Troubled history

The British-Libyans who are opposing Gaddafi have faced a history filled with terrorism, assassinations and violence.

Newspaper clippings of 1980s hit-squad

Newspaper clippings of 1980s hit-squad

Shortly after Benghazi fell to Libyan rebels Omar al Sodani was arrested for being a senior member of Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Committee. Unlike other prisoners that were captured Omar’s history goes back decades and links him to one of the most notorious events in UK-Libya relations.

Whilst he denies the claim, the rebels believe Omar was inside the Libyan embassy when, on the 17th April 1984, someone fired a sub-machine gun from within the building at an anti-Gaddafi protest taking place outside. 11 people were injured and 25-year-old PC Yvonne Fletcher was killed.

Alan Wooller was a metropolitan police officer in 1984 and was among those who had been called to the scene. He had worked alongside Yvonne Fletcher in the early 1980s.

The shooting led to an 11 day siege of the embassy. I spoke to a man who was a Detective Constable with the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terrorist branch at the time.

It was finally decided by the upper levels of government to allow the Libyan embassy staff to leave the county. Their diplomatic status meant that none of the staff could be searched; this meant that no-one was held accountable for the shooting, a decision which has since proved controversial.

Guma El-Gamaty, 54, is now the UK co-ordinator for the Benghazi based National Transitional Council, the political front of the uprising. In 1984 he was one of the organisers of the demonstration outside the Libyan embassy and was there when the shots were fired. He spoke to me about the repercussions of the shooting for Gaddafi’s opponents.

Whilst extreme, this shooting wasn’t an isolated incident. Early in the morning of the 11th March 1984 a bomb ripped apart a car outside an apartment block in Manchester. Two hours later a second bomb that had been placed closer to the building exploded, injuring several people inside.

The bombs had been planted by a hit-squad, sent to the UK by Gaddafi to eliminate political opponents overseas. One of those opponents was Hisham Ben Ghalbon, secretary of the Libyan Constitutional Union, one of the main opposition groups to Gaddafi’s regime at the time.

Hisham Ben Ghalbon talks about being on Gaddafi's hit-list

Hisham Ben Ghalbon talks about being on Gaddafi's hit-list

The bombing took place against a backdrop of attacks on UK soil. Four years earlier three Libyans had been murdered and in 1984 a wave of bombings took place, mostly targeting Arabic newspaper kiosks in London which sold opposition literature.

This bombing campaign was stepped up by a hit-squad tasked with assassinating Hisham and his brother, as together they had founded the Libyan Constitutional Union.  

For Gaddafi’s opponents in the UK like Hisham, Yvonne Fletcher’s tragic death would ultimately save them. After such an inconceivable action, the government had no option but to crackdown on Gaddafi’s agents. After months of round the clock police protection Hisham could finally breathe easily.

Since Yvonne Fletcher’s death the UK-Libyan relationship has seen many dramatic turns. The most infamous was the Lockerbie bombing on the 21st December 1988 which cemented Gaddafi’s Libya as a pariah state.

After over a decade in the diplomatic cold, Libya sought to ingratiate itself with Western Powers rather than oppose them. This was signaled most clearly by the Libyan regime  in 2003 when they acknowledged responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay nearly $3 billion in compensation to the victim’s families. This policy of reintegration seemed to be working, as by 2009 many states including Italy,the UK, and the U.S. had made statements of increasing cordiality with Gaddafi.

This ebb and flow of antagonism and support has touched upon the UK’s Libyan community. Guma El-Gamaty spoke to me about how opposition to Gaddafi within the UK has changed over the years.

The uprising has shown just how raw these events still are in the Libyan psyche, as it wasn’t long after the protests began that Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil, former Justice Secretary of Libya claimed in an interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen that he had proof Gaddafi had personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing. These revelations, if true, suggests that the ripples from the past decades of the UK’s relationship with Libya are far from settled.


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