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With Muammar Qaddafi’s ignominious disappearance to who knows where, fast on the heels of President Obama’s proclamation that “Qaddafi’s rule is over,” it is easy to think of the United States as the dictator’s stubborn, persistent, and ultimately triumphant foe.
One remembers Reagan’s efforts to confront Qaddafi decades ago: the 1986 missile strikes, the skirmishes in the Gulf of Sidra, the labeling of Libya’s leader as the “mad dog of the Middle East,” and of Libya as a rogue state.
But the line that one is tempted to draw between U.S./Libyan relations then and U.S./Libyan relations now isn’t straight. While Qaddafi is now despised as an enemy, for much of the past decade he was treated as a friend.
In 2006, announcing that the U.S. was restoring full diplomatic relations with Libya, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held up Libya’s leadership as “a model” for others to follow. Qaddafi’s glaring violations of human rights—which, in 2011, gave the U.S. cause for military intervention—were not simply overlooked during the Bush years; they were exploited.
The CIA’s Libyan Helpers
Video footage of the fall of Libya’s Abu Salim prison brings this recent history to mind. Notorious as the site of a 1996 prison massacre, Abu Salim was the dungeon in which Qaddafi held his political opponents. It was known for beatings, torture, solitary confinement, and death. It was also the place that held prisoners who had been handed over by the CIA.
For it was counterterrorism cooperation, together with Qaddafi’s abandonment of his nuclear ambitions, that cemented U.S./Libyan ties. Qaddafi’s intelligence services opened their files to the CIA, were given CIA training, and took in the CIA’s prisoners.
Between 2004 and 2006, the CIA rendered at least six prisoners to Libya, all men who had been held in secret detention, interrogated coercively, and transferred to Libyan custody without the benefit of any legal procedures.
Badly abused in U.S. custody, the men feared even worse treatment in Libya. “I told the Americans that I did not want to go to Libya,” one of the prisoners told a Human Rights Watch researcher who gained access to interview him a few years later. “I lost all sanity. I wanted to die. I banged my head against the wall.” He was handed over to Libyan custody in August 2004.
Others handed over to Libyan custody secretly and without legal process include Abdullah Sadeq, who was picked up in Thailand; Abu Munder Saadi, captured in Hong Kong; and Al Mahdi Mostafa Al Mahdi Gouda, seized in Pakistan. Both Sadeq and Saadi were handed over to the Libyans in 2004, not long after their arrest, whereas Gouda was picked up in 2004, held for more than a year in secret custody, and sent to Libya in April 2005.
The most famous of the rendered detainees is one who is no longer alive to tell his story. Ibn Al Sheikh Al Libi—born Ali Mohamed al Fakheri—was captured in November 2001 as he fled Afghanistan following the collapse of the Taliban government. The former head of a jihadist training camp in Afghanistan, he was thought to have information about al-Qaeda’s international links.
Though his trajectory through the CIA’s chain of black sites and proxy prisons is still not known with certainty, Al Libi seems to have been moved from place to place, including to Egypt, Morocco and Afghanistan. Statements that he made under torture about a relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq. He died, a supposed suicide, in Libyan custody in 2009, having been returned to Libya by the CIA a few years earlier.
Commenting on U.S. relations with Libya at roughly the moment that Al Libi was handed over, Secretary of State Rice praised the country’s “excellent cooperation in response to common global threats faced by the civilized world since September 11, 2001.” It was a public pat on the back for Qaddafi, a way of welcoming his regime back into the fold.
President Obama, in a statement to the press last week, emphasized a different side of this story. For over four decades, he said, the Libyan people had lived “under the rule of a tyrant who denied them their most basic human rights.” What he failed to acknowledge was that this denial of human rights had not always been viewed as a problem.