"Do not be swayed by Bin Laden," Muammar Qaddafi declared Thursday, as he blamed the master terrorist for the unrest and violence sweeping Libya. This finger-pointing caught many by surprise: Qaddafi, as his sobriquet "the mad dog of the Middle East" suggests, spent many years atop the list of the world's worst terrorists. Qaddafi's words are in part a clumsy effort to win international support for his attempt to brutally crush the revolt that has swept Libya by blaming the violence on the man everyone loves to hate. But it's more than that. For while Osama Bin Laden is not behind the latest unrest, Qaddafi's hatred of al-Qaida is quite real.
Qaddafi's ideological guidance for Libya is a bizarre blend of socialism, Arab nationalism, Islam, and Qaddafi's own ideas. (Check out his famous Green Book to get a sense of the philosophical mash-up.) The growth of religious sentiment throughout the Arab world in the 1970s also touched Libya, and Qaddafi's attempt to appropriate Islam to legitimate his rule alienated many Libyans. Some small groups organized against the regime in the mid-1980s and one even assassinated a regime official.
The Libyan regime quickly cracked down, and those opponents who were able to flee headed to Afghanistan and Pakistan. There, as various Arab groups gathered to help the Afghans repel the Soviets, Libyans came together to organize and develop their fighting skills. While there, they shared facilities with other radical Arab groups, with their ideas cross-fertilizing. In 1988, Bin Laden and al-Qaida would emerge alongside these groups and, as the years went by, become an increasingly dominant voice in propagating their ideas.
As the Soviet occupation ended and the Afghan struggle turned into a brutal Muslim-on-Muslim civil war, many Libyans returned home, where they began to organize against Qaddafi. Some were jailed and tortured. Many also stayed in Pakistan and Afghanistan and then, in 1992, followed Bin Laden whenhe moved to Sudan, which was welcoming jihadists from around the Arab world. As in Afghanistan, the Libyans organized and trained in preparation for the struggle in their home country. They also worked with new recruits in Libya and those Afghan returnees who had managed to evade Libya's ruthless security services, forming the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
In 1995, the Libyans had their first falling out with Bin Laden. For even though LIFG members worked closely with Bin Laden, when the Sudanese government began to crack down on Arab jihadists, Bin Laden was unable to protect the Libyans, and they were expelled. Many never forgave him.
As Sudan forced the LIFG fighters out, the struggle within Libya intensified. The LIFG attempted to kill Qaddafi several times and conducted other attacks on regime targets. As it is doing today, the regime responded brutally, arresting thousands, often with only suspicion of jihadist activities. In areas like Darna, where the LIFG had more support, the regime employed thousands of soldiers to crush the revolt. In a particularly horrific act, the regime killed more than 1,000 jihadist prisoners in Abu Salim prison in 1996 after they protested harsh conditions there. At the time, the wider world knew little of this unrest.
Years of repression, and perhaps genuine repentance over the deaths of innocents that come from terrorism, over time would produce a split among Libyan jihadists. Some would reject violence and bitterly denounce al-Qaida. One former senior figure, Noman Benotman, issued an open letter denouncing al-Qaida's attacks on Western civilians, while other major jihadist figures imprisoned in Libya jointly published a denunciation of al-Qaida and of their own past use of violence. Qaddafi's regime had courted these figures, encouraging their denunciations and releasing many from prison as a reward. (As part of its effort to improve its international image, the regime tried to promote the forgiveness and re-education program it was using to de-radicalize former jihadists. In 2010, as a guest of the Qaddafi Foundation, I visited Libya to see a mass prison release and interview former jihadists and regime officials.)