Reports that Libya's leader ordered the assassination of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah sent shockwaves through both the Arab world and the West. Rasha Saad
Libya called allegations that its leader Muammar Gaddafi ordered the assassination of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah "mere lies" and "nonsense". Coming at a sensitive time, when Libya was just gearing up to return to the international fold, Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdul-Rahman Shalgham said in a statement that "we [Libyans] were surprised by this [report] and we deny it completely and categorically... Libya is one of the countries which are at the forefront in condemning and fighting terrorism."
Shalgham was referring to a report published in The New York Times on 9 June claiming that while Gaddafi was renouncing terrorism and negotiating the lifting of sanctions last year, his intelligence chiefs ordered a covert operation to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. The paper claimed that the conspiracy was revealed by two of its participants: Abdul-Rahman Al- Amoudi, a prominent American Muslim activist now in jail in Alexandria, Virginia and Colonel Mohamed Ismail, a Libyan intelligence officer in Saudi custody. The paper said that the two men were involved in a plot to fire rockets at Abdullah's motorcade.
They believed the two give separate statements to American and Saudi officials outlining the plot which reportedly is under investigation by Washington, Riyadh and London.
Ismail has allegedly told Saudi investigators that his orders to be operational commander of the attack came from two Libyan intelligence chiefs who directly reported to Gaddafi. Both Al- Amoudi and Ismail were in touch with Saudi dissidents in London who helped locate men in Saudi Arabia to join the conspiracy. Ismail then travelled to Egypt where he was arrested by security officers.
According to Al-Hayat newspaper, two Egyptian senior officials visited Saudi Arabia in February to discuss the case before going to Libya. Tripoli's decision at the time to close its borders to Egyptians was reportedly related to the issue. On 27 November Saudi participants who had been recruited by Ismail were arrested at a hotel in Mecca as they waited to receive cash payments from their Libyan handlers. A Saudi diplomat said that a bank account with $1 million in funds had raised suspicions about them. Al- Amoudi was apprehended at a London airport arriving from Libya with $340,000 in cash. He was then extradited to the US.
Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt did not offer any official reaction to these reports. However, Saudi newspapers, described as reflecting government thinking, grilled Gaddafi. Most described Gaddafi as being ungrateful for Saudis efforts that helped Libya come out from isolation. In its editorial, Okaz newspaper asked if the Arab nation "will allow this cancer [the Libyan regime] to remain after it became clear the dangerous roles [it] plays in a region which is being threatened from every side".
Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia along with South Africa brokered a plan to suspend UN sanctions against Libya imposed over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, relations between the countries have remained tense. In March 2003 Gaddafi and Prince Abdullah traded insults in a live broadcast of the Arab summit. Gaddafi told the conference gathering that he talked to Saudi King Fahd about the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and quoted the king as telling him that his country was ready to "cooperate with the devil to protect it". Abdullah, infuriated by the comments, accused Gaddafi of being agent of colonialism and said he was brought to power by the US.
Sources interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly believe that relations between the two countries have been always bad and that the summit incident was perhaps the proverbial last straw. According to these same sources, since the summit spat Gaddafi has taken a very hard-line stance on the kingdom. Sources cite the incident when two Libyans attempted to assault Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal in Cairo last September. After being arrested, the pair said they were trying to avenge the verbal attack on Gaddafi.
The publishing of the report outlining the assassination conspiracy -- a plot said to have been discovered by the US, Britain and Saudi Arabia about six or seven months ago -- triggered two related questions. First, why was it revealed now? Second, who is the source behind the revelation?
The two questions suggest different scenarios. The first scenario suggests that the report was leaked by moderates within US President George W Bush's administration; an administration which, according to Jihad Al-Khazen, a prominent columnist in the London-based daily Al-Hayat newspaper, "is past its sell-by date". "He [Gaddafi] gave up his weapons of mass destruction -- not that I believe he had any -- and was used [by the US and Britain] as an example for others to follow. Now, they found no use for him; he is still accused of actions of terrorism so maybe they have timed leaking the information about the investigation both inside the US and in Saudi Arabia to halt his return to the international fold," Al-Khazen told the Weekly.
The leak is thus regarded by some, including Al-Amoudi's lawyer, Stanley Cohen, as an attempt by Bush to come clean before November's presidential elections -- in case opponents attempt to use the incident against him. With Bush and top aides pointing repeatedly to Libya as a US "foreign policy success story" at a time when many of the administration's policies on Iraq and the Palestinian issue are being questioned, the revelation would be an embarrassment to say the least. It would reveal that the administration continued negotiating with Gaddafi last year while allegedly it knew the Libyan leader was behind a high-profile assassination plot.
The second scenario suggested is that hard-liners inside the Bush administration opposed to rapprochement with Libya are behind the leak. Speculations also underline an indirect role to US families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing who are also not happy to see a rapprochement between their country and the Libyan leader, despite the conclusion of a $2.7 billion compensation deal.
