This week marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. military strike against Libya. On April 14, 1986, President Ronald Reagan ordered the U.S. Air Force to attack military targets in Libya in response to Libyan involvement in a terrorist attack on a West Berlin disco which killed two U.S. servicemen.
In a nationally televised address after the strike, Reagan declared, “Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.” He described Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s record of terrorism and subversion in Africa. He acknowledged that he bore no grudge against ordinary Libyans, “decent people caught in the grip of a tyrant.”
Two decades later, little has changed. Qadhafi continues to support terrorism. While he sought Western grace for ransoming kidnapped hostages in March 2000, the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group then used the $25 million to amplify its terrorism. According to U.S. Pacific Command, “Speedboats used in other kidnappings were allegedly bought with the money, as was a rocket launcher that killed an army captain in pursuit of the fugitives.” On March 23, 2006, Qadhafi feted Hamas political leader Khalid Mishaal in Tripoli. The Libyan strongman promised to fund Hamas, even as Mishaal pledges more terrorism.
Qadhafi likewise continues his subversion in Africa. Today, former Liberian President Charles Taylor awaits trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity for his role in the Sierra Leone civil war. The Special Court for Sierra Leone issued its charges on June 4, 2003. Its indictment is instructive: “Taylor received military training in Libya from representatives of the Government of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. While in Libya the accused met and made common cause with [Sierra Leonean rebel leader] Foday Saybana Sankoh.” Qadhafi’s facilitation of the meeting contributed to the loss of as many as 75,000 civilians lives in the civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone.
Unfortunately for Africans, such behavior is the rule rather than the exception. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 9, 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, “Genocide has been committed in Darfur.” Yet according to a January 30, 2006, U.N. Security Council report, the Libyan government continues to send weapons to Darfur in violation of the arms embargo. Libyan fighters have joined the militias. In July 2005, one faction “received 35 Land Cruiser vehicles from someone in one of the Libyan security services.” As in the Philippines, so too in Sudan. Diplomatic spin might change, but Qadhafi’s behavior does not.
Libyans know too well Qadhafi’s insincerity. My brother, Fathi El-Jahmi, is perhaps Libya’s best-known dissident. A former governor, he did the unthinkable. At the 2002 “People’s Conference,” he argued that reform in Libya would require free speech and democracy. Libyan security forces quickly sent him to Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim Prison. On March 12, 2004, though, Bush cited Fathi’s release as a sign that Qadhafi had changed. “You probably have heard, Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things,” Bush said. He got his carrot. Too bad that two weeks later, Qadhafi returned Fathi to prison.
We believe that he is at least still alive. After Libyan journalist Daif al-Ghazal criticized the government in May 2005, Libyan security kidnapped him. The next month, his mutilated body was found. While Washington condemns the murder of journalists in Lebanon, they remain silent about Libya.
The problem is broader. In February 2006, the regime organized a demonstration in Benghazi against the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. When the rioters turned their chants toward condemnations of Qadhafi, security forces opened fire, killing eleven. A subsequent sweep landed several hundred people in prison, some as young as 13.
Qadhafi is shrewd. His decision to abandon his weapons of mass destruction program was a calculated attempt to distract Washington. He believes George W. Bush is a passing phenomenon. He has already outlasted six U.S. presidents; he can outlast Bush. Given his history, the flow of hard currency into his Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, and his control over all levers of power in Libya, he can quickly resurrect his weapons programs after Bush leaves office. He certainly has not engaged in any systematic or institutional reform.
At his second inauguration, President Bush declared, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Please, Mr. President. For my brother, for the Libyan people, and for the security of my adopted country, the United States, don’t let Libya be an exception.
–Mohamed Eljahmi is a Boston-based Libyan American activist.