Britain, Qadafi and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
An extract from Secret Affairs on the British plot in the mid-1990s
While Bin Laden was drafting his declaration of jihad in early 1996, British intelligence was plotting with al-Qaida-associated terrorists in Libya to assassinate Colonel Qadafi. Qadafi had long challenged British interests and Western hegemony in the Middle East and Africa. The revolution that brought him to power in September 1969, recognised as ‘popular’ by British planners, overthrew the regime of eighty-year-old pro-British King Idriss, which provided a quarter of Britain’s oil and was home to £100 million worth of British oil investment. The ‘security of oil supplies must be our greatest concern’, one Foreign Office official noted a year after the revolution. However, Qadafi set about removing long-standing US and British military bases, nationalising the oil import and distribution industries and demanding vastly increased revenues from the oil-producing companies. The regime later sealed its fate as a British and US bête noire by espousing an independent militant nationalism and sponsoring various anti-Western regimes, as well as terrorist groups such as the IRA.
Britain and the US have long been accused of involvement in plots to overthrow Qadafi. The most direct attempt was the US bombing of Libya in 1986, conducted ostensibly in response to Libyan sponsorship of a terrorist attack in Germany and believed to have targeted Qadafi personally, but instead killing his adopted daughter. Ten years later, another opportunity occurred when a Libyan military intelligence officer approached MI6 with a plan to overthrow Qadafi, according to former MI5 officer and whistle-blower David Shayler. The Libyan, codenamed ‘Tunworth’, proposed establishing links with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organisation formed in Afghanistan in 1990 from around 500 Libyan jihadists then fighting the Soviet-backed government. One former senior member of the LIFG, Noman Benotman, who first went to Afghanistan as a twenty-two-year old in 1989, later said in an interview that during the Afghan War his mujahideen commander was Jalalludin Haqqani, and that he and fellow militants had benefited from British training programmes:
‘We trained in all types of guerrilla warfare. We trained on weapons, tactics, enemy engagement techniques and survival in hostile environments. All weapons training was with live ammunition, which was available everywhere. Indeed, there were a number of casualties during these training sessions. There were ex-military people amongst the Mujahideen, but no formal state forces participated. We were also trained by the elite units of the Mujahideen who had themselves been trained by Pakistani Special Forces, the CIA and the SAS … We had our own specially designed manuals, but we also made extensive use of manuals from the American and British military.’
After Afghanistan, the LIFG joined the armed struggle in Algeria, fighting alongside the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), with whom it had built up close relations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The British Home Office later noted that the LIFG’s ‘aim had been to overthrow the Qadafi regime and replace it with an Islamic state’. The US government later described the LIFG as an ‘al-Qaeda affiliate known for engaging in terrorist activity in Libya and cooperating with al-Qaeda worldwide.’ It shared the same aspirations and ideology as al-Qaida, although it never formally joined the organisation, having a more nationalistic stance and preferring to focus on the ‘near enemy’, i.e., the Qadafi regime. Shayler asserts that he was told by David Watson, an MI6 officer, that at Christmas 1995 he had supplied Tunworth with $40,000 to buy weapons to carry out the assassination plot and that similar sums were handed over at two further meetings. A secret MI6 cable dated December 1995 – leaked in 2000 and published on the internet – revealed MI6’s knowledge of an attempt to overthrow Qadafi in a coup led by five Libyan colonels scheduled for February 1996. It provided a detailed schedule of events:
The coup was scheduled to start at around the time of the next General People’s Congress on 14 February 1996. It would begin with attacks on a number of military and security installations including the military installation at Tarhuna. There would also be orchestrated unrest in Benghazi, Misratah and Tripoli. The coup plotters would launch a direct attack on Qadafi and would either arrest him or kill him … The plotters would have cars similar to those in Qadafi’s security entourage with fake security number plates. They would infiltrate themselves into the entourage in order to kill or arrest Qadafi.
The cable also noted that one Libyan officer and twenty military personnel were being trained in the desert for their role in the attack, and that the plotters had already distributed 250 Webley pistols and 500 heavy machine guns among their sympathisers, who were said to number 1,275 people, including students, military personnel and teachers. Messages to these sympathisers ‘were passed via schools and mosques’ while the plotters also had ‘some limited contact with the fundamentalists’ who were ‘a mix of Libya [sic] veterans who served in Afghanistan and Libyan students’. It continued:
‘The coup plotters expected to establish control of Libya at the end of March 1996. They would form an interim government before discussions with tribal leaders. The group would want rapprochement with the West. They hoped to divide the country into smaller areas, each with a governor and a democratically elected parliament. There would be a federal system of national government.’
The plot went ahead in February 1996 in Sirte, Qadafi’s home city, but a bomb was detonated under the wrong car. Six innocent bystanders were killed, and Qadafi escaped unscathed. Shayler recollected how:
‘At a meeting shortly after, [David Watson] ventured to me in a note of triumph that Tunworth had been responsible for the attack. ‘Yes, that was our man. We did it,’ was how he put it. He regarded it, curiously, as a triumph even though the objective of the operation had not been met and reporting indicated that there had been civilian casualties. Despite that, I very much got the impression that this was regarded as a coup for MI6 because it was playing up the reputation that the real James Bonds wanted to have.’
