime’s fall was chaos. External military interventions alter the balance of power on the ground. They support one side against another and lead it to victory. But whoever is the chosen one doesn’t necessarily have enough influence or power to actually rule. And Libya’s ongoing civil war is there to prove it. Democracy cannot be imposed. And a dictator ends up being replaced by another dictator. Human rights were violated during the Gaddafi regime and continue to be violated today.
NATO’s military intervention might have been the occasion to rid the globe of a brutal autocrat as Gaddafi definitely was. But it was at least 20 years too late. By 2011 Gaddafi was a moderate Head of State that was useful to a number of Western countries, especially Italy for the role he played in blocking the influx of migrants landing on its shores. But probably he wasn’t useful enough to France or to the other countries that contributed to his fall.
There must probably be some logic to this. There are a series of hypothesis as to why an armed intervention was planned against Libya. Some claim that then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of Gaddafi’s staunchest opponents and promoters of the attack, wanted to put his hands on Libyan oil. Others say, and recent judiciary developments provide some indirect evidence to this, that Sarkozy wanted to make sure there were no witnesses or traces of the money Gaddafi provided to his presidential campaign. An embarrassment worth a conflict? Nonetheless, for whatever reason Sarkozy decided to act, the US had sanctioned the operation as is reported in the leaked emails from then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The most reasonable explanation is that Gaddafi, despite his political turnarounds, was not as appreciated and loved as he thought he was. And he was taken out when the chance came about. At that time, several countries in the West wrongfully interpreted the Arab Spring and its protests as the precondition for the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Even the United States believed the Muslim Brotherhood could become a beacon of liberty in Egypt, only to reverse their decision when al Sisi stepped in. Getting rid of a dictator fitted the picture, just the consequences for the Libyan people were not calculated properly.