The verdict effectively constituted a "case dismissed" for Libyan leader Mu‘ammar al-Qadhdhafi. In 1992, the United Nations had saddled Libya with one of the most rigorous sanctions regimes in the history of the Middle East, for its failure to turn over Libyan suspects in the bombing either to the United States or Britain. For seven long years, Qadhdhafi had worked to erode the sanctions regime, mainly with the help of African allies. In 1999, he did a deal: in exchange for suspension of sanctions, he surrendered the two Libyan suspects in the bombing, with the proviso that their trial be limited to an investigation of their personal roles. The trial, which opened in May 2000, demonstrated the difficulties of prosecuting terrorist cases. And the verdict, when it came, effectively lifted Europe’s last inhibitions toward Libya. By the end of 2001, it was almost business as usual in Tripoli, and Qadhdhafi celebrated his thirty-second anniversary in power—one of the world’s most impressive records of political longevity.
Yet the Libyan case is hardly extraordinary. In the 1990s, several Middle Eastern regimes managed Houdini-like escapes from the noose of foreign sanctions, each by its own mix of elusive, clever, and resourceful means. In the process, they fortified their grips on power. True, the Libyan regime is not completely out of the woods: the United States and Britain continue to call on Libya to assume responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. But Qadhdhafi, were he inclined to pop music, could croon with the stars: "I did it my way," and "I have survived."
How did Qadhdhafi do it? By proposing a chain of compromises, by busting the sanctions, and by exploiting the greed of others. Most of all, he won by playing on the Western notion that terrorist acts, like common crimes, should be dealt with in the courts. Once Lockerbie was in the hands of the lawyers, the chances that Qadhdhafi would slip the noose dramatically increased. What follows is an account, by stages, of how Qadhdhafi beat the Pan Am rap—a model to emulate for all future state-sponsors of terror.
The Road to Sanctions
From the onset of the Lockerbie affair, Libya flatly rejected the allegations of Washington and London that responsibility for the bombing lay with two Libyan citizens suspected of being intelligence agents. Qadhdhafi offered his own version of the Lockerbie disaster: the airplane might have been forced by stormy weather conditions to "land on a fuel depot at Lockerbie, setting fire to it and causing explosions to the aircraft." Nevertheless, he asserted, "the West insisted it was a bomb explosion, thus it is a goat even if it flies."1 Firmly denying any complicity in the explosion, Tripoli refused to meet Anglo-American demands to hand over the two suspects to stand a trial, arguing that in any case, "Libyan law of procedure" prevented the extradition of Libyans to other states.2
Beyond these arguments, however, lay more pragmatic considerations. Extradition of the two suspects would have signaled weakness to potential challengers in Libya’s army and the security apparatus. Libyan and other Arab radical circles might have portrayed extradition as a humiliating submission to "Western imperialism." And were the suspects to stand trial in the West, they might have linked Qadhdhafi himself to the bombing or, at the very least, embarrassed him personally and politically.
In addition, one of the suspects belonged to the pivotal Maqraha tribe, as did ‘Abd as-Salam Jallud, once one of Qadhdhafi’s closest and most influential aides. From the autumn of 1986 onward there were persistent reports of a power struggle and ideological tension between Qadhdhafi and Jallud, at that time his second-in-command. Extradition of the suspects might have damaged the fragile political and personal balance between Qadhdhafi and Jallud’s tribe, injecting further tension into the already problematic relations between the regime and Libya’s tribal system.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Qadhdhafi was persuaded that the West, particularly the United States and Britain, wanted his political head. He had a deep-rooted suspicion that the Americans and British wanted to exploit the Lockerbie dispute to eradicate him politically. His quarrel with the United States had taken a violent turn in 1986, when the United States launched air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for alleged Libyan complicity in international terrorism.3 This past history hardened his resolve not to surrender the two suspects.
At first, Qadhdhafi expected the American response to follow precedent. The Libyan leader predicted a "surprise attack" which, he claimed, "the superpowers in charge of the world might launch on a small, peaceful country in the same way that Hitler attacked peaceful Poland."4 No such attack materialized, but in late March 1992 the United States and Britain led the U.N. Security Council to adopt Resolution 748, imposing an embargo on air travel and arms sales to Libya and reducing its diplomatic representation worldwide. The new resolution was based on Security Council Resolution 731, passed earlier in the year, calling upon Libya to provide "a full and effective response so as to contribute to the elimination of international terrorism." This resolution clearly warned Qadhdhafi to hand over the two suspects for trial in the West or risk sanctions.5 Yet the sanctions, which came into effect in mid-April 1992, lacked two important teeth: they did not include a blockade on oil, which accounted for almost all Libyan exports; and they did not freeze all Libyan financial assets in the West.
