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In Autumn 1995 a new terrorist group steps on the stage in North Africa. It is the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), ?Al Jama?a al Islamiyah al Muqatilah? in Arabic. Their aim is to fight and overthrow Muammar Khadafi whilst trying to coagulate around their struggle against the Rais all the opposition forces at home and abroad. It is the first military response to the systematic elimination of dissidents carried out with impunity in several European countries by the regime's hit men.

The Group is formed by former Libyan combatants who have returned home after having fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. From a political point of view, the LIFG features historical dissidents and members of a defunct clandestine organization, the one founded by Awatha Zuwawi, an Islamic law student from Bengazhi who lead the opposition in Cyreanica in 1986 and who was arrested and eliminated in 1989. Zuwawi had been in touch with Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and was also allegedly in contact with the CIA.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group chose the same name as that of a group that had seen the light in 1990 on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its then chief, Abdul Ghaffar, was arrested in Egypt in 1993 and then handed over to the Libyans. At that time Khadafi was still on the West's black list. Besides from eliminating opponents abroad, the regime in Tripoli had been accused of the attack against the U.S. servicemen packed ?La Belle? disco in Berlin (April 5 1986), the bomb on a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland (21 December 1988) and another bomb on a UTA flight traveling from Brazzaville to N'Djamena that exploded over Niger (19 December 1989). So initially the LIFG, because of its involvement in the fight against the Libyan dictator, benefited from good press in the West.

Long before the LIFG came to the surface, Muammar Khadafi had already faced islamist lead uprisings and mainly in Cyrenaica. His approach had always been heavy handed like in 1986 when, following an assassination attempt against government officials, he executed the nine people responsible for the attack. But the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group posed some serious difficulties for the regime. Khadafi himself was the object of several failed assassination attempts: a bomb in 1996 that saw the involvement of some men from the Presidential Guard, an attack in Boukrine in June 1997 and another failed attempt on June 2 1998 when one of his famous Amazons acted as a human shield to spare the beloved leader.

The LIFG attacks generated a strong response from the regime forcing several members of the group to seek refuge in Afghanistan where, starting from 1999, they begin having the first contacts with Al Qaeda and where, for financial reasons, they start building training camps for foreign fighters, mainly Saudis and Kuwaitis. The international links the LIFG creates go hand in hand with their continuous fight against the Libyan regime.

The US lead invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 made of the LIFG one of the numerous Islamic terrorist groups and not a legitimate opposition to Khadafi anymore. Following 911 the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was blacklisted by the UN (October 6 2001) for being affiliated with Al Qaeda. The American occupation pushed the LIFG to seek refuge in Iran, where they reconstituted their HQ, while most of its members fled elsewhere (Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Sudan and Pakistan). All of these events lead the LIFG closer to international terrorism. Such an involution favored the Libyan regime and had a positive impact on the relationship between Muammar Khadafi and the United States. Both countries were now on the same side in the fight against islamic extremism allowing for new cooperation and dialogue.

The detente was also helped by other gestures from Tripoli: the payment on ?humanitarian grounds? (thus without taking any responsibility) of 35 million USD for the victims of the ?La Belle? bombing, the delivery and judgement in the Netherlands for the Lockerbie bombing of Abdelbaset Mohamed al Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah (the first one convicted to 20 years in prison and then extradited to Scotland and the latter acquitted), the beginning of 2.7 billion USD negotiations for Lockerbie victims (paid out in 2003) that lead to a re-opening of relations with the United Kingdom.

Libya soon shifted from being a rogue State dedicated to terrorism to one of the strongholds in the fight against terrorism. The redemption was completed in 2003 when Libya officially declared it would renounce to its weapons of mass destruction and allow international inspectors in its nuclear facilities and chemical weapons production plants. At this point anti-terrorism cooperation became central in Tripoli's international relations, re-aligning Libya on moderate terms and rehabilitating Muammar Khadafi's figure. It was one of the several back turns in the history and policy of the Rais.

On the opposite front, the LIFG was under increasing pressure and persecution, not only in Libya, but also in the West.

The new context allowed for the development of the so-called ?extraordinary renditions? (the extraordinary, thus without due process or abidance to international rules, transfer/delivery of alleged terrorists to their countries of origin) that saw a direct cooperation between the Libyan intelligence (namely the External Security Service, ESS), the CIA and MI6.

musa kusa
Musa Kusa

The man leading the talks for Libya was Musa Kusa, whom ? due to his involvement in terrorist activities ? was not allowed to go to the United States, but was granted hospitality in London under the good auspices of the British intelligence. In October 2001 the US Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns, went to London to meet with a delegation headed by Musa Kusa. The Chief of the ESS went to Michigan State University and is a former Ambassadors to the UK and was definitely capable of dialoguing with his counterparts.

Tripoli soon extended its anti-terrorism cooperation to other Arab countries like Yemen, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. Terrorist exchanges with Algiers was a consolidated habit. But in 2003, after mediating with Niger, Libya granted the extradition to Algeria of one of the chiefs of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, Amari Saifi.

