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February 2003

A Rogue Returns
Libya quietly makes a comeback

By Daniel Mandel and Gedaliah Afterman

Libya, quarantined and seemingly silent after a career of sponsoring terrorism, is making a comeback. Consider the following clean bill of health proffered the Gaddafi regime:

"We’ve formed the judgement that Libya is no longer a supporter of terrorists." (Australian Jewish News, 17/1).

These are not the words of a sand-mad career Arabist. They come from Deputy Prime Minister and National Party Leader John Anderson, though one will search in vain for them on his website.

Anderson’s observations underscore the fact that, after sustaining criticism and sanctions following the Lockerbie bombing in 1989, Libya has largely succeeded in adroitly riding out the storm by surrendering for trial the bombers.

Ironically, Anderson’s fillip for Tripoli coincided with abortive US efforts to prevent Libya’s election to the chair of the UN Human Rights Commission. Hardly exceptional in the perverse annals of UN practice, the result nonetheless is indicative of how far and quickly the Libyan regime has come to outlive the consequences of decades of terrorism and external aggression.

Renewed ties: Gaddafi’s son Seif visited Australia in January

The occasion for Anderson’s words was a meeting with Seif Gaddafi, son of perennial Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Seif later told The Australian (Jan. 10) that he approved of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon. His visit was coupled with that of three Libyan diplomats in connection with reopening an embassy in Canberra, closed since the expulsion of Libyan diplomats by the Hawke government in May 1987. With talk in the air of renewed contacts and trade, it is timely to recall just what occurred the last time the same Libyan regime operated freely in the country.

Terrorist groups funded and armed by Libya over the decades have included the Basque ETA in Spain, the IRA and the Italian Red Brigades, as well as groups in Japan, Turkey, Thailand and the Philippines. Libya has also supported various Palestinian terrorist groups and even went as far as sending troops equipped with surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons to assist the PLO in Lebanon in mid-1981 prior to the outbreak of the Lebanon war. In 1986, Libyan diplomats were expelled from London after the murder of a British policewoman by a Libyan official, firing from within the Libyan embassy, whom Tripoli refused to strip of diplomatic immunity.

Over the years Libya has offered a safe haven for wanted terrorists. Such was the case with the men that carried out the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972 as well with those responsible for the Athens airport massacre in 1973.

In 1989 a French airliner exploded over the Saharan Desert, killing more than 170 people. Several high-ranking Libyan officials were found to be directly involved in the bombing by the French judge chairing the subsequent investigation, including Abdallah Sanoussi, Gaddafi’s nephew. The same year came the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, with the deaths of 290 people eventually traced to two Libyan intelligence officers, Abdel Basset Al Meghrahi and Laman Khalifa Fahima. Following a long process that included the implementation of UN sanctions and severe international pressure, Libya agreed to extradite the two to Britain, although the trial itself was conducted, to spare Libyan sensitivities, on Dutch soil, resulting in the conviction of Meghrahi.

In the mid-1980s, despite the closure, on economic grounds, of our own embassy in Tripoli, four Libyan offices operated in Australia. This was an anomalous situation in view of the presence of fewer than one hundred Libyans and the extremely small volume of trade between the countries. These included the embassy in Canberra, dubbed in Gaddafi’s best revolutionary parlance the Libyan People’s Bureau, two ‘Main People’s Congress’, one each in Sydney and Melbourne, and the Arab Libyan Australian Friendship Association (ALAFA) headed by then-ALP member Bill Hartley. The ALAFA’s newsletter could claim (21/6/83), not unreasonably, that:

"During the past 13 months a number of members and friends of the Arab Libyan Australian Friendship Association have been elected for the first time to the Victorian and Federal Parliaments and in one case to the South Australian State Parliament. They join other members and friends already in Parliament…"

During the 1980s the Libyan regime worked over-time to recruit activists in Western countries, including Australia, to Gaddafi’s so-called Islamic Brigades and terrorist movements with whom Tripoli was in sympathy, including Arafat’s PLO. Advertisements included a two-part call in the 9 March 1984 issue of An-Nahar (Sydney) for volunteers for the PLO and the Libyan Army. The advertisement was directed to female graduates, encouraging them to join Libyan military academies. There were also several cases of attempted radicalisation of Australian Aborigines, with individuals receiving paramilitary training in Libya. Several left-wing unions were also on the Libyan payroll, including the Food Preservers Union (FPU) and the Federated Confectioners Association of Australia (FCA).

It was foreign, not local, Libyan conduct that led Australia to restrict and eventually curtail relations with Libya. The 1985 terrorist attacks at the El Al counters at Rome and Vienna airports produced the first; intelligence evidence of Libya’s involvement in terrorism and subversive activities in the Pacific produced the second.

These latter activities included backing for the New Caledonian independence movement, and particularly with its small militant faction, the Front Uni pour la Liberation des Kanakas (FULK). Relations included the "security training" of a few dozen kanakas in Tripoli, including the use of firearms and explosives.

