12 March, 2011

Libya's Tantalising Archives

When the unrest gripping the Arab world spread to Libya and the regime there started looking shaky I must admit to having experienced a certain excitement. It is always great to see a brutal dictator like Colonel Gaddafi being overthrown by his people, even if he is a rather colourful character who brings a certain excitement to the normally bland world of international relations. More than that, though, were the treats that could become available to researchers if the regime fell and its archives became accessible. Some quantification of the level of support given by Gaddafi to the IRA in the 1980s would be fascinating. Particularly interesting would be the possibility of getting some answers to some questions that have divided opinion for the last number of years.

Older readers will recall how in 1986 the Americans bombed Libya, killing one of Gaddafi's adopted children in a botched attempt to decapitate his regime by taking him out*. This was ostensibly a response to the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin frequented by US servicemen. Now, at the time there was some discussion over whether Libya really had any hand or part in the Berlin bombing, with some suggestion that it had been perpetrated by figures linked to other unsavoury Middle Eastern regimes but seized on by the USA as a handy stick with which to beat the then-troublesome Gaddafi. It would be interesting to see what Libyan archives had to say about the Berlin bombing.

A controversy of more recent vintage is the dispute over the release from prison in Scotland of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan man convicted for planting the bomb that brought down an American airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. Doubts had been raised as to the safety of al-Megrahi's conviction and he had been appealing against the original verdict before he was released (his dropping of that appeal was a condition of his release, which meant conveniently that the arguments against his original conviction were never stated in open court). Libyan secret service archives might shed some light on the Lockerbie bombing, perhaps revealing whether he had been involved in the bomb plot, whether he had not but other Libyans had, or whether Libya had nothing whatsoever to do with the Lockerbie bombing (as has been suggested by some writers, who point the figure at certain other shady regimes).

Now, it might be naïve to expect Libyan archives to shed light on these fascinating questions. In the event of regime collapse, incriminating documents might well end up being destroyed before they can be accessed, or any newly emergent Libyan regime might itself be loth to let random academics and researchers trawl around in what would still be very sensitive files. And the people who may have been involved in organising shady events may well have taken care to keep their efforts out of potentially troublesome files. In any case, after initial successes, it does rather look like the Libyan rebels have rather run out of steam. Gaddafi looks like his thuggish rule will be continuing for some time, at least in part of Libya, so the opening up of the country's archives will probably not be happening any time soon.

EDIT: I forgot to mention the curious case of Musa Sadr. Sadr is not exactly a household name in Ireland, but in Lebanon you will still see posters of this Shia Muslim cleric in parts of the country where his co-religionists live. Musa Sadr founded the political movement that subsequently acquired the name Amal as a secular political movement for the then impoverished Shia Muslims of Lebanon. In 1978 he disappeared while visiting Libya, widely believed to have been murdered by Gaddafi's secret service. Again, Libya's archives have the potential to confirm Musa Sadr's fate, and to cast light on the reasons for his murder.

From Hunting Monsters

*though I see on Wikipedia that it has been argued that this adopted daughter of Gaddafi was essentially made up for propaganda purposes, not that anyone is denying that actual Libyan people were killed in the bombing raid.

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