Qadhdhafi responded with strident tirades against the West. In a particularly bellicose speech, he announced that "the battle has been transformed into a battle between Christianity and Islam." If the West "harbors intentions of carrying out aggression, we, too, must beat the drums, close ranks, sharpen our swords, and get ready for confrontation." Qadhdhafi also accused the "Christian West" of intentionally disseminating the AIDS virus and of "exporting twelve million rats to Egypt and Libya" in order to destroy their economies. The West, he claimed, had exported a "virus or a bacteria to Iraq which rotted its missiles and aircraft," as well as "hashish and narcotics to people around the world in order to annihilate them."6
But Qadhdhafi understood that the challenge to his regime now came not from bombers overhead or rats underfoot. Beneath his rhetoric, Qadhdhafi began to plan a calculated strategy to defeat the West’s favorite new weapon: sanctions.
A Parade of Compromises
The effectiveness of U.N.-imposed sanctions is a direct function of the extent of international compliance. Sanctions require constant maintenance and a combination of pressure and persuasion applied to virtually every state on the globe. It is a war of political attrition. Qadhdhafi prepared the ground to wage it, by proposing various compromises, all of which fell short of compliance with Security Council Resolution 748.
Libya made its first proposal in March 1992, just before the curtain of sanctions descended. Libya’s representative to the U.N., ‘Ali Khudayri, declared that Libya would be willing to hand over the two Libyan suspects to the Arab League. But the proposal was vague, and Qadhdhafi himself later called reports of the offer "inaccurate."7
When Bill Clinton was elected president in November 1992, Qadhdhafi floated a second compromise, announcing his readiness to hand over the two suspects to stand trial in a neutral country.
We say that if they [the United States and Britain] have any evidence, then let them produce it in a just and neutral court not affected by the media. We would accept any court outside these two states.8The United States and Britain dismissed the proposal.
In September 1993, Qadhdhafi offered yet another compromise. Libya would allow the two suspects to stand trial in Scotland—provided the U.N. sanctions against Libya were lifted the moment the suspects were handed over. Explaining his favorable attitude toward Scotland, Qadhdhafi commented: "We look upon the Scottish people as different from the English people, . . . as being colonized by the English. Because of that, they are suffering . . . from colonization . . . just like us."9 This might have provided a solution had Qadhdhafi been sincere, but Libya’s own state-controlled press quickly took back the offer.10 The United States and Britain disregarded it.
Libya offered a further compromise in early November 1993: to turn over the two suspects to Switzerland for trial.11 The United States and Britain ignored this proposal, too, instead securing a U.N. Security Council resolution (883), imposing still harsher sanctions on Libya. The resolution froze Libyan assets overseas, banned sales of oil equipment to Libya, and stiffened an earlier decision to end commercial air links with Tripoli.
In early 1994 Qadhdhafi produced another proposal to solve the deadlocked dispute: the two Libyans could stand trial in an Islamic court before an Islamic jury. In this case, he stated, "as far as I am concerned, it would not matter whether this court is set up in Britain, America, France, Egypt, or Malta."12 Once again, the United States and Britain ignored the proposal. In the fall, just before an imminent review of sanctions, Tripoli announced its willingness to allow the two Libyans to stand trial at the International Court of Justice at The Hague before a panel of judges from Scotland.13 This, too, was rejected.
None of Qadhdhafi’s proposed compromises complied with Security Council resolutions, and it is not clear whether he expected the United States and Britain to take them seriously. But they allowed him to appear before Arab and African opinion as a man of reason, facilitating his next strategy: sanctions-busting.
