Qadhafi's 9/11 Fears

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Muammar Al-Ghadhaffi in Tripoli, Libya in 2004

Will we be hit again? With ruins still smoldering at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, that was the question on the mind of every American in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. But it also appeared to have been a major concern of none other than Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi.

Qadhafi — who was behind the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing that killed 270, as well as the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco that killed three — was "hysterical" with fear that he'd be targeted by the U.S. for vengeance after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, according to a newly declassified Sept. 20, 2001, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt.

Concerned that the U.S. would attack Libya again (U.S. air strikes reportedly just missed Qadhafi in his tent, in a retaliatory attack after the Berlin bombing), Qadhafi began to "call every Arab leader on his Rolodex" to lobby for an Arab summit, the cable says. U.S. diplomats had learned, from sources whose identity appears to be blacked out, that "Qadhafi was concerned that he had no direct communications with the [U.S. government] other than through his speeches," according to the cable. U.S. embassy officials were told "that Qadhafi had sounded hysterical in his telephone call to [Jordan's] King Abdullah, as if only the King's personal intervention would prevent U.S. action."

The cable puts a new perspective on Qadhafi's renunciation of his nuclear weapons program in December 2003, after starting talks on the matter around the time U.S. bombs were beginning to fall on Baghdad in March. At the time, the Bush administration hailed Qadhafi's move as proof that its tough tactics against countries with weapons of mass destruction was working. But this cable shows that Qadhafi was gravely concerned about American intentions in the new global war on terrorism at least 18 months before the Iraq war.

Qadhafi was not alone in his fears, according to the cable, which was provided to TIME by Judicial Watch, an investigative watchdog group. Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, Osama bin Laden's onetime refuge, also implored other Arab leaders to vouch for his lack of involvement in 9/11 and hold an Arab summit. The idea, apparently, was to try to show solidarity with the U.S. and other U.S.-friendly Arab regimes. "The Sudanese and Libyans sounded very afraid to their Egyptian and other interlocutors," the cable says. The Sudanese ambassador "had a quivering voice" in a call to the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs, the cable says, and Sudanese president Bashir's message to Mubarak "was more an urgent plea for help than a reasoned discussion.... The Sudanese still seemed to believe themselves a likely target."

Yet "Qadhafi may be even more afraid," the cable says, "despite the more solicitous Egyptian response," which included a Sept. 17, 2001, trip to Tripoli in which Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher quietly met with the Libyan leader.

A U.S. State Department official says that Qadhafi was doubtless afraid for his hide after Sept. 11, but that even past sponsors of terrorism such as Qadhafi appeared genuinely disgusted by the attacks. "I think fear played a part," with the wounds of Pan Am 103 "still very much open," the official said. "But there was a degree of revulsion" at the attacks as well. Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, says the cable he unearthed also reveals the Libyan and Sudanese leaders were aware that 9/11 made it likely they would be called to account for "their past record." And it took the threat of retaliation after the attacks on the U.S. homeland to get their attention. "I think the documents indicate that that's what speaks to them — force. Force and serious threats of force," Fitton says.

Sudanese and Libyan diplomats in Washington did not return phone calls for comment.