On May 15, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States would soon open an embassy in Libya, long classified by Washington as an inveterate “rogue state.” This move came, she said, “in recognition of…the excellent cooperation Libya has provided to the United States…in response to common global threats faced by the civilized world since September 11, 2001.” Most discussion of the renewal of US-Libyan relations has focused on two very public and, as Rice put it, “historic” decisions by the Libyan government following the launching of the Iraq war in 2003: one renouncing terrorism and the other abandoning programs for weapons of mass destruction. [1] In fact, the resolution of the decades-old US-Libyan tensions was largely unrelated to events in Iraq, but reflected instead changed definitions of what Rice called “global threats to the civilized world” within both the US and Libya.

Soon after Col. Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi toppled the staunchly pro-American King Idris in 1969, the US concluded that the new regime’s assertive nationalism was leading it to dangerously close relations with the Soviet Union. By 1972, the US ambassador was withdrawn, never to be replaced. For their part, the Libyan government soon grew impatient with both superpowers, and by the end of the 1970s advocated — and supported — anti-imperial revolution around the world. This stance led to a very public faceoff between the Reagan administration and the Qaddafi regime and, ultimately, to the imposition of international sanctions in the early 1990s.

With the end of the Cold War, however, the calculus of both the US and Libya began to change. Far from the “end of history” that the demise of the Soviet Union was said to herald, “the civilized world” seemed to be confronting new threats in emerging terrorist networks spawned in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As Algeria descended into a civil war waged in part by Algerian veterans of the Afghan war, the US found itself the target of related terrorist attacks as well, of which the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 was a prominent example. Libya faced similar domestic turmoil. Though under US embargo and severe international sanctions for its own alleged role in terrorism, Libya issued the first Interpol warrants for Osama bin Laden in 1998.

It took both the US and Libyan governments some time to conclude that they had common enemies they could effectively confront together. Domestic politics in both countries shaped the trajectory of the change in the views of their erstwhile opponent, but the profoundly altered landscape of the post-Cold War world ultimately forced both governments to undertake policies neither expected to pursue.

The Impossible Exports

Libya’s support for revolution at home and abroad began shortly after Qaddafi and a small band of confederates overthrew King Idris in a bloodless coup on September 1, 1969. [2] During the 1970s, the Qaddafi regime carved out an increasingly independent, even eccentric, path. At home, Qaddafi published his political philosophy in the three volumes of the Green Book, and began to implement its utopian provisions, outlawing rental property, wage labor and retail trade, and ensuring a house ,car and other essentials for all Libyan families. The combination of high oil prices and the Green Book’s pre-capitalist economics conspired to produce a unique political, economic and social system — dubbed the jamahiriyya, or “state of the masses,” by its author. Despite his expectations, and his government’s strenuous efforts, however, it would prove, for those very reasons, impossible to export.

The failure of most of the rest of the world — and, indeed, ultimately, the Libyan people themselves — to grasp the appeal of the jamahiriyya would prove puzzling and, eventually, deeply disappointing to Qaddafi. For much of the late 1970s and 1980s, he remained convinced that the failure of the jamahiriyya to take root quickly around the world was evidence of imperialist conspiracy, and he viewed his support of international revolutionary movements — from the Irish Republican Army to the Palestine Liberation Organization — as of a piece with the export of his political designs. Of course, much of the rest of the world, particularly the US and its allies, viewed Libyan support of revolutionary organizations as extremely mischievous. The battle was soon joined, and it would spiral into a confrontation more serious than either of the parties probably intended.

In 1979, the US designated Libya a state sponsor of terrorism, making most commercial transactions with the country impossible for Americans. The following year a Libyan mob attacked and burned the US embassy in Tripoli, and the US withdrew all diplomatic representation. By 1981, Newsweek described Qaddafi as the “most dangerous man in the world,” the Libyan Embassy was expelled from Washington, two Libyan jets were shot down after they fired at a US naval exercise in disputed waters off the Libyan coast, and Americans were forbidden to travel to Libya. In 1984, Great Britain broke relations after a policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, was killed by gunshots fired from the Libyan embassy compound in London. By early 1986, the US again conducted naval exercises in the Gulf of Sidra; this time 35 Libyan seamen were killed and Qaddafi called for assaults on US interests worldwide. Two weeks later, the La Belle discotheque in Berlin, a well-known haunt of US service personnel, was bombed — three people died, including two US servicemen, and a hundred were injured.