From that moment onwards, Libya was allowed inside Guantanamo to interrogate Libyan detainess (namely Omar Deghayes, who had fled Libya in 1986 following his father's killing by the regime). In 2004 two LIFG members, Abdullah Sadeq (caught in Thailand) and Abu Munder al-Saadi (apprehended in Hong Kong) were detained by local security forces, interrogated by US officials and then extradited to Tripoli.

In April 2004 US President George W. Bush publicly declared that Libya had abandoned terrorism. Two months later, Williams Burns, accompanied by the anti-terrorism chief J. Cofer Black, was on an official visit to Tripoli to re-open diplomatic relations and cooperate against terrorism. A few months later the US eased its sanctions against Tripoli, American oil companies signed new deals with the Libyans and Khadafi's regime was involved in a regional Washington-financed anti-terrorism program.

In Autumn 2004 the United States added the LIFG to its terrorist black list favoring Khadafi's attempts to get rid of the organization undermining his regime. After all, the Libyan Supreme Guide was after his armed opposition, rather than international terrorism. In 2001 Tripoli had placed a one million USD bounty on the arrest of 6 LIFG members accused of having sent money to Al Qaeda following the robbery in a Libyan bank. A clumsy attempt to get rid of members of the Group or of simple opposers who were not in any way involved in operational activities. One of them was Ash Shamis, who was stopped and arrested on Libyan request in Orlando, Florida, in 2002. Interrogated by the FBI, he was later released and allowed to return to the United Kingdom where he had been living for the past 30 years.

Renditions were not solely American. There were also British renditions. Several traces of what became a consolidated practice involving both Libya and the UK were found by the rebels in the files of the External Security Service in Tripoli. And this could be one of the reasons why Musa Kusa, after having fled the rebellion, found refuge in London. This could be a prize for his past cooperation or the price for his silence over a series of extra-legem, or rather illegal, actions. The British had blacklisted the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group on October 10 2005.

sami al saadi
Sami al Saadi

Sami al Saadi, also known with his nom de guerre of Abu Munthir, fled to China in 2004 with his wife and four children and asked for political asylum in Britain. A joint anglo-libyan operation, with the direct knowledge of the CIA, obtained his extradition from Hong Kong to the Maldives and then to Tripoli. Al Saadi and his wife were both incarcerated and he was subject to torture. A British tribunal has recently found the British government guilty for Al Saadi's rendition awarding him a 2.23 million pound compensation. Another similar case still pending judgement is that of Abdul Hakim Belhaj. He too was arrested in March 2004 together with his pregnant wife at the Bangkok airport, Thailand, and immediately transferred to Tripoli. Tortured in the Abu Salim prison, he was pardoned by the regime after publicly renouncing to armed struggle. Belhaj was one of the leaders of the rebellion and is today the military commander in Tripoli.

British anti-terrorism cooperation with Libya was interlinked with financial and political interests. Following al Saadi's rendition, the UK obtained gas concessions and an increase in the trading exchanges. The Lockerbie case was part of the game. The Libyans insisted they wanted Abdulbaset Megrahi's return and menaced economic retaliations. London claimed they had no competence since it was a Scottish tribunal who handled the case. The stall was overcome when the Libyan negotiator, Musa Kusa of course, obtained Megrahi's freedom on August 20 2009 on humanitarian grounds since he was ?terminally ill?.

Acclaimed as a hero upon his return and welcomed by Khadafi's son Seif al Islam, Megrahi survived until May 2012.

Anti-terrorism until the fall of Khadafi's regime

Once Muammar Khadafi had been able, in the name of international cooperation, of getting rid of internal terrorism, he only had one more problem to solve: Islamic opposition to his regime. After 2004 this meant the Muslim Brotherhood and the political wing of the LIFG still opposing the Rais. Thanks to the mediation of Hamas, a solution was found with the Brotherhood: they would be released from prison in exchange for a halt to all their hostile activities against the regime and the promise to keep out of Libya's internal affairs.

With regard to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the issue was more complex. In 2007 the radical wing of the organization had announced it would join Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and continue its armed struggle against the regime. A brigade, the ?Katibah al Shuhada?, stationed on the border between Libya and Algeria. The London-based political wing of the Group was instead against the allegiance to AQIM. And this is where Seif al Islam Khadafi comes in with his pardon offers aimed at weakening the opposition. Khadafi's narcissism could not tolerate that the leader of the Arab masses was being criticized by an Islamic opposition.

Until then the LIFG had had a rigid structure revolving around a Consultative Council (Shura) below which were five Committees; juridical, military, information, security and economic. In reality all military operations were decided by the extremists deployed in Algeria.

Starting in 2008 Musa Kusa was able to negotiate with the London based political wing of the LIFG who abjured the groups affiliation with AQIM. Several members of the organization were freed after renouncing the armed struggle. Of the 4-500 LIFG combatants of the 90s, a mere 50/60 people were part of the ?Katibah al Shuhada?. Nevertheless, events leading to Khadafi's fall have proven the leading role Islamist militias have played in the rebellion. Belhaj's appointment as Tripoli's security chief is a good piece of evidence.