Terrorist Rehabilitation And Succession Politics In Libya: Opportunities For the US?

By Charles Dunne for MEI

While Washington’s attention was focused on the aftermath of Iraq’s election and a growing confrontation between the Obama Administration and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, another remarkable event was taking place in Libya: the release of hundreds of security prisoners, many with terrorist ties, under the auspices of a rehabilitation program which some in Libya hope could be a model for the rest of the region.

During a visit to Tripoli hosted by the non-governmental but politically active Qaddafi Charity and Development Foundation, foreign experts had a first-hand opportunity to interact with former members of a Libyan extremist group as well as government officials to learn more about the program and its results.  Instituted and overseen by the Qaddafi Foundation’s chairman, Saif al-Islam al Qaddafi (Muammar Qaddafi’s son), the program is noteworthy not just for its accomplishments, but also its risks.  And it may have an impact on Libyan succession politics, while presenting opportunities and pitfalls for US policy.

Terrorist Rehabilitation:  A Libyan Approach

The program was initiated several years ago to cope with the challenge of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which arose in the early 1990s to overthrow the Libyan government, deemed un-Islamic by the Group’s leadership.  During its heyday LIFG was responsible for numerous attacks on police and other security forces, as well as four attempts on Muammar Qadaffi’s life.  Largely defeated in an intense government crackdown in 1995-97, LIFG remnants, including many who had fled to Afghanistan, nevertheless presented a significant lingering challenge to the Libyan government.  A few, such as Abu Laith al-Liby, assumed prominent positions in Al Qaeda itself.

Saif al-Islam founded the program to handle the toxic fallout.  Proceeding from the premise that a security response alone would fail to address the root causes of extremist violence, Saif initiated efforts to repatriate fighters and their families from Afghanistan as well as neighboring countries such as Mali and Mauritania where many had fled following the peak of the fighting.  According to Sheik Ali Salabi, whom Saif al-Islam handpicked to head the rehabilitation effort based in Libya’s notorious Abu Salim prison, both LIFG expatriates and those in prison were told they remained valued citizens of Libya despite their transgressions and would be treated with respect should they return and while in the custody of the state.  Salabi recounted the Libyan message to the LIFG: continued pursuit of the path of violence would cause a harsh reaction from the government.  Those who remained open to reconciliation with the political system and renounced violence, however, would find the state willing to do everything it could to help them.  Understanding, reconciliation, inclusion and dialogue were allegedly to be the hallmarks of the new approach.

This message was reinforced by open dialogue between the religious authorities and imprisoned LIFG members.  All topics were to be on the table, including the meaning and utility of jihad, and everyone involved was allowed to express his opinions freely.  Crucial to the success of the dialogue aspect of the rehabilitation program was the proper choice of interlocutors.  Sheikh Salabi has a reputation for independence and occasional criticism of the Libyan government.  Saif al-Islam reportedly encouraged imams who had previously been banned from speaking publicly to engage in the debate.   Prisoners were allowed liberal access to their families, who were also enlisted to support the goals of the project.  Former LIFG leaders were permitted to visit their colleagues in prison to further the dialogue.  Those who gave up violence against the Libyan state and were willing to condemn armed struggle were offered release from prison following completion of their rehabilitation.

The Libyan security services were evidently the last to be persuaded of the utility of this program, and gaining their cooperation proved extremely difficult, according to Sheikh Salabi.  Resources and facilities were eventually provided to make the program possible.  Nonetheless, the security services remain unhappy with the undertaking and, most likely, with Saif al-Islam himself.

The Results So Far

The fruits of the program first became apparent in July 2009, when LIFG leaders in the United Kingdom issued a communiqué disavowing the merger two years before of LIFG and Al Qaeda.  In September 2009, Group leaders in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison published a 417-page manifesto renouncing violence and asserting the soundness of its theology over that of Al Qaeda’s.  More than 100 LIFG members pledged to adhere to this manifesto and were subsequently released.

But the grandest gesture of all took place before an audience of international terrorism experts, academics and the press on March 24, 2010 at Abu Salim, when the Libyan authorities released approximately 214 rehabilitated prisoners to their families following a highly publicized announcement by Saif al-Islam.  Between 35-40 of these were members of LIFG.  Of the remainder, 85 had been caught attempting to sneak into Iraq to join foreign fighters there; the remainder was captured in Iraq or affiliated with Al Qaeda or other extremist groups.  (Some 705 security prisoners were released through the program earlier.)

Streaming out of the inner prison wards, the freed inmates broke into exuberant fist-pumping chants and took refreshments in a tent just before the outer gates of the prison were opened.  Hundreds of relatives streamed in to embrace their kinsmen.  The emotional families eddied and swirled about the courtyard but soon flowed out the gates again, arm in arm.  Watchful security plainclothesmen mingled with the crowd and eyed them out the door.

