Once again, it looks like the beginning of the end for another Middle Eastern dictator, though nobody expected Muamar Qadaffy to go quietly. All honor to the people of Libya, and for a little background, here's another chapter from my 2003 book, Boomerang!, or How Our Covert Wars Have Created Enemies Across the Middle East and Brought Terror to America.
Over previous decades Libya has been one of Washington’s most hated adversaries, accused of everything from stalking President Reagan to blowing up passenger jets. Under its eccentric leader, Col. Muamar Qadaffy, Libya has been subject to US airstrikes and years of sanctions, and is still regarded as a pariah regime. But the actual nature of the US relationship with Libya is considerably more complex.
Prior to the coup that brought Qadaffy to power in 1969, Libya had been the playground of the US and major European powers. The Libyans had endured a particularly brutal occupation by Italy from 1912 through 1943. Thirty years of colonization by Italy killed approximately 250,000 (one quarter of the population), and turned another quarter million into refugees. The Libyan population was subject to concentration camps, poisonous gas attacks, aerial bombardment of civilian targets and widespread executions.
At this point the new US fallback policy was summarized in a classified document: “The US should support strongly the establishment of a united Libya which would achieve independence in some form at a definite date in the near future but which would in effect be so tied to the United Kingdom as to assure enjoyment of adequate strategic rights to the UK and, therefore, also to the United States” (Emphasis added). In other words, following World War II, just at the time the US was projecting its image as a crusader for democracy, it was quietly but clearly moving to quash the independence of even a small country like Libya, seeking instead to preserve the reality if not the trappings of colonial control.
To this end the US supported Britain's installation of a puppet monarch, King Idris, through gerrymandering, arrests of opponents and other repressive measures. The occupying powers controlled the process of adopting the constitution which gave Idris extraordinary powers. One-third of the legislative seats were appointed by the British client “King” Idris, another third by a key French ally, and the final third by a friend of the US, the Mufti of Tripolitania. The US, Britain and France then made any future humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged and poverty-stricken nation contingent on agreement to allow foreign military bases on Libyan soil. Not surprisingly, this demand was granted.
In 1959 oil was discovered in Libya. The Libyan oilfields proved to be extraordinarily productive, and US companies were soon making considerable profits from operations there. But this, along with resurgent Arab nationalism following the conflicts with Israel in 1956 and 1967, fueled rising resentment against the client monarchy. In the eyes of many observers, the demise of the Idris regime was just a matter of time. Nevertheless, the circumstances under which Qadaffy seized and consolidated power are somewhat unusual.
Some have claimed that the US actively assisted Qadaffy’s coup, hoping to replace a British client with one of our own. Others argue that the US was simply determined to cut its losses with the unpopular rule of the aging monarch, and chose to look the other way when the coup came. Under this view, the future of the oil business was deemed more important than maintenance of the military bases on the Mediterranean Sea. As one government document put it shortly after the coup: “The return to our balance of payments and the security of US investments in oil are considered our primary interests. We seek to retain our military facilities but not at the expense of threatening our economic return.”
Either way, when the weak but pro-Western King was overthrown by a junta of young nationalist officers, the US did nothing to stop it. When Idris was abroad enjoying the spas of Europe, the officers invited the palace guard to a party and simply arrested them all in a bloodless coup. The leader, 28-year-old Muamar Qadaffy, inspired by the pan-Arabian rhetoric of Egyptian leader Nasser, proclaimed a military dictatorship based on “socialism, unity and freedom.” The parliament was dissolved and relations with Nasser and other anti-western regimes grew friendlier, while militant anti-Israeli rhetoric was turned up.
The US has invaded nations on far less provocation, and with far less oil wealth at stake. It’s true that the US Ambassador sent word back to Washington that while Qadaffy was a radical nationalist, he was also dependably anti-Soviet. But while he did sometimes criticize the USSR and its allies, he also began, almost immediately, to seek East Bloc arms and markets for Libyan oil. Still, neither the US nor Britain showed any interest in helping Idris regain his throne. The US within a matter of days recognized the Qadaffy regime. And not only did the US warn Qadaffy of several coup plots against him, but the CIA actively assisted in preventing the plotters from returning to Libya.
If the US government’s main concern was oil investments, it had a strange way of showing it. A consortium of oil companies issued an analysis of Libyan situation shortly after the coup that correctly predicted that “once the regime is stable it will launch a frontal attack on the oil industry.” Qadaffy proceeded cautiously at first, mindful of what had happened to other regimes that challenged Western economic power. What followed was, as journalist Jack Anderson described it, “a succession of testing probes, of retractable bluffs, of muted confrontations, of small penetrations followed by halts to assess reaction, resuming only when no counterattack surfaced, becoming truly bold only in the eighth month of the campaign after a dozen tests had shown that there never would be a counterattack.” (Emphasis in original)
Young Qadaffy waged a deft war of attrition against the combined power of the largest multinational oil companies, skillfully playing one off against the others, breaking their heretofore-united front against producer nations. The oil companies resisted, but the Nixon Administration reacted throughout with uncharacteristic passivity. Eventually, in early 1971, the companies caved in, giving Qadaffy much higher royalty rates than any other oil-exporting country. And just as predictably, the other producer nations soon demanded the same kind of deal. This time the battle against the oil companies was led by Nixon and Kissinger’s most trusted regional ally, the Shah of Iran.
