Former militants now wage battle within Libya to discredit al-Qaeda

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 29, 2010; 3:08 PM

TRIPOLI, LIBYA -- His life as a militant began with a call to holy war. It ended inside a prison in his native Libya. In between, Sami al Saadi orchestrated attacks against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, moved in Osama bin Laden's inner circle and befriended Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.

Released from prison in March after he renounced violence, Saadi and other top leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group are now waging an ideological battle to de-radicalize extremists and discredit al-Qaeda.

"Let's leave Libya's dark chapter behind us," Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam said the day Saadi was set free.

Libya, itself a former sponsor of terrorism, has joined a small but growing number of Arab and African nations that are using religion-based rehabilitation programs to isolate al-Qaeda and inoculate Muslims from bin Laden's narrative. Scores of militants have been released under the program, and U.S. officials say they are watching to see whether such models can serve as a blueprint for combating extremism at a time when al-Qaeda remains a long-term strategic threat.

"It is a new frontier in the fight against terrorism," said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

Yet Libya's experience also shows the limitations of efforts to reform Islamists who harbor deep-rooted grievances against U.S. policies and have spent their adult lives fighting for what they believed was just under the guidelines of Islam.

At one moment, Saadi seemed to embrace a new beginning. "Perhaps we can convince al-Qaeda not to attack the West," he said.

But he later sounded less sure: "I don't believe bin Laden is calling for the killing of any single civilian."

The scion of a wealthy religious family, Saadi dropped out of college in 1988 to wage jihad, heeding an influential Sunni theologian's call to Muslims to liberate Afghanistan from the Soviets. Saadi said he first went to Saudi Arabia and then to Pakistan along with scores of Libyan fighters. He made his way to Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden at a training camp and was impressed by his "devoutness."

After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, Saadi helped found the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The group's goal: to overthrow Gaddafi and turn Libya into an Islamic state. By the late 1990s, the militia had staged dozens of attacks in Libya, including three assassination attempts on Gaddafi.

"There was no way but to face the regime with force," Saadi recalled thinking, a faint smile emerging on his face, haggard and gray from years in prison.

The group thrived under Taliban rule and forged close ties to the radical regime's leaders. But it was divided on al-Qaeda. In several meetings before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, bin Laden urged the Libyan fighters to join him in confronting the West, especially the United States, Saadi and two other senior leaders said in their first extensive interviews with a journalist since their release from prison in March.

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