Libya protests: Why Muammar Qaddafi hates Osama Bin Laden.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 25 2011 4:02 PM

Libya's al-Qaida Problem

Why Muammar Qaddafi hates Osama Bin Laden.

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At the same time, however, some Libyan jihadists continued to embrace violence and became even more radical. Some fighters fled Libya for Afghanistan when Bin Laden returned there in 1996, again working with the Saudi mastermind. There, again, they ran training camps and shared resources with other jihadist groups, becoming part of Bin Laden's efforts to knit disparate national groups into one movement. After 9/11, some would fight with Bin Laden against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and many Libyans also went to Iraq to fight after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Today, a number of Bin Laden's key lieutenants are of Libyan origin.

Until the late 1990s, Libya was a pariah regime. Terrorism was the gravest charge against Qaddafi, with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people, being the most dramatic example for Americans. Qaddafi finally surrendered several of the officials responsible for the bombing so they could be tried, while disclaiming any personal role, even though no such operation could ever have gone forward without his approval. This concession allowed Libya to come in from the cold, albeit slowly, given that the Libyan leader still meddled in Africa and issued bizarre statements that alienated most Arab countries.

Ironically, the one area of solid cooperation between Libya and the United States was against terrorism, which for the first three decades of Qaddafi's rule had been the sorest point of contention. Given Libya's long experience with jihadists, and the prominent role of several Libyans in al-Qaida, such cooperation was fruitful for both sides. 

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Should Qaddafi fall, such cooperation may decrease. A new regime—no one can even guess its composition at this point—would not share Qaddafi's personal history and hostility toward the jihadist movement. This possible decline in cooperation is a risk worth taking given how loathsome the Qaddafi regime is.

From a counterterrorism point of view, a more serious danger is that the civil war will continue without end. Bin Laden has proved adept at exploiting civil wars and strife. In Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq, among other countries, al-Qaida and like-minded groups initially worked with local fighters motivated primarily to throw out outsiders or redress other local grievances. Slowly but surely they made the struggle more global, casting it as a fight against the United States and making the jihadist component of the resistance larger. Given the strong Libyan representation in al-Qaida and the historic role jihadists played in the anti-Qaddafi struggle, al-Qaida might try to bend this conflict to its will. So Qaddafi's swift end is all the more necessary.

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Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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