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State Sponsors: Libya

Updated: December 2005

Does Libya sponsor terrorism?

Despite Libya’s December 2003 announcement that it would eliminate its weapons of mass destruction program, it still remains on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Libya spent more than two decades supporting anti-Western terrorist groups, and for Americans, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi became the public face of terrorism in the 1980s. The United States and the United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya for its role in terrorist attacks, including the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. But experts say Libya, strained by the sanctions, has distanced itself from terrorism. Nevertheless, the North African country remains on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism because of its refusal to own up to its role in the Lockerbie bombing—an atrocity that still dominates U.S.-Libyan relations.

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What changes have been made since Libya agreed to dismantle its weapons program?

The United States, the United Kingdom, and other international agencies are working with Libya to eliminate these weapons in a “transparent and verifiable manner.” Following the announcement, the United States and Libya began the process of improving diplomatic relations; sanctions were lifted and travel toLibyais now permitted.  In 2004, Libya authorized a second payment of $4 million per family to the families of the 270 victims of the Pan Am bombing and also agreed to pay $170 million to the non-U.S. families of the victims of the 1989 bombing of the French UTA passenger aircraft. Libyan officials were also instrumental in the handover of Amar Saifi, the number two figure in the Salafist Group for Call and Combat. Saifi is responsible for kidnapping thirty-two western tourists in Algeria in 2003.

What past terrorist incidents have been linked to Libya?

Among the attacks Libya has been implicated in are the following:

  • The 1986 bombing of a West Berlin discotheque popular among American soldiers. The attack killed three people, including two U.S. servicemen; U.S. officials hold Libya responsible.
  • The 1988 murder of 270 people on Pan Am Flight 103. In 2001, a Scottish court convened in the Netherlands convicted Libyan intelligence agent Abdul Basset al-Megrahi of murder for his role in the bombing. A second Libyan suspect was found not guilty.
  • The 1989 bombing of a French airliner over Niger; in 1999, a French court convicted six Libyans for their roles in the attack.

Libyan agents are also thought to have assassinated Libyan opposition politicians living in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. And experts say Libya has backed plots to assassinate the presidents of Chad, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, and Zaire.

What kinds of terrorists has Libya supported?

Qaddafi has provided training, weapons, funding, safe haven, or other support to several Palestinian terrorist organizations and to the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist group ETA, and Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, experts say. In 1999, Libya helped negotiate the release of a group of international hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf Group, a Philippine terrorist group with ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. Libya said it was being helpful, but the State Department warned that letting Abu Sayyaf receive ransom for hostages “served only to encourage further terrorism.”

How did Libya respond to September 11?

That same day, Qaddafi called the attacks “horrifying” and urged Muslim charitable agencies to provide aid to the United States. Libya has reportedly shared intelligence with U.S. officials about Libyan Islamist militants tied to al-Qaeda.

Does Libya have ties to al-Qaeda?

No. Almost all Libyans are Muslims, and the country’s legal system is based on the Koran, but Libya does not subscribe to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. Qaddafi faces opposition from militant Islamist groups. A 1998 attempt by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to assassinate Qaddafi led Libya to crack down on Islamist opposition and reportedly issue an arrest warrant for bin Laden. (The State Department placed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has been linked to al-Qaeda, on its terrorist exclusion list in December 2001; its members are to be denied U.S. visas.)

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