Libya just released 214 al-Qaeda members from Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison. Seif al Islam, son of President Moammar Qaddafi, says hundreds more will be turned out soon, which will bring the number of freed Libyan terrorists up to almost 1,000.
American and Israeli officials used to pressure Yasir Arafat into rounding up terrorists when he was Palestinian Authority president. He’d scoop up a couple of handfuls, announce the arrests to foreign journalists, then quietly let most of them go a few weeks or months later. Al-Qaeda, though, is much more dangerous than Arafat’s old PLO. Qaddafi has as much incentive as everyone else in the Middle East and North Africa to do something about them. That does not, however, mean he is actually being responsible.
Reason magazine’s Michael Moynihan offers us a few clues as to what’s happening. Last month he wrote the best dispatch from Libya I’ve read in years — the first in some time that describes the same viciously oppressive country I visited in 2004 — after he was invited there on a press junket by the Qaddafi Foundation. (Note to totalitarian despots: in the future, you shouldn’t expect glowing press coverage from libertarian magazines.)
One of the first items on his itinerary was a meeting with several low-level al-Qaeda operatives whom Qaddafi had supposedly “reformed.” They took the required re-education classes and put their signature to a renunciation of violence. One even insisted that he had converted to Qaddafism, a sinister joke of an ideology that’s almost impossible to sincerely adhere to.
The government and its supposedly reformed citizens insist that the “Corrective Studies” program is 100 percent effective. Either Qaddafi is a genius who can save the world with this system, or something else is going on here. It wasn’t hard for Moynihan to figure out what. Everyone enrolled in the coursework had been sentenced to death but would be set free if they cooperated and passed.
Qaddafi is surely trying to earn points for himself in the West by “rehabilitating” these prisoners. Otherwise, why invite foreign journalists into the country to meet with them in the first place? Even so, he really does need them to behave themselves, at least while they are in Libya. His quasi-Marxist regime is an obvious target for revolutionary Islamists. Al-Qaeda is a threat to every government in the region. At the same time, it’s potentially useful for certain governments because it can threaten any and all of them.
Look at Syria’s Baath party state. As it is avowedly secular and headed by non-Muslim Alawites, there is naturally a great deal of tension between the Sunni majority and the authorities. The government killed tens of thousands fighting a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the early 1980s, when Hafez Assad was in charge. Every day his son Bashar worries about threats to his own rule from that same community.
The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 provided him with an ideal solution. He didn’t need to arrest or repress Syria’s radical Sunnis. All he had to do was turn them loose in Iraq, where they’d go after Americans and Shia “apostates.” He could even help Sunni extremists from elsewhere in the region transit into Iraq, thereby earning a small measure of gratitude from those who would otherwise rather kill him.
Libya, like Syria, is no longer ruled by one of the region’s “conservative” monarchies. Both are revolutionary regimes founded by leaders who came to power with ambitions beyond their own borders. Both are well-practiced in the art of using terrorism abroad as instruments of their foreign policies. Qaddafi formally renounced the practice to get back onto speaking terms with the West, but he and Assad together encouraged Palestinians to resume violent attacks against Israel just a few days ago. He hasn’t changed as much as he’d like us to think.
There is no good reason to assume he won’t unleash his “reformed” al-Qaedists outside the country. Some of them have already engaged in overseas operations. They’re experienced. Unless he’s in serious denial about his rehab program’s effectiveness, he’ll need to get them out of the country now that he’s freed them from prison. And he can always later tell us he tried to reform them if he gets caught. He already arranged the press coverage to make sure we know all about it.
I could be wrong. Lord knows it’s hard to figure out what goes on in his mind. The man is quite frankly bonkers. Even if he doesn’t intend to sic any of these people on his enemies, we shouldn’t be one bit surprised if they later resurface in distant places where a death sentence in Libya isn’t enforceable.