Once again the oil company executives asked for US government backing for their negotiating position. This was agreed to, and then suddenly withdrawn on the eve of negotiations. Without the implicit threat of US intervention to back them up, the companies once again folded their hands and acceded to the demands of the producer countries, who had formed a cartel known as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC. What happened after this was also predicted by oil company planning documents: Qadaffy soon demanded an even bigger slice of the pie, and another round of fruitless negotiations took place, followed by higher royalty rates for Libya, and then for the rest of OPEC.
All of this has the whiff of Br’er Rabbit being tossed into the briar patch. The net result of all these bizarre maneuverings was to end forever the world where the price of oil was fixed at around a dollar a barrel for the foreseeable future. By the time of the oil shock of 1973, prices rose to an unprecedented $12 per barrel, even though production costs remained the same. The companies passed these prices along to consumers and enjoyed unheard of levels of profitability. Soon, they began cheerfully collaborating with OPEC behind the scenes in setting production and pricing levels. Meanwhile the Shah and other US allies in the Persian Gulf were awash in oil revenues, which they then used to purchase unheard of amounts of US-made weaponry, as well as stocks, bonds and other investments in the West.
Some have charged that this was Nixon and Kissinger’s true aim in the first place, as they needed a way to finance a military buildup in the Gulf while still engaged in Indochina. Saudi oil minister Sheikh Yamani has stated, "I am 100 percent sure that the Americans were behind the increase in the price of oil." Wittingly or not, by design or accident, Muamar Qadaffy was the main instrument of that transformation. Whether he was just a dependably militant leader who could be relied on to pursue higher prices, or whether there was something more collusive at work is not known.
But there are other anomalies in the picture of Qadaffy as the nemesis of the West. In 1975 he bought a 10% share of Fiat, the Italian automaker which was also a major defense contractor. This made the government of Libya the single largest shareholder besides the founding family, and also gave it several seats on the board of directors. British Aerospace is another NATO contractor with interests in Libya. During the 1980s Qadaffy’s armed forces received both weapons and training from two well-connected CIA officers, Ed Wilson and Frank Terpil. The CIA later prosecuted the two as rogue elements (Terpil, still a fugitive, in absentia), but Wilson maintains to this day that their Libyan operations were officially sanctioned. There is, in fact, considerable evidence that the CIA was well aware of what their officers were doing in Libya, and that the Agency subsequently helped convict Wilson on false pretenses.
But throughout the 80s Qadaffy came to be regarded more and more as America’s public enemy number one, the man we loved to hate. (This was at a time when both Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega were still valued allies.) It’s clear that Qadaffy could be as ruthless abroad as he was repressive at home; by no means is he without blood on his hands. He trains foreign guerrilla forces at a dozen camps throughout Libya, and has harbored international fugitives including Carlos the Jackal and members of the Japanese Red Army. He has also assassinated opponents of his regime on foreign soil as well as at home.
At the same time, the US frequently exaggerated or falsified the extent of Libyan involvement with terrorist activities. Libya was blamed for attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports in 1985, but in testimony under oath, a Pentagon official conceded that evidence for that was “far less concrete” than for other terrorist operations. As with other such claims against Libya, there is much stronger evidence connecting the attacks to Syria. Libya has also been accused of involvement with the massacre at the 1972 Olympics, a claim which Israeli intelligence has debunked. And the claims of the Reagan administration that Qadaffy had sponsored hit squads to assassinate President Reagan were later admitted to be complete falsehoods. On the other hand there is quite credible evidence that the US sponsored several attempts to assassinate Qadaffy. One such attempt came close to success when US warplanes bombed Tripoli in 1986. Numerous press accounts have shown that one of the aims of these air raids was to kill not only Qadaffy but also members of his family. In fact, his infant daughter was one of the casualties.
US warplanes based in the Mediterranean had frequently challenged Libya’s claim to a 100-mile zone of sovereignty in the Gulf of Sidra. In August 1981 the US shot down two Libyan jets defending what they regarded as their airspace. Other provocative actions took place in the years leading up to 1986, and in March of that year US aircraft carriers sunk two Libyan coast guard vessels, killing all 72 sailors. US officials were quoted as saying, “of course we’re aching for a go at Qadaffy,” and that if he “sticks his head up we’ll clobber him; we’re looking for an excuse.” But the bombing raids of April 15, 1986, according to the US, were reprisals for Libyan involvement in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque ten days earlier.
