TRIPOLI, Libya — In an attempt to portray itself as an ally in the battle against al-Qaeda, Libya reminded the United States on Wednesday that Moammar Gaddafi’s government, not anyone in Washington, was the first to issue an arrest warrant against Osama bin Laden, back in 1998.
The warrant, approved by Interpol, came after two German anti-terrorism agents were gunned down in the Libyan city of Sirte in 1994, an attack the government in Tripoli blamed on the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant organization linked to al-Qaeda.
Five months after the warrant was issued, al-Qaeda carried out coordinated bombings on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people.
“At the time, they didn’t listen to us, because no one listened to Libya then,” said one senior Libyan government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Gaddafi’s open endorsement of terrorist attacks against Western nations, as well as Libya’s involvement in the bombing of a Berlin nightclub in 1986 and the downing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, turned the country into a pariah state and led President Ronald Reagan to nickname its leader “the mad dog of the Middle East.”
According to former British intelligence agent David Shayler, eight years after Lockerbie, Britain’s MI6 sponsored the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in a 1996 attempt to kill Gaddafi.
It was as a result of this connection, two former French intelligence agents alleged, that the British secret service subsequently thwarted Libya’s attempt to turn the spotlight on Libyan Islamists and bin Laden.
After years of U.N. sanctions, Gaddafi gradually repaired relations with the West. His government became an ally in George W. Bush’s fight against terrorism after Tripoli surrendered its weapons of mass destruction program in 2003 and diplomatic relations were restored. It is something Libya likes to frequently point out to foreign journalists in Tripoli, as officials portray the rebels they are fighting as led by al-Qaeda and argue that the United States is backing the wrong horse.
Last weekend, less than 36 hours before U.S. commandos surrounded bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, NATO sent rockets onto a house owned by the Gaddafi family in Tripoli, killing one of Gaddafi’s sons and three of his grandchildren, in what the Libyan government described as a deliberate attempt to assassinate its leader.
That left the Gaddafi regime in the slightly tricky diplomatic situation this week of not knowing whether to congratulate the United States for taking out a mutual enemy or condemn President Obama for engaging in a political assassination.
At a news conference early Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim first tried to dodge the question and then drew a distinction between the two events.
“Bin Laden, he was not a head of state, and that’s why there is a difference. He was not a head of a political party or political organization. When we come to the definition of ‘political assassination,’ we should be a bit careful about whether bin Laden was a political figure or not,” he said.
“The Libyan government, it is not its policy to target an individual leader to achieve political gain. But, again, Libya was the first victim of al-Qaeda . . . and Libya was very cooperative in combating al-Qaeda.”
Earlier, the Foreign Ministry repeated its allegation about al-Qaeda’s increasing involvement on the side of the rebels in the Libyan conflict.
“There is no doubt that defeating al-Qaeda as an organization and an ideology cannot be achieved under the policy conducted by the U.S., Britain and France in Libya and elsewhere in the world,” it said in a statement Tuesday.
Although some Islamist radicals have joined the cause of Libya’s rebellion, the vast majority of rebel fighters appear to be ordinary Libyans fed up with four decades of repression under Gaddafi’s government.
The Germans killed in 1994 were Silvan Becker, said to be one of Germany’s foremost experts on Islamist extremism and the Arab world, and his wife, Vera. Becker’s slaying is thought by some experts to have affected Germany’s ability to spot the Hamburg plotters who coordinated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Becker was also investigating the Berlin nightclub attack and the Lockerbie bombing.