By mid-1995, the Lockerbie quandary had become a major domestic issue for Libya. Qadhdhafi was troubled by growing opposition, mainly among militant Islamists whose influence was enhanced by socioeconomic problems within the country.14 These problems stemmed largely from a cumulative decline in oil revenues, a problem faced by all oil exporters, especially where oil constitutes the backbone of the economy, as it does in Libya. Libya’s estimated oil export earnings in 1993 were only $7.4 billion, as compared to 1990 earnings of $11 billion. But the sanctions also took their toll. In 1999 Libya claimed that the cumulative cost of sanctions was between $24 and $26 billion. By spring 2000, it was reported that the figure had risen to $33 billion.15
Qadhdhafi’s fear of possible political ferment prompted him to shift tactics to an intensive effort to bust the sanctions. On April 19, 1995, a Libyan aircraft carrying Libyan pilgrims to Mecca to perform the pilgrimage (hajj) took off from Tripoli, crossed Egyptian airspace, and landed in Saudi Arabia—a clear violation of the U.N.-imposed air blockade. "We were patient for a long time," Qadhdhafi explained, "but we decided this year to go to the House of God [Mecca] directly, whatever the consequences."16 And here, Qadhdhafi found the first crack. That very day, Egypt pressed the U.N. sanctions committee to accept a compromise solution, allowing Libyan pilgrims to travel from Libya aboard Egyptian aircraft.17 The United States, faced with Arab-Muslim criticism for blocking the path to Mecca, announced its acceptance of the committee’s decision "on humanitarian grounds."18
The decision was a Libyan political victory that bolstered Qadhdhafi’s self-confidence and prestige. Libya’s state-controlled media portrayed him as a brave man who had stood up to the "imperialist" West in the name of Islam. "No American," he pointed out, "can prevent us from reaching Mecca, even if we have to swim in a sea of blood. The United States should know this."19 In April of the following year, Qadhdhafi repeated the exercise: a Libyan aircraft carrying hajj-bound pilgrims from Tripoli traveled through Egyptian airspace directly to Saudi Arabia. This violation of the sanctions elicited no response at all by the U.N., and in June, an emboldened Qadhdhafi flew directly to Cairo from Tripoli aboard a Libyan plane, to attend an Arab summit meeting. In early 1997, he dispatched a Libyan aircraft carrying a high-ranking delegation from the foreign ministry on a direct flight to Accra, Ghana.
And on May 8, 1997, Qadhdhafi mounted his biggest sanctions-busting operation ever, flying with a large entourage on four Libyan jetliners to Niger and Nigeria. The trip had ostensibly Islamic overtones—the Libyan leader addressed Muslim audiences at the start of the Islamic lunar year—for Qadhdhafi had learned that he could fly anywhere under the cover of Islam.
In June 1998, a summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) called on all African states to immediately suspend the air embargo against Libya regarding religious, humanitarian, or OAU-related Libyan flights. The decision also advocated ignoring all sanctions from September 1998 if the United States and Britain had not agreed by then to Qadhdhafi’s proposal to try the two suspects in a third country.20 The OAU decision, which marked a major turning point in the Lockerbie dispute, made violation of the air ban almost routine.
Qadhdhafi had chipped away at the air embargo, and the United States and Britain seemed powerless to stop him.
Payoffs for Persistence
But more than the air embargo was shaken. So too was the legal basis of the demand made by the United States and Britain. They had chosen to fight the battle on legal grounds. After all, there was a "new world order," substituting law for force. But on February 27, 1998, the law cut in Libya’s favor: the International Court of Justice ruled that Libya was entitled to request that the trial be held in a third country instead of the United States or Britain—this, on the basis of the 1971 Montreal Convention on civil aviation.
The ruling was a body blow to the position of the United States and Britain. In July 1998 they admitted that they might accept a trial in a third country, probably the Netherlands, under Scottish law.21 On August 27, 1998, the Security Council unanimously adopted an Anglo-American proposal (Resolution 1192), agreeing to suspend U.N. sanctions against Libya once the suspects were surrendered for trial in the Netherlands. In late 1998 and early 1999, South Africa and Saudi Arabia mediated an agreement on behalf of the U.N., culminating on April 5, 1999, in the handing over of the two most wanted Libyans for trial. As a result, the U.N. immediately suspended the sanctions.
On May 3, 2000, the trial of the two Libyan suspects opened at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands under the auspices of a Scottish court. The prosecution accused them of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and contravention of the 1982 Aviation Security Act. The two suspects pleaded not guilty, claiming that the bombing was the work of Palestinian groups. The prosecution inundated the court with 230 witnesses, including Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents and former intelligence agents from Libya’s erstwhile Soviet-bloc allies, as well as forensic evidence.22 But the prosecution faced serious difficulties in proving its case. There was no eyewitness to the terrorist act; the judges were asked to infer the defendants’ guilt from circumstantial evidence alone. On January 31, 2001, the trial ended with a guilty verdict for one of the two Libyan suspects and a not-guilty verdict for the other—from a political point of view, a draw.
For Libya, a draw was good enough. Libya issued a statement extolling the "unprecedented historic victory" resulting from the "resolve" of Libya in handling the Lockerbie dispute.23 There was still the problem of the Maqrahi conviction, but Qadhdhafi dismissed it as a "political" verdict based on "flimsy and unfounded" evidence.24 Qadhdhafi was now poised to launch his final offensive, to have the suspended sanctions lifted altogether. "There is no excuse for [maintaining] the sanctions against Libya even for one day," he stated.25
So far, Qadhdhafi has not yet registered a success on this front. The U.S. position is that Libya must acknowledge responsibility for the Lockerbie explosion before the sanctions can be eliminated.On these grounds, the United States has continued to block the final lifting of U.N. sanctions, and in August 2001 renewed its own unilateral penalties against Libya, as legislated in the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. But since the 1999 suspension of sanctions, Europe’s relations with Libya have been normalized, and the verdicts of 2001 left only one last cloud in the sky of Qadhdhafi’s rehabilitation.
