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The author suggests briefly that the about-face in Libya’s role on the world terrorist scene beginning last year resulted from focused, selective programs that imposed heavy costs on the Quadaffi regime, not an across-the-board approach.— Ed.

ibya -- Case Study in Fighting State-Sponsored Terrorism

Libya’s agreement to take responsibility for the Lockerbie Pan Am bombing, to renounce terrorism and to set up a $2.7-billion fund for families of the victims did not receive the attention it deserved. It was part of a successful campaign against state sponsored terrorism that produced measurable change in an individual and a nation’s foreign policy.

At the United Nations on Wednesday, August 13, 2003, the Libyan delegation signed an agreement to set up a $2.7-billion fund for the families of the 270 victims of the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie bombing. The agreement, along with a forthcoming letter to the Security Council taking responsibility for the bombing and renouncing terrorism, is a condition for removing American- and British-initiated U.N. sanctions. The event drew far less attention than its significance deserves. It should be viewed as part of a successful campaign against state sponsored terrorism that produced measurable change in an individual and a nation’s foreign policy.

By the late 1970’s Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya was one of the major state sponsors of terrorist groups. Petrodollars were also used to build a large cache of Soviet arms and aircraft. In the West, it was considered prudent at the time to preserve and emphasize economic ties between Libya and Western nations and to wait for a multilateral consensus against terrorism to emerge. The result was an increase in Libyan sponsorship of terrorism and increasingly hostile rhetoric from Qaddafi regarding American “imperialism, colonialism and Zionism.”

This was followed by massacres at the Rome and Vienna airports and the bombing of the then West Berlin’s La Belle disco. When intelligence suggested the direct involvement of Libya in these and other terrorist acts, the Reagan administration began to design policy to isolate Qaddafi and Libya economically and diplomatically and to show that there would be a military cost to states that aided terrorists. The Reagan policy toward Libya was a coordinated application of covert operations, diplomacy, economic sanction and military force.

The military element culminated in the predawn raid of April 15, 1986, in which Navy and Air Force jets and bombers struck terrorist headquarters, barracks and training facilities and an airfield. The diplomatic element culminated the next year in a communiqué jointly issued at the Tokyo G-7 summit restricting arms sales to states sponsoring terrorism, reducing their embassy “staff” who were often intelligence agents and handlers of terrorists. These combined with economic sanctions to create an environment which resulted in a clear change in Qaddafi’s rhetoric and Libya’s sponsorship of terror. The regime had been isolated, hit and hurt. Measurable change soon followed. The 15 years prior to 1986 do not compare with the 15 plus years since.

Giant billboard in Tripoli of ‘Captain Q’ courtesy of AP Photo/Amr Nabil

In this light, the Lockerbie bombing can be seen as the last gasp of Qaddafi’s terror policy. Further pursuit of the policy would cost him his regime at a minimum and perhaps much worse. Even after Lockerbie, Qaddafi was noticeably more pragmatic in his policy-making toward neighboring states like Chad and Egypt and toward the West. Libya renounced terror at this time and surrendered the participants in the Lockerbie bombing for trial. And after September 11, 2001, Qaddafi again renounced terrorism, stating that the United States had the right to retaliate and directing his intelligence services to share information on the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group with the United States. These statements and actions were unthinkable prior to 1986.As a single case, it is not wise to generalize broadly. Nevertheless, the Libyan experience does suggest that rather than a “for all times and places” approach to state-sponsored terrorism policy, a “for here and now” approach can produce results. This is due to the nonlinear and asymmetric nature of this type of conflict. The case also suggests that adding costs economically, diplomatically and militarily to state-sponsored terrorism can produce measurable change in policy and actions. The Libyan case also commends a rule of thumb of a 16th-century Japanese military thinker regarding his many military campaigns: He never knew about winning from beginning to end, just about not falling behind in a situation.

Republished by permission from the Brown University News Service (


Brent Stuart Goodwin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Brown University.


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