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In bid to thwart al Qaeda, Libya frees three leaders of jihadist group

By Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank, CNN
  • "The leaders still have big credibility" among jihadist, ex-LIFG commander tells CNN
  • Saif al Islam al Gadhafi was motivated to stop al Qaeda's growing influence in Libya
  • Around 40 other members of the LIFG also were released among 200 prisoners

(CNN) -- Libyan authorities Tuesday released three top leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, successfully concluding a three-year peace process that has produced an alliance against al Qaeda.

"This was a big event," Noman Benotman, a former commander in the LIFG and a key intermediary in the peace talks, told CNN. "The leaders still have big credibility in the jihadist movement, and they can now play a big role in the future in countering al Qaeda's ideology. Al Qaeda [leaders] are not going to be happy about this."

In September, the leaders of the LIFG -- once on close personal terms with al Qaeda's leaders -- formally ended the group's nearly two decades of armed struggle against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya. It issued a 417-page religious document, "Corrective Studies," repudiating al Qaeda's ideology.

At the time, counterterrorism experts viewed the document -- in essence a new code for jihad -- as one of the most important breakthroughs against al Qaeda post-9/11.

Al Qaeda [leaders] are not going to be happy about this.
--Noman Benotman, former LIFG commander and a key intermediary

The breakthrough in September was the result of two years of intense and secret talks between the leaders of the LIFG and Libyan security officials, initiated and overseen by Saif al Islam al Gadhafi, the second eldest son of Libya's leader. He made a personal promise to the leaders of the LIFG that in return, they would eventually be released.

Benotman told CNN the three leaders released Tuesday from Abu Salim prison in Tripoli were Abdullah Sadeeq, the group's emir; Abu Mundhir al Saadi, the group's religious guide; and Abu Hazem, the deputy leader of the group.

Around 40 other members of the group also were released among more than 200 jihadist prisoners released Tuesday. The release orders came directly from the elder Gadhafi himself.

In September, several jihadist critics of the LIFG's revisions argued that the document lacked legitimacy because it was authored from prison.

"They [LIFG leaders] are now out of prison and will be able to defend their own arguments," Benotman told CNN, adding, "They wrote what they wrote and now they will be able to walk the talk."

The code's most direct challenge to al Qaeda is this: "Jihad has ethics and morals because it is for God. That means it is forbidden to kill women, children, elderly people, priests, messengers, traders and the like. Betrayal is prohibited, and it is vital to keep promises and treat prisoners of war in a good way. Standing by those ethics is what distinguishes Muslims' jihad from the wars of other nations."

In essence, the new code for jihad is exactly what the West has been waiting for -- a credible challenge from within jihadist ranks to al Qaeda's ideology.

Saif al Islam al Gadhafi was motivated not just to bring a formal end to the civil war but to put a stop to al Qaeda's growing influence in Libya. As recently as 2006, al Qaeda documents captured by U.S. forces in Iraq showed that per capita more Libyans than citizens in any other Arab nation were joining al Qaeda's fight. The regime's fear was that they'd bring their fight back to Libya.

The respect with which the LIFG is held in jihadist circles will likely hurt al Qaeda's recruiting efforts in Libya and further afield.

"If someone from the government starts talking [about] how bad is that terrorist activities it will not be received in the same way as when it comes from the leaders of the terrorist group because [they] have more credibility," Saif al Islam Gadhafi told CNN in an exclusive interview in September.

Al Saadi, the group's religious guide, was a figure greatly respected by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. In Afghanistan in the late 1990s, he was also a close confidant to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who viewed him -- not bin Laden -- as "the emir of the Arabs," according to sources.

According to Libyan sources, Saif al Islam al Gadhafi lobbied hard in recent months for the LIFG leaders to be released in the face of some resistance from security officials. Key to the breakthrough was the support of Abdullah al Sanussi, a powerful figure within Libyan security services.

Three other LIFG leaders remain in prison but are expected to be released in the coming months along with more than 200 other prisoners, according to Libyan sources.

The peace deal will help pave the way for the political opening and economic modernization of Libya, Saif al Islam al Gadhafi told CNN in September.

"We have enough problems in Libya, we want to fight poverty, we want to upgrade our economy, we want to enhance the standard of living," he said. "We have terrible problems with the education system, with the health ... but if we keep fighting each other, we are the first victims of terror."