TRIPOLI, Libya — A nation the West once considered a major sponsor of terrorism may have pulled off a groundbreaking coup against al-Qaida: coaxing a group once strongly allied with Osama bin Laden to renounce its onetime partner as un-Islamic.
Libya's government is trumpeting its efforts to persuade leaders and foot soldiers of the extremist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to reject al-Qaida's brand of violence. The decision, recounted by former members of the group and Libyan officials, offers an example of reconciliation between a government and a violent Islamic group once devoted to overthrowing it.
"The government learned to sit with people who were opposed to them and have dialogue and understand them," said Abubakir Armela, a leader of the militant group who returned from exile in 2005.
The story also provides lessons that could be replicated in other countries where local insurgents have joined forces with al-Qaida, including Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco and Algeria.
"I used to believe that the only way to change the system was through war or fighting," said Tarek Mufteh El-Ghunnay, who like dozens of other members of the group was released from prison in November after his life sentence was commuted. "Now, on the contrary, I believe in dialogue and the peaceful way."
A years-long dialogue
The defanging of a group that has been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization since 2004 is the fruit of a years-long dialogue between the militants and the government launched by Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the Western-educated son of aging Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi who many say is being positioned to take the government's helm.
Pacifying a group devoted to the violent overthrow of the Tripoli government bolsters the younger Gadhafi's authority and smooths any future transfer of power. It may also help Libya's attempts to improve its image in the West. The country had been ostracized by the West until it dismantled its clandestine nuclear program in 2004 and sparked further outrage this year when it welcomed home the sole man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland on his release from a Scottish prison.
"This group was not just related to al-Qaida. They were in bed deeply with al-Qaida in Afghanistan and later," said Robert Pape, a specialist on al-Qaida at the University of Chicago and the sole scholar among a small of group of U.S. journalists recently invited to Tripoli to meet the former militants.
"This is a splitting of al-Qaida," Pape said. "I can't remember that ever happening."
Breaking with al-Qaida
The trajectory of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is a chapter in the history of al-Qaida's rise, expansion and eventual weakening. Its members could provide a potential trove of intelligence for Western security officials seeking to divide and conquer al-Qaida and capture bin Laden.
Members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group trained in Afghanistan with bin Laden, followed him during his years in Sudan and shared personnel, tactics and a puritanical Salafist religious outlook with al-Qaida until earlier this decade. On the run throughout the Middle East, many of them were caught, sent home and handed life sentences in Libyan prisons.
They broke off their partnership with al-Qaida and denounced its brand of violence in a 400-page document called the "Revised Studies," which Vahid Brown of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point described in an online analysis "as a very sweeping repudiation not just of Salafi jihadism but of all forms of revolutionary Islamism in general."
El-Ghunnay, 38, said his enthusiasm for political violence had weakened by 1999, when he found himself shackled, loaded onto a plane in Jordan and sent back to his native Libya to face charges of being a member of a terrorist organization.
He was just 17 when he heeded the call to jihad in 1990. Gadhafi had launched a widespread crackdown on Islamic groups following a January 1989 uprising against his rule. El-Ghunnay, a student of the Koran at a religious school, was summoned for questioning and kept under watch.
Captivated by videos showing Soviet brutality in Afghanistan and urged on by fiery Muslim clerics, he forged a fake passport, teamed up with six other Libyans and traveled through Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan before traversing the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan.
He spent two months learning the art of combat at the infamous Farouq training camp, which turned out many of al-Qaida's most well-known alums, including "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh and four of the 19 hijackers who carried out the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I was going to fight over there," El-Ghunnay said during an interview at his home in Tripoli. "I was seeing what the Soviets were doing in Afghanistan, what murders and horrible things were happening. I was looking to be killed and die for Islam."
El-Ghunnay worked a Katyusha rocket launcher, backing up mujahedeen guerrillas against government forces for control of the Afghan city of Jalalabad. As the Moscow-backed government collapsed and the country descended into civil war, El-Ghunnay and other Libyans left the country.
The Libyans said they refocused their attention on getting Gadhafi almost as soon as they left Afghanistan. They went underground. El-Ghunnay adopted the nom de guerre Abu Ebrahim and received instructions from the newly formed Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in informal code.
El-Ghunnay said he first met bin Laden at a 1995 Ramadan celebration in Sudan, where Arab veterans of the Afghan war had flocked.
"He was very much respected," El-Ghunnay recalled. "He was a rich man, so he could have a luxurious life in Europe. But he spent his money on jihad. He didn't even have air-conditioning in his home."
El-Ghunnay was arrested in Jordan in 1999 and questioned for suspected ties to Islamic militants. Sent back to Libya, he was convicted of taking up arms against the government, among other charges, and sentenced to life.
Turned off by killings
In prison, El-Ghunnay and others said they found themselves stunned by violence against civilians by Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida in Algeria, Egypt and even by the Sept. 11 attacks.
The former members of the group said their views changed through discussions with clerics and each other. The Gadhafi Foundation, overseen by the younger Gadhafi, took a lead role in institutionalizing the discussions and helped in producing the "Revised Studies," which questions violence except in cases of self-defense.
"Just because they're different, it's not an excuse to kill people," says El-Ghunnay, who now hopes to find work teaching the Koran. "It's not Islam. Killing people — whether Jews, Christians or Buddhists — because of their religion is a sin. Only if someone is trying to fight you is it permitted to kill them."
Officials and former fighters acknowledged that speaking out against al-Qaida risks drawing the ire of Islamic militants, including groups allied with bin Laden in neighboring countries.
Advocates of the program, such as Salem Mohammed Adam, a former Libyan diplomat who has negotiated with Islamic militants, say they aren't too worried about what al-Qaida might think and do in response to the 400-page renunciation, which is partially online and soon to be widely distributed throughout the Arab world.
As Adam put it: "Let them go to hell."