In retaliation for the La Belle attack, the US launched a bombing raid on Tripoli and Benghazi in April 1986. Although Qaddafi survived a direct hit on his compound — there was little doubt in Washington or Tripoli that the US had intended to kill him — his household sustained fatalities, including a 15-month old girl, said to have been his adopted daughter. Although President Ronald Reagan was to write that “after the attack on Tripoli, we didn’t hear much more from Qaddafi’s terrorists,” [3] within two years, one of the deadliest terrorist acts of the time took place: the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, in which 270 people were killed. By 1991, a joint US-British commission attributed the act to Libya. Although the commission finding was disputed in intelligence circles — some analysts believed that Iran, Syria or Palestinian groups may also have been involved in the Lockerbie bombing [4] — there was certainly little evidence that the US bombing in 1986 had in fact led the Qaddafi regime to abandon its use of terror in its confrontation with global imperialism.

Costs of Isolation

Far more important in reshaping Libyan government policy was the end of the Cold War, which coincided with a significant drop in the price of oil. Like many Arab countries in the late 1980s, Libya flirted with modest domestic political and economic liberalizations. [5] The collapse of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of liberal reform and, no doubt more importantly, the fact that liberalization had revealed significant and potentially destabilizing political opposition led most governments in the region to abandon the initiative. Algeria’s democratic experiment collapsed most spectacularly, in a civil war pitting the military regime against an Islamist insurgency, but many of the regimes in the region concluded that Islamist opposition was too difficult to manage while also pursuing liberal reform. Libya was no different: Armed Islamist groups appeared in the central and eastern provinces of Benghazi, Misrata and Ajdabiyya in the early 1990s. The Qaddafi regime abandoned its modest liberal experiment.

By 1992, international pressure on the Libyan regime was growing as well. In 1992 and 1993, three UN Security Council resolutions demanded that Libya accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, provide compensation for the families of the victims, formally renounce terrorism and abandon development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Although Libya offered to join talks on WMD, it refused to acknowledge responsibility for Lockerbie. The country was therefore put under one of the most comprehensive embargoes ever imposed in the Middle East — the sanctions included not only prohibitions on sales of weapons and many types of oil industry equipment, but also a ban on international air travel.

At the outset, the sanctions were probably a boon for the regime, serving to distract popular attention from the mismanagement that was responsible for many of the country’s economic and social woes. But the inconvenience and scarcity sanctions produced soon contributed to growing corruption — both petty smuggling and more serious fraud, currency speculation and money laundering by senior officials — and that, in turn, fed domestic opposition. [6]

By the mid-1990s, a group known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), composed at least in part of Libyan veterans of the war in Afghanistan, had announced itself in a communiqué issued in London. [7] The group claimed responsibility for storming the Benghazi prison in 1995 to free some of its imprisoned members, and dozens were killed later that year when security forces clashed with LIFG members in Benghazi. In February 1996, LIFG operatives attempted to assassinate Qaddafi; he escaped with minor injuries, but Libya claimed that al-Qaeda had inspired and financed the plot. Throughout the spring of 1996, armed battles raged throughout the mountains of eastern Libya between LIFG and Libyan security forces. An LIFG attack on a Libyan military outpost near Darna took dozens of lives and prompted the declaration of martial law in the eastern provinces.

In a demonstration of both solidarity and contrition — Libya had briefly supported the Islamist opposition in Algeria in the early 1990s — Libya reopened relations with Algeria in 1995, and Qaddafi issued a joint communiqué with Algerian President Liamine Zeroual condemning extremism and terrorism. The next year, Libya extradited 600 Algerian Islamists to Algeria for trial. [8] Although the Algerian war received much more international attention — thanks in part to the lack of access to Libya occasioned by the sanctions — the Libyan campaign against its own Islamist opposition lasted several years and was marked by considerable bloodshed. By 1998, when Libya issued its Interpol warning about the threat posed by al-Qaeda, the regime had clearly calculated the costs of international isolation. The government would eventually estimate that the sanctions cost Libya upwards of $30 billion, and that did not include the military and security cooperation with the West that, for example, the Algerian regime had enjoyed in its own battle with armed Islamist opposition.

