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From Muammar el Qaddafi to Osama bin Laden

Terrorism's Unchanging Face and Purpose from Libya to al-Qaeda

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Muammar el Qaddafi champion terrorist

Muammar el-Qaddafi, champion terrorist.

Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

Osama bin Laden seems to get all the attention when it comes to the leading man of terrorism these days. But Osama bin laden may be the twin of Muammar el-Qaddafi.

In the 1970s and through the 80s, Qaddafi was the world's reigning champion of terrorism. He was a would-be father figure to Osama bin Laden, if it weren't for the two men's supreme jealousy for each other: Qaddafi has never forgiven bin Laden for stealing his thunder.

It's remarkable how similar the two men's sense of mission, and method, were: both thought they were anointed leaders of the Arab world, both wanted to bring about a caliphate of their own--Qaddafi a nationalist, secular sort, bin Laden an Islamist sort. Both considered other Arab regimes traitors to the cause. Both initially wanted to demolish those regimes to found their caliphate their. To found: from foundation: the base. The base in Arabic is al-Qaeda.

Here's Qaddafi speaking in 1985: "Yes, I am a terrorist when it comes to the dignity of this nation," this nation being, in his mind, the Arab Nation, big A, big N. By then he had been a rich bankroller of the Palestine Liberation Organization, of the civil war's Muslim and Palestinian militias in Lebanon, of various terrorist organizations around the world. Mercenaries knew they had a paycheck in Qaddafi in the 1980s. That's why, to defend against the uprising against his regime in February 2011, Qaddafi has been able to call in favors by the hundreds, maybe by the thousands: his old bands of mercenaries are flocking back to Tripoli, eager for the equivalent of social security checks. Shoot now. Cash later.

Qaddafi went on: "I will take up responsibility and begin terrorism against the Arab rulers, threaten and frighten them. and sever relations. And if I could, I would behead them one by one."

Contrast that with the words of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's Number 2 man and his ideological scribe, who explained why al-Qaeda rejects democracy and secular Arab regimes, considering them apostates worthy of elimination: "Islam was put aside in governing our countries, and they brought an impious positive law instead. When they left, the colonizers handed the reins to a group of Muslims who had reached power through these laws, which do not give truth and error their real importance: they allow such illicit behavior, as fornication, usury, wine, and gambling but forbid that which is licit,like jihad along God's path, commanding good, and forbidding evil. These positive laws protect the corruption spreading through the land and are a threat to all those who do not want to obey them and who call for reform. Evil, my brothers, lies in the group that defends positive law, the rulers and their assistants; these rulers are unbelieving apostates whom it is necessary to fight until the unbelief and the corruption that hover over our countries are eliminated."

Just like Qaddafi wanted other Arab regimes overthrown and replaced with leadership aligned not with the West but with him, preferably with him at the helm, so has bin Laden called for uprisings and revolutions in Arab lands, what he calls "the near enemy," particularly in western leaning lands such as Qatar, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

Again not surprisingly, those regimes' police states were honed by their authoritarian leaders to protect against Islamism, but also to preserve the reigning, non-democratic, authoritarian structure. It helped those regimes to send the message, through their state-controlled press, that al-Qaeda was bad news. It also helped win additional western, and particularly American, military aid.

Outrun in the terrorism department, and threatened by its al-Qaeda version, Qaddafi chose to reinvent himself as a milder sort in the late 1990s and 2000s, dealing with the Bush administration as a man of compromise and with the British government of Tony Blair as a man of business. Both governments fell for it. He gave up supposed plans to acquire nuclear weapons, paid a multi-billion dollar settlement for the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, and won the release of terrorist Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, mastermind of the Lockerbie bombing, from a Scottish jail, apparently in exchange for a lucrative oil contract with BP that Britain was to profit from.

But once a mad dog, always a mad dog. Qaddafi never really reformed. He never disbanded his police state, never laid off the corruption. As an American embassy in Tripoli's cable to the State Department, leaked to Wikileaks, put it in 2008, "no one can cross or refuse such people without suffering consequences, particularly when the matter is to do with money," such people being Qaddafi and his thuggish sons, who have so much in common with the late sons of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay (two men Time magazine called "the sum of two evils."

And like a cancer that eventually closes in on its own, Qaddafi and bin laden have circled back toward each other. Al Qaeda has been quiet, weirdly quiet, throughout these uprisings for democracy in Arab lands. "Terrorism analysts believe al Qaeda's senior leadership is reeling," the Wall Street Journal reported. "In some ways, the largely nonviolent, secular and pro-democracy revolts amount to a rejection of the group's core beliefs. They were also successful." Successful non-violently where al-Qaeda's violence was unsuccessful.

In Libya, Qaddafi is blaming bin Laden for the uprising, going as far as charging bin Laden of drugging Libyans with “hallucinogenic pills in their coffee with milk, like Nescafe.” And he said: “Those people who took your sons away from you and gave them drugs and said let them die are launching a campaign over cellphones against your sons, telling them not to obey their fathers and mothers, and they are destroying their country.”

That would be the day: when al-Qaeda forces join hands with democracy forces. It's as improbable, and as risible, as George W. Bush's claim that al-Qaeda was in cahoots with Saddam Hussein, or that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks of 9/11, or that Iran and al-Qaeda are in cahoots: all those preposterous claims, advanced to deceive masses of people while enabling those in power to advance their own agendas, have tactical deception in common.

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