It also included a cosy relationship with Vanua’aku Pati, then the ruling party in Vanuatu headed by Father Walter Lini, and support for the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) an anti—Indonesian faction active in Irian Jaya. Relations flourished between the three groups and ended up in an official alliance between FULK, OPM and Vanu’aku Pati in 1987. Libya was also active in this period in attempting to radicalise New Zealand’s Maoris and supporting the New People’s Army in the Philippines. Representatives of all these groups would show up periodically in Libya. Gaddafi also turned his attention to Fiji, inviting an anti-nuclear group for a conference.

Most serious of all, however, in terms of what has since transpired, is Gaddafi’s long-standing support for the Philippine Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which continues to this day to practice terrorism and murder in the name of establishing a separatist Islamic state in the southern Philippines. A process aimed at deflating tensions supposedly productive of terrorism by creating autonomy arrangements in 1996 has not produced the desired results and today the Philippines remains a major, if occasionally neglected, theatre of the American war on Islamist terror groups.

Australia’s decision to remove Libyan representatives in 1987 had a salutary effect in terms of the scope and success of Libya’s activities in destabilising the region. But it could not in the nature of things entirely eradicate Libyan influence, and here it would be instructive for the latest crop of forgive and forget advocates of renewed Libyan ties to note the scope of continuing Libyan involvement in activities damaging to Australian interests, short and long term.

First the Abu Sayyaf, a regional Islamist terror group, kidnapped 21 tourists from a resort on Sipadan Island in Malaysian Borneo in April 2000. Abu Sayyaf demanded a million dollar per hostage. In August 2000 Libya conveniently obliged, announcing that it would pay the ransom. This action served Libya in several ways. First, it helped clear Libya’s image in the eyes of an international community still mindful of proven Libyan involvement in the Lockerbie bombing. Second, it obtained French assistance for its international effort at rehabilitation in exchange for the payment, thus effectively purchasing the diplomatic prowess and muscle of a permanent member of the UN Security Council for an inexpensive $21 million.

Muammar Gaddafi: seeking to extend Libya’s malign influence

Clearly, a state that so tenaciously seeks to fuel the conflicts and security hazards of a region literally on the other side of the world is not diffusing its resources for peaceful purposes and this would remain obvious even without Tripoli’s direct record of involvement in terrorism. For the evidence available from Western intelligence agencies suggests that Libya might well become the first Arab state possessing nuclear weapons.

Such Libyan aspirations make perfect sense from Gaddafi’s point of view. Declining oil revenues, international sanctions and perennial economic mismanagement to rival Cuba’s has long curtailed Libya’s capacity to be a major regional power. That ambition can be achieved, however, by obtaining nuclear weapons at relatively low cost that even Gaddafi’s cash-strapped treasury can well afford.

According to Western intelligence reports, Iraqi scientists are working in Libya on a nuclear project with aid from Pakistan and North Korea. The Bush Administration believes that Libya stepped up its nuclear weaponry development after sanctions were lifted in 1998. A nuclear Libya would pose a grave threat both to the Middle East and Europe, in view of the fact that it already possesses some 80 Scud missile launchers, more than Iraq, Syria and Egypt combined.

Libya has also been working on domestic production of missiles. With help from ubiquitous German scientists, it launched the ‘al Fatah’ project which was aimed at producing medium range missiles. However the Fatah project seems to be stalled and the missile has not been tested — for the moment.

Libya has used chemical weapons, probably supplied by Iran, during its war in Chad in 1987. Following that, Libya built a large plant for producing mustard gas and nerve agents near the town of Rabta. The plant was later moved to an underground facility 50 miles south of Tripoli. Available evidence indicates that the plant is used to produce biological weapons as well.

There are of course other nuclear powers, and no-one is insisting that any of these disarm, let alone do so prior to being accepted in the international community. The argument that Libya should be treated no differently is implicitly invoked each time a politician advocates renewing ties with Tripoli. It is a dangerously misguided piece of pseudo-logic.

To realise how misguided, one only needs to hear the current similar argument in respect of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In the Iraqi case, the grounds for exceptional measures is that the same internally barbarous and externally aggressive regime is in power seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction that stand every chance of being used and additionally being passed to terrorists. In other words, the nature of the regime and the risk it poses are the factors that produced the exceptional international interest in seeing Iraq disarmed.

The same applies to Libya, despite it falling off the radar screen at present. The same barbarous regime is in power, with unmodified goals and practices. It follows that forgiving and forgetting is, to say the least, an untenable policy where there has been no genuine change, or better still, a change of regime, in the country. It is sufficiently problematic for Canberra to have restored relations with Libya last July in the interests of trade. It is worse to have given a gratuitous clean bill of health to a regime with so pronounced and continuous a record of violence and destabilisation. The Government would do well to address this flawed assessment, which is completely at odds with its otherwise commendable stance on non-conventional weapons proliferation and international terrorism.


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Last Updated 31 January, 2003