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Apologising to the Colonel

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The British mercenary Simon Mann isn’t the only would-be assassin who has been making apologies for trying to overthrow an oil-rich country’s government.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, established in Afghanistan in the 1990s, has killed dozens of Libyan soldiers and policemen over the years. But the LIFG recently apologised to Colonel Gaddafi for trying to kill him, and agreed to lay down its arms for good. Six members of the LIFG’s leadership, held inside Libya’s Abu Sleem prison, released a 420-page document disavowing their old ways and explaining why fighting Gaddafi no longer constituted legitimate jihad.

The memo and apology, which were issued at the end of August, in time for the 40th anniversary of the Libyan revolution, were published in several Libyan and Arab newspapers:

We would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on the coming of Ramadan and on this occasion we would like to send you our apologies regarding what we issued against you, from the setting up of a secret organisation to all that happened afterwards, big and small.

Dozens of members of the LIFG were then released. They are able to participate in social work and speak in mosques, but are barred from politics. Several hundred other LIFG members still in prison are expected to be released soon.

The détente has been hailed as a victory over extremism and the latest indicator of Libya’s reformist trajectory. It is undoubtedly a major coup for one of the Libyan leader’s sons, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, who helped broker the deal, visiting the LIFG’s leaders in prison and facing down the regime’s old guard who were reluctant to pardon them. Terrorism in the name of Islam has always posed more of a threat to Arab countries than to the West. Since coming to power in 1969 Gaddafi has, till now, shown a zero-tolerance policy towards his Islamist opponents. (It’s notable that in the period since 9/11 there have been no killings or kidnappings of foreigners in Libya – unlike its neighbours.)

Although it’s highly unusual for an armed Islamic insurgency to end peacefully – a precedent is Gamma Islamiya, which called a ceasefire from within Egyptian prisons in 2003 – it’s unlikely that this will put an end to terrorism in Libya for good. Most attacks nowadays are committed not by large organised groups but by nihilistic self-starters. Other jihadis will look sceptically on what they see as the LIFG’s foxhole conversion and remarks have already begun circulating in the blogosphere and the mainstream Arab press, suggesting among other things that the LIFG’s leaders will soon be offering Gaddafi free use of their wives.

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