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In Libya, ex-militants fight extremism

Former radicals work to discredit Al Qaeda fighters

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post / June 20, 2010

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TRIPOLI, Libya — His life as a militant began with a call to holy war. It ended inside a prison in his native Libya. In between, Sami al Saadi orchestrated attacks against Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy, moved in Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, and befriended Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.

Released from prison in March after he renounced violence, Saadi and other top leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group are now waging an ideological battle to deradicalize extremists and discredit Al Qaeda.

“Let’s leave Libya’s dark chapter behind us,’’ Khadafy’s son Saif al-Islam said the day Saadi was set free.

Libya, itself a former sponsor of terrorism, has joined a small but growing number of Arab and African nations that are using religion-based rehabilitation programs to isolate Al Qaeda and inoculate Muslims against bin Laden’s narrative.

Scores of militants have been released under the program, and US officials say they are watching to see whether such models can serve as a blueprint for combating extremism at a time when Al Qaeda remains a long-term strategic threat.

“It is a new frontier in the fight against terrorism,’’ said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

Yet Libya’s experience also shows the limitations of efforts to reform Islamists who harbor deep-rooted grievances against US policies and have spent their adult lives fighting for what they believed was just under the guidelines of Islam.

At one point, Saadi seemed to embrace a new beginning. “Perhaps we can convince Al Qaeda not to attack the West,’’ he said.

But he later sounded less sure: “I don’t believe bin Laden is calling for the killing of any single civilian.’’

Saadi dropped out of college in 1988 to wage jihad, heeding an influential Sunni theologian’s call to Muslims to liberate Afghanistan from the Soviets. Saadi made his way to Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden at a training camp and was impressed by his “devoutness.’’

After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, Saadi helped found the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The group’s goal: to overthrow Khadafy and turn Libya into an Islamic state. By the late 1990s, the militia had staged dozens of attacks in Libya, including three assassination attempts on Khadafy.

“There was no way but to face the regime with force,’’ Saadi recalled thinking, a faint smile emerging on his face, haggard and gray from years in prison.

The group thrived under Taliban rule and forged close ties to the radical regime’s leaders. But it was divided on Al Qaeda. In several meetings before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, bin Laden urged the Libyan fighters to join him in confronting the West, especially the United States, Saadi and two other senior leaders said in their first extensive interviews with a journalist since their release from prison in March.

Some of the fighters were against the idea, warning that the United States might retaliate against the Taliban.

“We did not have any ambitions to export our conflict outside of Libya,’’ recalled Khalid al-Sherif, the group’s military commander.

But others embraced bin Laden’s global jihad.

Today, one of the group’s leaders, Abu Yahya al-Libi, is the spiritual leader of Al Qaeda’s North African branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has launched suicide bombings and killed Western hostages.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, many of the Libyan leaders fled Afghanistan. Pakistani and CIA operatives arrested Sherif in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2003. Saadi was arrested in China in 2004. The group’s emir, Abdullah al-Sadeq, was captured in Bangkok in 2004. All three men were handed over to US soldiers and eventually returned to Libya, they and Libyan officials say.

Upon their arrival in Tripoli, the men were each thrown into a small cell.

In late 2008, the offer from Khadafy’s son arrived: Give up violence and get your freedom.

The government was concerned that Libyans were joining Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in neighboring Algeria.

The offer was rare in the Arab world, where regimes have long used brutality to suppress conflicts, and Libyan internal security officials opposed it. But Khadafy convinced his father that the group no longer posed a threat.

“I want Libya to be a safe place,’’ said the younger Khadafy, who has no official role in the government but has emerged as an influential voice in fostering national reconciliation.

A moderate Islamist, Ali al-Salabi, was enlisted as a mediator to conduct religious dialogues with the jailed militants. Salabi met solely with the group’s top leaders, who were expected to guide the fighters under them.

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