It is certainly true that the United States and Britain deprived Libya of maneuverability for the seven years between 1992 and 1999, limiting Qadhdhafi’s subversive interference in regional affairs and curbing his involvement in international terrorism. But in the end, Libya outmaneuvered the United States by its manipulation of other countries, even some allied to Washington. The support of African states for Qadhdhafi and their defiance of sanctions, as well as the European veto of an oil embargo, reduced the effectiveness of Anglo-American pressure and ultimately shaped the course of the Lockerbie dispute.
At the end of the day, Qadhdhafi survived the sanctions, emerging from the crisis with enhanced political prestige as a committed Arab and a proud African. He had stood down the "malicious" forces of "Western imperialism," and he had acted as an ardent and devoted guardian of Islam. His success in restoring Libya’s diplomatic standing in Europe stood as testament that even a permanent denizen of the U.S. State Department’s terrorism list could find a place under the sun—and a respectable place, too.
Yehudit Ronen is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.1 Jamahiriyya Arab News Agency (JANA, Tripoli), Jan. 21-22, 1992, Daily Report: Middle East and Africa, U.S. Foreign Broadcasting Information Service (FBIS).
2 Tripoli television, Mar. 2, 1992, FBIS.
3 Yehudit Ronen, "Libya," Middle East Contemporary Survey (MECS) 1986, 10 (1988): 512-13; Frederick Zilian, Jr., "The U.S. Raid on Libya—and NATO," Orbis, Fall 1986, pp. 499-519.
4 JANA, Feb. 3, 1992, FBIS.
5 For the text of Resolution 731, see The New York Times, Jan. 22, 1992.
6 Tripoli television, Apr. 4, 1992, FBIS.
7 Middle East News Agency (Cairo), Mar. 23, 1992; Radio Monte Carlo, Mar. 25, 1992, FBIS.
8 ‘Umar Mustafa al-Muntasir, Libyan secretary for External Liaison and International Cooperation, interviewed in Al-Hayat (London), Feb. 19, 1993.
9 Independent Television (London), Aug. 23, 1993.
10 Ash-Shams (Tripoli), Sept. 25, 1993.
11 Ibid., Nov. 2, 1993; Middle East News Agency, Nov. 7, 1993, FBIS.
12 Tripoli television, Feb. 16, 1994, FBIS.
13 Middle East News Agency, Mar. 23, 1994, FBIS.
14 Yehudit Ronen, "Libya," MECS, 1995, 19 (1997): 476-79; Ray Takeyh, "Qadhdhafi’s Libya and the Prospect of Islamic Succession," Middle East Policy, Feb. 2000, pp. 154-64.
15 Ash-Sharq al-Awsat (London), Mar. 6, 1999; Ar-Raya (Doha), Apr. 24, 1999; Moin A. Siddiqi, "Economic Report: Libya," The Middle East, July/Aug. 2000, pp. 25-27.
16 Tripoli television, Apr. 6, 1995, FBIS; Al-Jamahiriyya (Tripoli), Apr. 13, 1995.
17 Yehudit Ronen, "Disillusionment of Arab Solidarity: Political Pragmatism in Libya’s Relations with Egypt (1992-99)," Review of International Affairs, Issue 1, No. 1, Autumn 2001, pp. 21-30.
18 Wireless File, Apr. 19, 1995.
19 Ad-Da‘wa al-Islamiyya (Tripoli), May 3, 1995.
20 JANA, June 10, 1998, SWB: The Middle East and Africa, June 11, 1998.
21 International Herald Tribune (Paris and Zurich), July 22, 1998; Wireless File, Aug. 24, 1998.
22 Al-Ahram Weekly, May 4, 2000; The Economist (London), Feb. 3, 2001; Jan Ferguson, "The Lockerbie Bombing Trial: New Problems in the Prosecution’s Case," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Sept. 2000, at http://www.meib.org/articles/0009_me2.htm.
23 Tripoli television, Jan. 31, 2001, SWB: The Middle East and Africa, Jan. 31, 2001.
24 Tripoli television, Feb. 5, 2001, SWB: The Middle East and Africa, Feb. 8, 2001.