Breaking the Stalemate

It was in that context that a new reformist faction would emerge on the Libyan political scene, led and exemplified by Sayf al-Islam al-Qaddafi, Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi’s third-born son. Sayf, who was born in 1971, graduated with a degree in engineering from al-Fatah University in Tripoli in 1993, and studied in Vienna while the American-educated economist Shukri Ghanim was Libya’s representative to OPEC there. In the late 1990s, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the London School of Economics (LSE), declaring his intention to write a dissertation on civil society, and established the Qaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations. The influence of Sayf’s LSE education was soon apparent, not least in the “Message from the President” on the Foundation’s website: “We are a non-governmental umbrella organization which believes that freedom and development go hand in hand. Specifically, we promote development as freedom through the advancement of human, political, social and economic rights.” The notion of “development as freedom” was no doubt a novelty in Libya — Qaddafi père having emphasized equality over freedom in his own political philosophy — but the reformers were serious about extracting Libya from its isolation and jumpstarting a stagnant and increasingly corrupt economy at home.

In the late 1990s, with Sayf ’s — and presumably his father’s — blessing, Libyan government representatives reached out to their US and British counterparts to begin what would prove to be prolonged negotiations about resolving the Lockerbie stalemate. As then Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Martin Indyk would later write, “Libya’s representatives were ready to put everything on the table, saying that Mr. Qaddafi had realized…that Libya and the US faced a common threat from Islamic fundamentalism. In that context, they said, Libya would actively cooperate in the campaign against al-Qaeda and would end all support for Palestinian ‘rejectionist’ groups, endorse US peace efforts in the Middle East and help in conflict resolution in Africa.” [9] As it happened, of the four issues that the US insisted be resolved before the lifting of sanctions — the acceptance of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, compensation for the families of the victims, renunciation of terrorism and abandonment of all WMD programs — the Clinton administration was most interested in the resolution of the Lockerbie affair, in part because of the strength and persistence of the Lockerbie families. Libya would focus its initial efforts on those issues.

Two Libyan government agents had been identified in 1991 as the authors of the Lockerbie attack, ‘Abd al-Basit ‘Ali Miqrahi and al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, and after sustained and often contentious negotiations, they were delivered for trial before Scottish judges in The Hague in April 1999. As a result, the UN sanctions were suspended, though, at US insistence, not lifted altogether. Meanwhile, after Libya acknowledged responsibility for the killing of Constable Fletcher and agreed to pay compensation to her family in July 1999, Great Britain renewed relations. That year the Libyan government announced the closure of its terrorist training camps, and extradited terrorist suspects to Egypt, Yemen and Jordan.

The efforts to break the stalemate seemed to be working; even the US appeared to acknowledge Libya’s efforts. In November 1999, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ronald Neumann said for the first time publicly that, unlike in Baghdad, the US did “not seek to maintain sanctions there until there is a change of regime in Tripoli.” [10] In February 2000, the US government allowed four oil companies to inspect oilfields that they had abandoned when US sanctions were imposed, and shortly thereafter dispatched a US consular visit to Tripoli.

In January 2001, the Scottish court found Miqrahi guilty in the Lockerbie bombing while Fahima was acquitted. The decision was too Solomon-like to be wholly satisfactory to any of the interested parties, but it permitted the negotiation of the final terms on compensation for the Lockerbie families and would ultimately allow the lifting of UN sanctions in September 2003. More important for Libyan-US relations in the short run, however, was the election of George W. Bush as president, for the new administration broke off talks with Libya. Although Qaddafi said in an interview with Time in February that “I supported all liberation movements fighting imperialism but I believe that is over now,” [11] the Bush administration initially refused to pursue discussions with “rogue regimes,” including that in Libya.

Although LIFG seems to have changed its focus by 2000 — indeed, it issued a communiqué condemning the September 11, 2001 attacks — the Libyan government continued to look for an opening with which to resume talks with the US, and the September 11 attacks provided just such an opportunity. Within hours of the attacks, Qaddafi offered his condolences to the American people, condemning the attacks as “horrific and destructive” and endorsing the right of the US to retaliate against the terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan. More importantly, within days, Libya had offered the services of its intelligence agents in the developing US “global war on terror.”

The CIA promptly flew a team to London to meet face to face with the head of Libyan intelligence, Musa Kusa, a graduate of Michigan State University who is a long-time confidant of Qaddafi (and bete noir of the Libyan exile opposition). He provided them with the names of LIFG operatives and other Libyan Islamists who trained in Afghanistan, as well as dossiers on LIFG leaders living in Great Britain. (The State Department would officially designate LIFG as a terrorist organization in 2004.) As Sayf al-Islam al-Qaddafi would later describe the growing relationship:

Libya has since pointed out to the Americans that Ibn el-Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan national, was operating a guest house for extremists in Afghanistan, a disclosure which led to the arrest of one of the chief figures on the US wanted list. It also disclosed the extremists’ reliance on Britain as a major base, transmitted data on the European banks that made up their financing structure, and described how they used Internet messaging to move information and money without detec- tion…. In the new millennium, the old disputes have given way to a shared Libyan-American strategy against an international enemy. [12]

That Qaddafi père was less enthusiastic about Washington’s embrace was suggested by his remarks on the eve of the celebration of his thirty-third year in power in 2002, when he observed: “We must comply with international legality even though it has been falsified and imposed by the United States, or we will be slaughtered.” [13]

Nonetheless, by the spring of 2003, the reformists’ initiative was well underway. Sayf was publishing articles in American outlets and meeting with CIA officials in London to see, as Prime Minister Tony Blair later put it, “if it could resolve its WMD issue in a similarly cooperative manner.” [14] In June 2003 Shukri Ghanim was appointed prime minister, and by August, Libya formally accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing in a letter to the Security Council and announced a $2.7 billion offer for compensation to the families, to be paid in three installments, and linked to specific actions by the US, the last being removal of Libya from the list of sponsors of terrorism. The UN responded by formally lifting the sanctions against Tripoli.

There was just the US embargo left to address at that point, and the Libyan government was dogged about doing so. In September 2003, high-level CIA operatives met with Col. Qaddafi himself in Tripoli. The Libyan leader asked for assurances that the US would forgo efforts at regime change, lift sanctions and provide economic and military assistance; on September 6, 2003, the British delivered a personal letter from Blair formally agreeing to Qaddafi’s conditions. In early October 2003, Italian vessels intercepted an illegal shipment of thousands of parts of uranium enrichment equipment bound for Libya. Although many observers argued that “being caught red-handed seemed to have expedited Qaddafi’s willingness to disarm,” [15] there was circumstantial evidence that the Libyans had contracted for the equipment in order to have something to deliver to the inspectors. Certainly, when in January 2004 International Atomic Energy Agency and US inspectors visited Libya, confirming the existence of a chemical weapons production facility and of nuclear weapons components, they reported dryly that Libya’s WMD arsenal seemed to have been “recently modernized.” [16] In the event, on December 19, 2003, Qaddafi announced Libya’s decision to dismantle all WMD programs.

Because these negotiations took place after the US invasion of Iraq, many analysts — including those in the Bush administration — concluded that Libya’s decision to give up its WMD program was a salutary reaction to the invasion, and particularly to the capture of Saddam Hussein only days before the Libyan announcement. Indeed, in the 2004 vice presidential debate, Vice President Dick Cheney himself made the connection: “Five days after we captured Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya came forward and announced that he was going to surrender all of his nuclear materials.” [17] In fact, of course, it had been at least a decade since the Libyans had offered to open talks on the issues that provoked the US embargo — including the WMD programs — and it had been the Bush administration itself that had interrupted those discussions. Nonetheless, from the Libyan point of view, the deal was done and that was what mattered.

Changes Welcome and Unwelcome

Subsequent negotiations over the details of the removal of US sanctions moved more slowly than the Libyans expected. In February 2004, the United States ended the travel ban that had been in place for more than 22 years, and by September 2004, most of the sanctions were lifted. It was not until May 2006, however, that Libya was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the last elements of the sanctions lifted and relations formally renewed. In the meantime, the reformist government led by Prime Minister Ghanim faced increasingly vocal dissent. Demonstrations in Benghazi in February 2006 against the Danish cartoons thought to insult Islam then circulating throughout the Muslim world had turned into anti-regime riots that left 11 people dead after being quelled by security forces.

The Ghanim government had pushed domestic reform very hard and very fast: Retail trade soon flourished, international banks set up branches, Libyans traveled abroad routinely, the American oil companies returned in force and there was talk of developing tourism. For some Libyans this was a welcome relief from decades of international isolation and jamahiriyya-style socialism. For others, including both those who had profited from the corruption that developed under the embargo and those who knew little beyond the 37-year regime of Col. Qaddafi, not all the changes were welcome. Western-style capitalism clearly appealed to some Libyans while repulsing others. In March 2006, shortly before the diplomatic fruits of his labors were finally to be fully realized, Ghanim was removed as prime minister and appointed head of the powerful National Oil Company; his more conservative deputy, Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, was tapped to replace him.

