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

Some of the fighters were against the idea, warning that the United States might retaliate against the Taliban.

"We did not have any ambitions to export our conflict outside of Libya," recalled Khalid al-Sherif, the group's military commander.

But others embraced bin Laden's global jihad.

Today, one of the group's leaders, Abu Yahya al-Libi, is the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda's North African branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has launched suicide bombings and killed Western hostages.

A deal is offered

After the Sept. 11 attacks, many of the Libyan leaders fled Afghanistan. Pakistani and CIA operatives arrested Sherif in Peshawar in 2003. Saadi was arrested in China in 2004. The group's emir, Abdullah al-Sadeq, was captured in Bangkok in 2004. All three men were handed over U.S. soldiers and eventually returned to Libya, they and Libyan officials say.

Upon their arrival in Tripoli, the men were each thrown into a small cell.

In late 2008, the offer from Saif al-Islam Gaddafi arrived: Give up violence and get your freedom.

The government was concerned that Libyans were joining al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in neighboring Algeria, its birthplace.

The offer was rare in the Arab world, where regimes have long used brutality to suppress political conflicts, and Libyan internal security officials opposed it. But Gaddafi convinced his father that the group no longer posed a threat.

"I want Libya to be a safe place," said the younger Gaddafi, who has no official role in the government but has emerged as an influential voice in fostering national reconciliation.

For the jailed militants, there was little choice. Their group had suffered severe military losses.

Reform efforts

A well-respected moderate Islamist, Ali al-Salabi, was enlisted as a mediator to conduct religious dialogues with the jailed militants. Unlike similar programs in Saudi Arabia and Yemen that focused on reforming grass-roots militants, Salabi met solely with the group's top leaders, who were expected to guide the fighters under them.

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