Again, earlier evidence pointed to Syrian involvement in the disco bombing. But if the Reagan Administration had proof of Libyan involvement within ten days, it’s not at all clear why it took another fifteen years to convict several Libyan nationals as accessories to the plot (a German woman was convicted of murder in November of 2001). Even then, no convincing evidence was offered to prove the involvement of the government of Libya. Still, none was needed in 1986. It was justification enough to say then that the US had “suspicions” of Libyan involvement. The US soon claimed to have had “intercepts” of Libyan radio transmissions prior to the Berlin bombing, though this later proved to have been a fabrication.
Noam Chomsky has noted that the US raids on Libya were “the first bombing in history scheduled for prime time TV, for the precise moment when the networks open their national news programs.” Though the US claimed to be conducting surgical strikes against military targets, more than one hundred Libyan civilians were killed. And while the bombings were blatantly illegal under international law, the US established a unique doctrine under which it claimed to be acting under "self-defense against future aggression."
The US also later claimed that, in revenge for these air raids, the government of Libya blew up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland two and half years later. However, just a few months before that tragedy, the US military had shot down an Iranian passenger jet in the Persian Gulf. Early reports indicated that it was Iran and not Libya who was seeking revenge. Once again, evidence of Syrian involvement was circulating; indications were that the Syrian-backed terrorist Ahmed Jabril had gotten the contract from Iran. But in 1990, when Syria and Iran were needed to aid in the war against Iraq (which Libya opposed), US investigators began to focus publicly on two Libyan intelligence agents for the Lockerbie bombing (see chapter 3).
In 1992 the US pressured the UN to place sanctions in order to pressure Libya into giving up the suspects for trial in Britain. Libya said it was willing to extradite the suspects for trial in an international court. Seven years later a compromise was reached under which the two Libyans were tried in the Netherlands. In early 2001, one of the Libyans was acquitted, while the sentence of the other, Ali Mohmed al-Magrahi, was confirmed on appeal. Magrahi was convicted on extremely slim evidence, as even the court admitted. The strongest evidence against him was that a shopkeeper in Malta identified him as the person who had bought some clothing supposed to have been in the bomb-laden suitcase, a scrap of which was later found among the wreckage in Scotland. The shopkeeper, however, had previously identified several others as having bought the clothing in 1986, changing his mind years later after Magrahi’s photo had been widely publicized. During the trial the US government gagged a CIA officer and prevented him from testifying that, as he put it, he could "identify the men behind the attack," who would be found in Damascus and not "anywhere in Libya."
In August of 2002, after the notorious terrorist Abu Nidal was killed (or killed himself) in Baghdad, one of his former associates came forward to claim that the Abu Nidal organization was responsible for the Flight 103 bombing. Atef Abu Bakr said that Nidal had told him that "reports which link the Lockerbie act to others are false reports. We are behind what happened." A British member of Parliament who has long been skeptical of the Libyan theory called for a new investigation, so far in vain.
Nevertheless, the people of Libya lived under international sanctions for seven years in order to pursue this verdict. The UN lifted sanctions after Qadaffy surrendered the suspects in 1999, while the US still imposes its own sanctions dating to 1982. Meanwhile Qadaffy himself has been quietly refurbishing his image, forging more economic links with Italian businesses (and even more quietly, with US oil executives). He quickly condemned the 9/11 attacks as “horrifying and destructive” and has expelled some suspected terrorists from Libyan territory. Qadaffy has interceded with Muslim rebels in the Philippines to secure the release of Western hostages, and convinced the Taliban to release imprisoned Christian aid workers after the fall of Kabul in late 2001.
Moreover, the Libyan leader was the first to pursue an international criminal complaint against Osama bin Laden after a Muslim group linked to al-Qaida was implicated in an assassination attempt against Qadaffy. This organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) is listed by the US government as a terrorist organization. Interestingly, the LIFG, according to a British intelligence officer named David Shayler, received funding from MI6 (Britain’s CIA) for the assassination plot. This came at a time when our onetime ally bin Laden had supposedly turned against us, but was still sending Islamic militant forces to fight our common enemies in the Bosnia and Kosovo wars. In October of 2002 the British government issued a gag order to prevent further press stories on Shayler, who offered evidence concerning his allegations of payoffs to the al-Qaida-linked group. By this time the British Foreign Office was floating trial balloons on Qadaffy as a "potential ally" in the war on terrorism, yet another in a series of dizzying about-faces.
So when it comes to President Bush’s insistence that the nations of the world are either with us or the terrorists, it remains to be seen which side Libya is on (or how many). But if the people of Libya, our official enemy, have suffered considerably from our government's machinations, some of our friends are even worse off, as the sad story of Lebanon illustrates.