The Bush administration's reaction has been defensive and muted. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said that the US last year approached Libya about reports that the Gaddafi regime was "in contact with Saudi dissidents who have threatened violence against the Saudi royal family". "We raised those concerns directly with the Libyan leadership and they assured us that they would not support the use of violence for settling political differences with any state," Boucher said. He added that Washington was "monitoring Libya's behaviour carefully" and that "we have subsequently reinforced our concerns in various meetings, including meetings at high levels."
Bush was also keen to underline that "I do not talk to Colonel Gaddafi. I have sent a message to him that if he honours his commitments to resist terror and to fully disarm his weapons programmes, we will begin a process of normalisation, which we have done. We will make sure he honours his commitment."
The administration also will not reverse the reconciliation moves it took towards Libya. As a reward for Gaddafi's decision to dismantle weapons of mass destruction, the US in February lifted a ban on US citizens travelling to Libya and decided in April to relax a trade embargo, allowing US firms to buy oil from and invest in Libya for the first time since 1986. The revelation if proven will, according to Boucher, only "affect the pace of how we move forward on some issues, like the terrorism sanctions". US officials claimed that the investigation of the alleged assassination plot is one reason Libya has not been removed from a US State Department list of countries that support terrorism.
Meanwhile, news of the investigation that links Al-Amoudi with the assassination plot shocked Muslim activists who worked closely with Al-Amoudi, a pillar of northern Virginia's Muslim community and founder of numerous US Islamic groups including the American Muslim Council. Al-Amoudi was even an occasional White House visitor during the Clinton and Bush Jr administrations.
Al-Amoudi's lawyers are negotiating a plea agreement with the government in the hope that their client can avoid the life sentence he could face if convicted on the original charges. It is believed that information concerning the assassination plot is a part of a plea agreement. While Al-Amoudi claims only to have heard Gaddafi speaking about assassinating Prince Abdullah, prosecutors insist that he was implicated in a plot, and that he has confessed to it. Al-Amoudi reportedly told prosecutors that he met twice with Gaddafi in June and August of 2003, to discuss details of the assassination plot. In June, Colonel Gaddafi allegedly told him: "I want the crown prince killed, either through assassination or through a coup." By August, Al-Amoudi reportedly said that Gaddafi asked him why he had not yet seen "heads flying" in Saudi royal family.
However, both Al-Amoudi's lawyer and his aide, Ashraf Nubani, who has met with the Islamic activist recently in his jail cell, said that while Al-Amoudi is the source of statements linking Gaddafi to a plot to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah, he himself had no role in the plot. Al-Amoudi's supporters also are sceptical of reports quoting "a person familiar with Al-Amoudi's thinking" as saying that he became involved in the plot for money "not for the desire to see the Saudi ruler assassinated". According to them, someone as renowned and as well connected as Al-Amoudi would not have had to resort to such a scheme to find money.
They are also startled by what they see as a U-turn in the course of investigations. Al-Amoudi's trial is scheduled to begin in August on charges including violating US sanctions by taking money from a nation designated as a terrorist state. When Al-Amoudi was stopped by British authorities as he was boarding a flight to Syria with $340,000, he told investigators that he had accepted the money from the World Islamic Call Society, a Libyan-backed charity. Since he was jailed late last year, all reports have focussed on Al- Amoudi's possible support and link to Palestinian resistance group Hamas -- regarded by the US as a terrorist group -- and his alleged plans to transfer the money to them. There was no hint of an assassination plot until the publication of The New York Times report.
"I honestly doubt that Al-Amoudi is involved in the assassination plot. I think that he went to get money to support his causes and Gaddafi mentioned assassinating Prince Abdullah to him. I do not think he was in a way involved in such a conspiracy," Al-Khazen told the Weekly.
For Al-Khazen, however, reports of the assassination plot are old news. Al-Khazen wrote in his column only one day after The New York Times published its report that he personally had had information for about six months that Gaddafi was plotting the assassination of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Al-Khazen's source never mentioned Ismail or Al-Amoudi, nor had even heard of them. "When I read The New York Times story, it varied with everything that I had knew about the subject and my source is completely independent from Al-Amoudi or Ismail," Al-Khazen said. The source revealed to Al-Khazen during a visit by the latter to Saudi Arabia that on "several occasions" Gaddafi had told him "he wants to assassinate Prince Abdullah".
According to such information, Al-Khazen believes that Al- Amoudi started thinking when he was at prison that he can tell his prosecutors a far more important story, "that he heard Gaddafi conspiring to kill Prince Abdullah," to lessen accusations that he is supporting Hamas or "Islamic causes that Americans object to".
"I hope Libya will not face the same fate as Iraq," Al-Khazen reflects. "Gaddafi has committed all imaginable and unimaginable mistakes from the day he took over in 1969. However, I hope it will stop at that. Maybe it will be a final lesson to him; that he cannot expect to be involved in terrorism and get away with it. I hope he will learn his lesson."