Libya hails its efforts to undercut Al Qaeda

Reconciles with group once allied with bin Laden

By Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times / January 3, 2010

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TRIPOLI, Libya - A nation the West once considered a major sponsor of terrorism may have pulled off a groundbreaking coup against Al Qaeda: coaxing a group once strongly allied with Osama bin Laden to renounce its onetime partner as un-Islamic.

Libya’s government is trumpeting its efforts to persuade leaders and foot soldiers of the extremist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to reject Al Qaeda’s brand of violence. The decision, recounted by former members of the group and Libyan officials, offers an example of reconciliation between a government and a violent Islamic group once devoted to overthrowing it.

“The government learned to sit with people who were opposed to them and have dialogue and understand them,’’ said Abubakir Armela, a leader of the militant group who returned from exile in 2005.

The story also provides lessons that could be replicated in other countries where local insurgents have joined forces with Al Qaeda, including Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco, and Algeria.

“I used to believe that the only way to change the system was through war or fighting,’’ said Tarek Mufteh El-Ghunnay, who like dozens of other members of the group was released from prison in November after his life sentence was commuted. “Now . . . I believe in dialogue and the peaceful way.’’

The defanging of a group that has been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization since 2004 is the fruit of a years-long dialogue between the militants and the government launched by Saif al-Islam Khadafy, the Western-educated son of aging Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy who many say is being positioned to take the government’s helm.

Pacifying a group devoted to the violent overthrow of the Tripoli government bolsters the younger Khadafy’s authority and smoothes any future transfer of power. It may also help Libya’s attempts to improve its image in the West. The West ostracized Libya until it dismantled its clandestine nuclear program in 2004 and sparked further outrage in 2009 when it welcomed home the sole man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland on his release from a Scottish prison.

“This group was not just related to Al Qaeda. They were in bed deeply with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and later,’’ said Robert Pape, a specialist on Al Qaeda at the University of Chicago and the only scholar among a small group of United States journalists recently invited to Tripoli to meet the former militants.

The trajectory of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is a chapter in the history of Al Qaeda’s rise, expansion, and eventual weakening. Its members could provide a potential trove of intelligence for Western security officials seeking to divide and conquer Al Qaeda and capture bin Laden.

Members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group trained in Afghanistan with bin Laden, followed him during his years in Sudan, and shared personnel, tactics, and a puritanical Salafist religious outlook with Al Qaeda until earlier this decade. On the run throughout the Middle East, many of them were caught, sent home, and handed life sentences in Libyan prisons.

They broke off their partnership with Al Qaeda and denounced its brand of violence in a 400-page document called the “Revised Studies,’’ which Vahid Brown of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point described in an online analysis “as a very sweeping repudiation not just of Salafi jihadism but of all forms of revolutionary Islamism in general.’’

Ghunnay, 38, said his enthusiasm for political violence had weakened by 1999, when he found himself shackled, loaded onto a plane in Jordan, and sent back to his native Libya to face charges of being a member of a terrorist organization.

In prison, Ghunnay and others said they were stunned by the violence against civilians by Islamic militants linked to Al Qaeda and by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.