On Saturday, March 19 the United States along with coalition forces began strategic air strikes targeted for Libyan air defense sites on or near the Mediterranean coast. The coalition operation--dubbed Odyssey Dawn and supported by France, England, Italy, Canada and the Arab League--seeks to enforce United Nations Resolution 1973, which demands the Libyan government cease fire in its ongoing conflict with Libyan rebel forces. On Sunday night, air strikes continued as British submarines fired two missiles at Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli. American and British military officials have stated that the compound was hit due to its military significance and not to target Gadhafi himself.
According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the mission has had a successful start and the US is expecting to turn over control of the mission “in a matter of days” to a coalition led either by the British, French or NATO. In late February of this year, Libyan rebels joined the pro-democracy movement realized throughout other Middle East countries and have been engaged in armed conflict with the Libyan military since. On March 10, France and the European Union officially recognized the rebels as the Interim Governing Council and the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people. Gadhafi has responded in brutal fashion and ordered his military into areas controlled by the Interim Governing Council and is engaging in heavy combat. Gadhafi has repeatedly referred to the rebels as terrorists as highlighted in a letter to US President Barack Obama in which he made his case for “fighting nothing other than al Qaeda.”
The US and Libya have long had troubled and difficult diplomatic relations dating back to the Gadhafi ordered bombing of a West Berlin nightclub frequented by American military personnel. Further deterioration in the relationship is evidenced by Gadhafi’s strong anti-American rhetoric since the UN Resolution. In a telephone address to his supporters via Libyan state television, Gadhafi said the strikes were a confrontation between the Libyan people and "the new Nazis," and promised "a long-drawn war." He went on to say "You have proven to the world that you are not civilized, that you are terrorists --- animals attacking a safe nation that did nothing against you." Throughout the address, an image of a golden fist crushing a model plane that said "USA" filled the screen.
Libya has long been known to support terrorism and terrorist organizations. Libya has a history of using terrorism to get even with its political enemies. If Gadhafi retains his power, it’s possible that he will support the use terrorism to retaliate against America for our support of the Libyan opposition. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns acknowledged as much when he told Congress that “the danger of [Gadhafi] returning to terrorism and violent extremism” is real. However, Gadhafi and his government have also been targeted by a terrorist group known as The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The LIFG views Gadhafi as oppressive, corrupt and anti-Muslim and aims to establish an Islamic state in Libya. LIFG was founded in the fall of 1995 by Libyans who had fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The group strongly denies any links to al-Qaeda and continually emphasizes that they have never carried out an attack outside Libya or against civilians. In countering the actions of the LIFG, Gadhafi has cooperated on intelligence matters with western nations and agreed to set aside any nuclear ambitions. Even if Gadhafi triumphs over the current rebellion, he is likely to remain saddled with an Islamic insurgency and tenuous personal security.
Undersecretary Burns’s statement aside, Gadhafi’s ability to activate a “sleeper cell” or capability to engage in acts of terror beyond his border is questionable. Should Gadhafi be able to thwart the rebellion and the coalition’s advances and maintain his leadership of Libya, the sanctions and embargos likely to follow may restrict his ability or willingness to launch terrorist attacks.