From the Libyan perspective, while the international sanctions under which the country labored for so long had been lifted, the work of defining the “civilized world” to which the country will belong had just begun. Qaddafi is deeply disappointed with the failure of the Libyan people, not to say the rest of the world, to embrace the jamahiriyya, and has only reluctantly acceded to the reforms advocated by his son, Sayf, and his reformist colleagues. Most Libyans, in turn, are deeply skeptical about the intentions of any of the government factions — reformers and old guard alike. No visitor can fail to notice the trash strewn along streets and highways throughout the country, a trivial but telling indication of the mutual disappointment of the government and the governed. Certainly most Libyans are ready for change, and Sayf himself has said that he wants “shock therapy, to destroy everything and build it back up, and not to waste time.” His father, he
says, “is in favor of gradual reform. He is a utopian, leading a state like the wise man in a village. That’s where I say, ‘Life is more complicated than this.’” [18]

Life in Libya is certainly complicated today. Although Sayf says he has “zero” interest in succeeding his father, for many reformers, he is the best hope for reconstructing a country profoundly damaged by decades of mismanagement and international censure. Yet, for all of his cosmopolitan appreciation of the demands of “development as freedom,” he also represents continuity, not only in his family birthright, but also in his deep attachment to his country, his impatience and his susceptibility to the temptation to “destroy everything” in order to build. His achievement in engineering the end of Libya’s isolation and its renewed relations with the West is unmistakable — and his role was crucial — but, as he knows better than anyone, there is a deep weariness mixed with the wary optimism greeting the signs of change. This is a people exhausted by revolution, deeply dismayed by their current circumstances, angry about the corruption that sustained nearly everyone during the sanctions era, but equally deeply distrustful of upheaval. It will be a long, and very complicated, road to development as freedom. It is to be hoped that renewed relations with the United States will make it easier.


[1] See, for example, the very thorough review by Dafna Hochman, “Rehabilitating a Rogue: Libya’s WMD Reversal and Lessons for US Policy,” Parameters 36/1 (April 2006).
[2] For more background, see Dirk Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[3] See the quotation, from Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), online at http://www.ronaldreagan.com/libya.html.
[4] Yahia Zoubir, for example, reports the existence of documentation that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, led by Ahmed Jibril, was involved. “The United States and Libya: From Confrontation to Normalization,” Middle East Policy 13/2 (Summer 2006), p. 49. See also Sayf al-Islam al-Qaddafi, “Libyan-American Relations,” Middle East Policy 10/1 (Spring 2003).
[5] Dirk Vandewalle, “Qaddafi’s Perestroika: Economic and Political Liberalization in Libya,” Middle East Journal 45/2 (Summer 1991).
[6] Eric Gobe, “Libye,” Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord (Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1998); Luis Martinez, “La securite en Algerie et en Libye apres le 11 septembre” (April 2003), available at http://www.euromesco.org/euromesco/publi_artigo.asp?cod_ar- tigo=90332.
[7] Ray Takeyh, “Qaddafi and the Challenge of Militant Islam,” Washington Quarterly (Summer 1998); and Moshe Terman, “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” Global Research in International Affairs Occasional Papers 3/2 (June 2005).
[8] Yahia Zoubir, “Libye: Islamisme radical et lutte antiterrorisme,” Maghreb-Mashrek 84 (2005).
[9] Martin Indyk, “The Iraq War Did Not Force Gadaffi’s Hand,” Financial Times, March 9, 2004.
[10] Ronald Neumann, “Libya: A US Policy Perspective,” Middle East Policy 7/2 (February 2000), p. 14.
[11] Time, May 18, 2006.
[12] Qaddafi, “Libyan-American Relations,” pp. 36, 43.
[13] Cited by Zoubir, “The United States and Libya,” p. 57.
[14] Cited by Zoubir, “The United States and Libya,” p. 63.
[15] Hochman, “Rehabilitating a Rogue.”
[16] Certainly, a measure of cynical pragmatism characterized the Libyan approach to all the negotiations. In a February 2004 BBC interview, Prime Minister Ghanim said of the compensation of the Lockerbie families: “After the problems we have been facing because of the sanctions, the loss of money, we thought that it was easier for us to buy peace and this is why we agreed to a compensation.” When asked whether the payment of compensa- tion meant that Libya did not accept any guilt or responsibility, Ghanim said, “I agree with that, and this is why I say we bought peace.” His comments were quickly repudiated by the Libyan government.
[17] In fact, Time reports, “Worried that the humiliating capture of Saddam would be viewed as the driving force behind his voluntary disarmament, Gaddafi…proposed a postponement.” Time, May 18, 2006.
[18] Ibid.


How to cite this article:

"Rogue Libya’s Long Road," Middle East Report 241 (Winter 2006).

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