Annie Machon, Shayler’s partner and a former MI5 officer, writes that, by the time MI6 paid over the money to Tunworth, Osama Bin Laden’s organisation was already known to be responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and MI5 had set up G9C, ‘a section dedicated to the task of defeating Bin Laden and his affiliates’. This is significant in light of Britain’s toleration of Bin Laden’s London base – the Advice and Reformation Committee – which would not be closed down for another two and half years. US intelligence sources later told the Mail on Sunday newspaper that MI6 had indeed been behind the assassination plot and had turned to the LIFG’s leader, Abu Abdullah Sadiq, who was living in London. The head of the assassination team was reported as being the Libya-based Abdal Muhaymeen, a veteran of the Afghan resistance and thus possibly trained by MI6 or the CIA. A spattering of other media investigations confirmed the plot, while a BBC film documentary broadcast in August 1998 was told that the Conservative government ministers then in charge of MI6 gave no authorisation for the operation and that it was solely the work of MI6 officers. All these reports contradicted the earlier claim by now Foreign Secretary Robin Cook that MI6 involvement in the plot was ‘pure fantasy’. Equally, the government’s denial of knowledge of the plot was decisively contradicted by the leaked cable, which showed that civil servants in the permanent secretary’s department, GCHQ, MI5 and the MoD were all aware of the assassination attempt some two months before it was carried out. It is inconceivable that none of them would have informed their ministers. At the same time, Shayler was persistently hounded and prosecuted, the British elite’s usual treatment meted out to insiders divulging information incriminating it.
As the LIFG stepped up its confrontation with the Libyan regime in 1995, it issued calls for Qadafi’s overthrow. One communiqué, written in October 1995, around the time the organisation was plotting with MI6, described the Qadafi government as ‘an apostate regime that has blasphemed against the faith of God Almighty’, and declared that its overthrow was ‘the foremost duty after faith in God’. These calls were mainly issued in London, where several prominent members of the LIFG were based after having been granted political asylum. American political analyst Gary Gambill, a former editor of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, notes that Britain accepted the LIFG dissidents since British views of Qadafi were ‘at fever pitch’ over the regime’s alleged involvement in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988; thus ‘Britain allowed LIFG to develop a base of logistical support and fundraising on its soil.’ While the Libyan regime complained that Britain was hosting nationals intent on overthrowing it, Whitehall continued to offer de facto protection to the LIFG. Indeed, it was only in October 2005, after the London bombings on 7/7, that the British government designated the LIFG a terrorist group. This was after Libya’s rapprochement with Britain and the West that began in 2003.
One LIFG member was Anas al-Liby. A computer expert based in Sudan in the mid-1990s, al-Liby had moved there from Afghanistan, where he trained al-Qaida members in surveillance techniques. In 1993 al-Liby travelled to Nairobi and used the apartment of an al-Qaida member to develop surveillance pictures of the US embassy. This was the first step in the five-year plot that culminated in the embassy bombings of August 1998, following which al-Liby was indicted and became one of America’s most wanted fugitives, with a $25 million reward for his capture or killing. In 1995 al-Liby came to Britain and applied for asylum. Soon after, the Egyptian authorities sent a detailed file on his terrorist credentials to Whitehall, including allegations of his involvement in a failed assassination attempt on President Mubarak in Addis Ababa in June 1995. But Cairo’s request for his extradition was refused; British officials reportedly questioned whether he would get a fair trial and feared he could face the death penalty. Yet there is also the strong suspicion that the British security services were protecting al-Liby, along with the LIFG, given that MI6 was collaborating with it to kill Qadafi. Al-Liby was allowed to live in Manchester until May 2000, when his home was raided on orders from the Home Office, acting on a request from the US; copies of jihad training manuals were discovered, but al-Liby had already fled. Other members of the LIFG included Abu Hafs al-Libi, who reputedly lived in Dublin from 1996 until going to Iraq in 2004, where he served as one of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s lieutenants in the al-Qaida group there until his death the same year; and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a commander of Bin Laden’s Khalden training camp in Afghanistan.
Significantly, it was the Qadafi regime that in March 1998 urged Interpol to issue the first arrest warrant for Bin Laden. It did so in response to the LIFG’s presumed murder of a German intelligence officer, Silvan Becker, and his wife in Libya in March 1994, some eighteen months before Britain began collaborating with the group. Interpol then issued a red notice on Bin Laden and three of his Libyan associates. Yet, according to two French intelligence experts, Guillaume Dasquié and Jean-Charles Brisard, the British and US intelligence agencies buried the arrest warrant and played down the threat due to MI6’s involvement in the Libyan coup plot. This story was later reported in the Observer under the headline: ‘MI6 “halted bid to arrest bin Laden”’. It was five months after the issuance of the arrest warrant that the US embassies in East Africa were bombed; perhaps if governments, including Britain’s, had acted then, the bombings could have been averted.
The episode is interesting in that it shows how Britain’s secret collusion with radical Islamists has directly undermined its ability to curb and prosecute them – a leitmotif, in fact, of Britain’s postwar foreign policy where Whitehall has often collaborated with the very groups to which it claims to be opposed. Indeed, the extent of this collaboration has been so extensive that many open public trials of the leading terrorist figures are likely to expose it, a fact which also applies to the Saudi, Pakistani and US governments. This partly explains London’s and Washington’s overt opposition to pursuing open legal processes for terrorist suspects – and, most notably, Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, where suspected militants have been incarcerated and interrogated behind closed doors.