COLONEL Muammar Gaddafi’s regime secretly provided information to Britain and the US on Islamic extremists in the east of Libya, according to leaked diplomatic cables and intelligence sources.
The names of hundreds of suspects were passed to the CIA and British intelligence.
“There was a strong, shared concern between Gaddafi and the US and UK Governments about radical Sunni jihadist terrorists, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG),” Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran who negotiated with Libya over its nuclear program, told The Times.
Diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks paint eastern Libya as a fertile ground for radical extremism. One source told US officials in 2008 that for young men from Derna, a city east of Benghazi, “resistance against coalition forces in Iraq was an important act of ‘jihad’ and a last act of defiance against the Gaddafi regime”.
However, Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of the CIA’s Libya branch, said that Colonel Gaddafi had “sucked in” the West with allegations of terrorism in the east of Libya.
“Gaddafi conflated the LIFG with al-Qa’ida and that obviously caught the attention of the Americans and the British who, post-9/11, were hungry for terrorism intelligence,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of reporting sources and Gaddafi was providing it – but his motivation was to protect himself.”
Mr Cannistraro agreed that “sometimes you had to do deals with bad people”. But he added: “Gaddafi was an outright murderer. There shouldn’t have been so much co-operation.”
In contrast, Dr Pillar maintained that the information was essential. “Some regimes paint their local opponents as part of a larger terrorist picture but this wasn’t the case here. There have been an awful lot of Libyans in al-Qa’ida and among the violent resistance in Iraq and in Afghanistan.”
Even among the rebels now hoping to overthrow the regime are “radical Islamists who would be of concern”, he warned. “I think there’s a high chance for people who would alarm us having a major influence should Gaddafi fall.”
The CIA first made contact with Colonel Gaddafi in the late 1990s, only 10 years after Libyan intelligence operatives blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland. British intelligence is understood to have become involved later, after Colonel Gaddafi renounced weapons of mass destruction in 2003.
Six years on, another leaked cable said that “Libya has acted as a critical ally in US counter-terrorism efforts, and is considered one of our primary partners in combatting the flow of foreign fighters”. The cable, sent from the US Embassy in Tripoli on August 10, 2009, emphasised that the US-Libya “strategic partnership in this field has been highly… beneficial to both nations”.
One senior British intelligence source confirmed that MI6 had close contact with Colonel Gaddafi. “I expect he was only giving us what he wanted,” the source said. “But valuable information was picked up.”
Close political and intelligence co-operation continued until last year despite the US State Department condemning Libya for oppression and human rights abuses in 2009.