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.
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.
Encouraged by the younger Gaddafi, the leaders wrote a 400-page manifesto renouncing violence, challenging al-Qaeda's philosophies and condemning attacks on Western civilians in Muslim nations.
But some of the leaders who split from the original fold have publicly declared that the group had joined al-Qaeda.
Many of the former fighters said they still believe in waging war against U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also consider the conflicts in the Palestinian territories and Somalia, where Islamists are fighting a U.S.-backed transitional government, legitimate forms of jihad.
"When America invades a country, the insurgency is legal and lawful. From a religious point of view, it is permissible and we have to support it," said Sadeq, the group's emir. "And U.S. policies in Israel and other places adds fuel to the fire."
Salabi, the mediator, agreed. "Violence against occupation is a sacred act," he said. "It is a sacred jihad."
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, expressed concern about such comments.
"I don't know how you parse jihad," he said. "If it means that, 'If you don't do it in Libya, you are free to go and do it elsewhere,' that would be a little troubling to us."
It remains to be seen how the former militants will adapt to a Libya that in recent years has moved closer to the West. Saadi said his country is not "an ideal state under Islam." Others demanded strict Islamic sharia laws, with public amputations for convicted thieves and head-to-toe coverings for women.
"I am still a Salafist," said Tarreq Muftah al-Ghunnay, the group's former commander in Jordan, referring to the ultra-strict brand of Islam espoused by bin Laden.
The younger Gaddafi said he was confident the government could keep most of the released prisoners from returning militancy. But "nobody can guarantee anything 100 percent," he said.