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State of Internal Security

In the late 1980s, many segments of Libyan society deeply resented the authoritarian nature of the Libyan government under Qadhafi. The extent of silent opposition could not be assessed with certainty but has been estimated at more than 50 percent by outside observers. Dissent was hard to measure because all news media were strictly controlled to serve as instruments of the state, and no forms of association were permitted without the endorsement of the regime. Citizens were fearful of voicing discontent or uttering critical opinions that might be reported by a widespread informer network. Punishment for open dissent was arbitrary and could be extraordinarily severe.

Internal security mechanisms reaching into every corner of Libyan society, and fears of harsh retribution have successfully prevented antipathy to Qadhafi's actions from reaching a stage of public demonstrations or open questioning. As many as 50,000 Libyans--mostly from the more prosperous classes--have taken up residence abroad, but the opposition groups that have sprung up among the exiles have not presented a convincing threat to the regime (see Opposition to Qaddafi , ch. 4).

Numerous attempts have been launched to overturn Qadhafi's rule. In most instances, these attempts have originated among military officers who have access to weapons and the necessary communications and organizational networks. In no case, however, did they appear to come near to achieving their goal. The effectiveness of the internal security apparatus and the infiltration of officers loyal to Qadhafi have frustrated most plots before they could develop sufficiently to have a chance of success.

Among the reported coup attempts, possibly the most widespread was uncovered among disaffected officers of the RCC in 1975. A large number of personnel were tried in secret by a military court, with many sentenced to death and hundreds condemned to long prison terms. An undisclosed number of officers and civilians were arrested in an abortive coup in January 1983; five officers were executed, including the deputy commander of the People's Militia. A coup attempt, reportedly involving bloody fighting in front of the fortified barracks where Qadhafi resides in a Tripoli suburb, occurred in May 1984. According to the United States Department of State, over 5,000 were arrested, many tortured, and perhaps more than 100 executed. A leading opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, took credit for this failed operation, although Qadhafi blamed the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another reported plot in March 1985 was said to have been foiled when it was infiltrated by persons loyal to Qadhafi. Some sixty military officers, disgruntled over the country's economic mismanagement and extravagance, were said to have been arrested.

A further instance of disaffection occurred in November 1985. Colonel Hassan Ishkal, a senior officer and military governor of Surt, was reportedly summarily executed after being summoned to Qadhafi's headquarters. It was believed that he had broken with Qadhafi over the interference of revolutionary guards in the military and over Qadhafi's adventurist foreign policies.

Because of these coup attempts, protective security surrounding Qadhafi was carried to unusual lengths. His travel plans were concealed and changed abruptly, his patterns of residence were disguised, and he moved about in a heavily armored convoy. His personal bodyguard was composed of a Presidential Guard, drawn from his own tribal group. Moreover, there were reports that Qadhafi constantly moved senior military officers from one command to another so that no officer could develop a unified command capable of threatening the regime.

The major instrument used by Qadhafi to detect and avert coup attempts was an extensive internal security apparatus. As of early 1987, details of the salient features of the security organization were generally lacking. The system installed in the early 1970s with Egyptian help was modeled on its Egyptian counterpart and was once described as "composed of several overlapping but autonomously directed intelligence machines." As it further evolved, internal security functioned on several levels, beginning with Qadhafi's personal bodyguard unit (reportedly given technical assistance by East German advisers). The secret service and, at a lower level, the police were constantly on the alert for suspicious conduct, as were the revolutionary committees and the Basic People's Congresses. The committees constituted an effective informer network and may also act independently of other security agencies when authorized and encouraged by Qadhafi. This multilayered complex assured tight control over the activity of individuals in virtually every community.

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Although published data on the Libyan armed forces is limited and often contradictory, some details can be found in the article on Libya by Gwynne Dyer in the compendium, World Armies. Additionally, assessments of Libyan military capabilities in relation to other armies of the Middle East are available in The Middle East Military Balance (ed. Mark Heller). A number of aspects of the role of military power in Qadhafi's regime are treated in Richard B. Parker's North Africa: Regional Tensions and Strategic Concerns. Reports by the United States Department of State, The Libyan Problem (1983) and Libya Under Qadhafi: A Pattern of Aggression (1986) summarize much of what is known of Libya's attempts to subvert other governments, to assassinate its opponents in exile, and to support international terrorism. Libyan relations with the Soviet Union are analyzed in Lisa Anderson's "Qadhafi and the Kremlin." Events in Chad and other developments involving the Libyan military are reviewed in the monthly Africa Research Bulletin and in Keesing's Contemporary Archives. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of 1987

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