A Model for Others?

Questions remain, however, about whether the Libyan program is sustainable, or whether it is even intended to be so.  Beyond general principles, few of the practical details were made available to foreign experts, including the role of the security services in compelling the adherence of prisoners and their families to the program, and the exact structure of the program itself.  It is unclear how many of the freed prisoners took part in the entire rehabilitation process, which, a former LIFG fighter told this author, lasts on average three years (at least some of the Iraq detainees had been jailed for only two years).  Moreover, as Saif al-Islam admitted to this writer, the program makes no effort to address the problems of alienated youth to prevent them from becoming radicalized in the first place.  Continued resources to sustain the program are a matter of some doubt.

Follow up with the prisoners once they have been released, beyond monitoring by internal security, is another question mark.  Unlike the better known Saudi Arabian rehabilitation program, few resources appear to have been devoted to job training, family support and the like to reintegrate former prisoners more fully into society.  This raises doubts about whether the Libyan program is in fact a rehabilitation program at all in a technical sense, or simply a very particular Libyan approach involving a modicum of reeducation with a healthy dollop of political allegiance extracted during the process.

In addition—and this should be of keen concern to the United States—no mechanism is in place to address the challenge of recidivism beyond Libya’s borders.  Sheikh Salabi told foreign experts that some released prisoners do return to armed struggle, and that no religious authority could condemn violence against occupation.  In other words, attacks within Libya are unacceptable, but attacks on foreign forces elsewhere, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, are beyond the scope of the program’s dialogue or moral reach.

Finally and perhaps most important, the program in and of itself cannot address the structural causes of radical violence: the lack of social, economic and political progress within Libya.  Noman Benotman, a former LIFG fighter currently with the Libya Human and Political Development Forum in London, says that Libya’s “closed, controlled society” provided motivation for LIFG’s war against the state.  A senior LIFG leader told foreign experts immediately after his March 23 release that while he personally would not return to violence, the dearth of opportunities for rehabilitated fighters could lead others to do so.  According to another LIFG associate, social injustice and the deficit of political liberty and religious freedom could spark additional violence in the future, either by LIFG remnants or from groups yet to be formed.

What Lies Beneath

Whatever the merits of the rehabilitation program, it is noteworthy more for its potent political subtext than its ostensible counterterrorism purpose and effectiveness.   It is in fact a key part of Saif al-Islam’s efforts to strengthen his position as successor to his father.

A successful initiative of this type will help raise Saif’s profile both inside Libya and internationally.  Internally, Saif (who holds no government rank) stands to position himself as a reformer concerned with Libya’s social and political problems, possibly helping him to establish a popular base of support and outflank the security services.  Externally, Saif is clearly bidding for closer ties to the United States by portraying himself as modernizer with a new and more effective approach to counterterrorism that has broad regional applications.

It is a risky stratagem. The return to violence within Libya of even a small number of released prisoners would hand Saif al-Islam’s enemies a potent weapon against him.   Worse yet, from the US standpoint, would be attacks on American forces in Iraq or Afghanistan by Libyan extremists.  That would prove a serious blow to the nascent and tortuous US-Libyan relationship that would play poorly with the Administration and the United States Congress.

Options for US Policy

The United States should see the developments of the last week for what they are: a dramatic attempt by a credible potential successor to Qaddafi to enmesh the United States in succession politics.  While the United States should be extremely wary of becoming too closely involved in this game, there are certain opportunities here.  First, the US should carefully examine both the strengths and the weaknesses of the rehabilitation program.  While terrorist rehabilitation efforts are culturally specific and hard to export verbatim, elements of the Libyan approach may provide the basis for a more creative counterterrorism dialogue with our other partners in the region.  In particular, identifying effective ways to turn renunciations of armed struggle into a potent critique of Al Qaeda’s basic ideology, as the Libyans have at least partly succeeded in doing, is the gold standard in the international fight against Islamic extremism.

Second, the US should expand counterterrorism cooperation with the Libyans, as well as help them address the program’s shortcomings—especially the possibility that Libyan fighters released from prison may turn up to inflict violence on American and allied forces elsewhere.

Finally, the United States should take these recent developments as an opening to expand its dialogue with Libya—both the government and non-governmental actors—and to have a wide-ranging discussion on the need for political and economic reforms.  The US must make clear that stability in Libya, sustainable success in the country’s counterterrorism efforts, and genuine improvement in the relationship with the United States all lie in this direction.

Source: This article was originally published as a Policy Insight by the Middle East Institute (MEI) and is reprinted with permission.


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Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute is the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated solely to the study of the Middle East. Its founders, scholar George Camp Keiser and former US Secretary of State Christian Herter, laid out a simple mandate: “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among the citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the people of these two areas.”

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