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Was Britain Behind Gadaffi’s Coup in 1969?

The First World War saw the Senussi leader Sayyid Ahmed al Sharif join with the Ottoman State in its battle with the British and Italians. In 1915 the Senussi were decisively defeated in battle at Mersa Matruh, whereupon Sharif gave up control to his cousin Sayyid Mohammed Idris, later to be known as King Idris 1.

Sayyid Idris promptly made peace with Britain. In 1922 in the face of Mussolini’s aim of re-conquering Libya the Tripolitanians offered to recognise Idris as Amir of all Libya. However, Idris went into exile shortly after in Egypt. The defeat of Italy in the second World War saw Britain bring back the exiled Sayyid Idris.

In December 1951 Libya became independent under a hereditary monarchy. Libya joined the Arab League in 1953 and then signed a twenty-year treaty of friendship and alliance with Britain. In return for military facilities Britain promised to give Libya £1 million a year in economic aid, more than $2 million in budgetary aid over five years and arms supplies. In September 1954 an agreement was signed with the United States worth $42 million in aid over ten years in exchange for the US being allowed to keep its airbase at Wheelus outside Tripoli.

In spite of King Idris’s relationship with Britain and the USA, both governments were anxious about Idris’s standing in Libya. King Idris’s government was in a mess and under threat, as a secret 1960 US National Security Council Report, entitled: “US policy towards Libya” shows: “There is little loyalty to him [the King] among the younger urban elements who do not have significant political power now, but who will have such power in the future. Although there are no political parties in Libya there are a number of loose political factions and interest groups and pan-Arab nationalism has considerable appeal, particularly to the younger urban elements.”

The report goes on to say: “Although the British would be reluctant to intervene with force in Libya to maintain a regime favourable to their interests, they would probably do so if it seemed the only way to preserve their position.”

The scene was set. the British backed King was losing his grip, Britain needed a new face to hold onto power if its interests were to be preserved. The new face would have to be capable of appealing to the new mood sweeping through the Arab world, that of Nasserism and Arab nationalism. Was Gadaffi the man for the job?
Muammar Gadaffi was born in the desert, some twenty miles south of Sirte in Libya. The exact date of birth is unknown but is thought to be some time around 1940. His father and mother were bedouin from the tribe of Gaddadfa.

Gadaffi enrolled in primary school in Sirte where he stayed until he was fourteen, when his family moved to the town of Sebha in the Fezzan. His father, Mohammed Abdul Salam bin Hamed bin Mohammed, became the caretaker of a local property belonging to Seif al Nasser Mohammed, a local tribal leader. Gadaffi enrolled at the Sebha secondary school.

It is reported that Gadaffi began his political activities while still at secondary school. He gathered around him Abdul Salam Jalloud, Hussein Sharif, Ibrahim Ibjad and Mohammed Khalil. Influenced and inspired by the speeches of Gamal Abdul Nasser, in October 1961 he organised a demonstration to protest against Syria’s decision to break its agreement of unity with Egypt. This brought him to the attention of the local authorities. Twenty students were arrested and Gadaffi was hauled up before the head of the town’s ruling family, Seif al Nasser Mohammed. Gadaffi was expelled from school.

Strangely the authorities showed compassion. Seif al Nasser Mohammed found Gadaffi a place at another school in Misurata. However, because Gadaffi was 19 and too old to enroll at a secondary school an official in the municipal department in Sabha gave him a false birth certificate. At the secondary school Gadaffi’s group began to grow. According to Gadaffi he had thousands of supporters at this stage. It is said that he and his colleagues were disciplined and hard working and had tapped into the sea of discontent that existed under King Idris.

In spite of being known by the police and the Libyan security services, in 1963 Gadaffi enrolled in the Royal Libyan Military Academy in Benghazi. Gadaffi ‘s plan was to join the army and subvert it.

The Libyan army was small, about 5000 men, and the officers were trained by the British. According to a British non-commissioned officer quoted by David Blundy & Andrew Lycett in their biography on Gadaffi, Gadaffi was protected at the academy by the Libyan commander in chief. The strange thing is that the British military advisers were well aware that Gadaffi was planning some form of subversion. The British adviser’s role was to keep an eye on the Libyan army and they made regular reports to the British embassy. Another officer Colonel Ted Lough is reported as saying that as early as 1965 he believed the conditions in Libya were ripe for revolution and his main suspect was Gadaffi. Lough made a series of reports on Gadaffi to the British intelligence in Libya, the commercial attaché at the British embassy in Tripoli. Five years before Gadaffi was to make his coup he was on file with the British government as a key suspect.

In 1966, in spite of Captain Lough’s reports that Gadaffi was a murderer, a possible assassin and a revolutionary, Gadaffi was granted permission to attend a four-month training course in Britain. He spent four weeks at Beaconsfield and three months at the Royal Armoured Corps headquarters in Bovington in Dorset.

Either British intelligence was incompetent, amazingly so, or the powers to be were cooking something!

According to various reports Libya after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was ripe for a coup. In 1969 it is reported that at least three different groups were preparing to make a coup. Former Libyan Prime Minister Bakoush who resigned in 1968 said that he heard about Gadaffi’s coup attempt two months before it took place. At the time he was the Libyan ambassador in Paris. He maintains that he went to the American embassy and talked to the CIA station chief. He also claims that he went to see King Idris in Turkey and told him of the plan. Idris refused to go back to Libya.

In fact the King had already decided that he would resign. On holiday in Greece and Turkey, Idris called the head of the Libyan parliament and the head of the upper house to Greece and handed them his letter of abdication.

According to Sir Peter Wakefield then counselor and consul-general at the British embassy in Benghazi, the British government also knew of the King’s intention to abdicate!

The choice facing Britain was either to accept an orderly transfer of power, with the successor given King Idris’s seal of approval, or a staged coup d’état that would be seen as having no link with the previous government. The King was unpopular, it made sense therefore to break with this association.

Accordingly, with the King on holiday plans were laid for the coup. The coup d’état took place on 1 September 1969 and by all accounts was something of a farce. The first foreigner to know about the coup was Peter Wakefield who just happened to bump into a group of men wearing fatigues and carrying guns at 5am near the seafront. Thus London was the first to know of the change in government. Britain took no action to support Idris.

The British Foreign Secretary at the time, Michael Stewart claimed that the Foreign Office was concerned about the instability of King Idris’s regime, but had no knowledge of a coup. This runs contrary to the reports given by military personnel, such as Colonel Lough.

Four months after the coup a group of army officers, led by Colonels Adam Hawaz and Musa Ahmed, attempted to take power away from Gadaffi. There is strong evidence which suggests that Gadaffi was tipped off about the coup attempt by Western intelligence agencies. John Cooley in his book Libyan Sandstorm, points the finger at the CIA. A second attempt in June of 1970 was also uncovered.

A third attempt planned for March 1971 is described by Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville in the “Hilton Assignment”. They relate how an attempt by Omar al Shehli, former counsellor to King Idris exiled in Geneva, tried to hire a British security firm headed by a retired British army colonel, David Stirling, to make a coup against Gadaffi. According to Seale and McConville, Stirling was warned by the British secret service to drop the coup attempt, which he did. At the same time Stirling’s associate James Kent was approached by Major al Houni, one of Gadaffi’s closest colleagues in the Revolutionary Command Council, to assassinate Omar al Shehli.

These incidents demonstrate there was a Western, and in particular British, veto on any attempt to topple Gadaffi.

From an article in Khilafah Magazine, June 1991


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