Hoover Daily Report

Gadhafi and the Vanished Imam

via Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The law has tarried, but a measure of justice has been served. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, for his favorite son Saif al-Islam, and for the head of the regime's security apparatus. They stand accused of "crimes against humanity" for targeting their own countrymen in a murderous effort to cling to power.

Crimes against humanity are nothing new for Gadhafi. They've been the staple of his regime. The prosecutors will not lack for evidence of brutalities, but they might want to begin with a Gadhafi crime that took place a little more than three decades ago—the kidnapping and murder of a luminary of the Shiite religious class, Imam Musa al-Sadr, and two of his companions.

In the summer of 1978, Sadr, the leader of Lebanon's Shiites, and two companions went to Libya to take part in a celebration of Gadhafi's military revolution. The charismatic cleric, who had all but remade the world of Shiite Lebanon, was never heard from again.

The Libyans insisted that the three men had left Tripoli for Rome on an Alitalia flight. But their claim was clearly bogus (no flight records could be found), and the matter of the "vanished imam" never went away. In 2009, Lebanon's Judicial Council indicted Gadhafi and 16 of his aides in the matter of kidnapping Imam Musa al-Sadr.

It was inevitable that the tumult in Libya would call up yet again the mystery of Sadr's disappearance. The vanished imam, one rumor has it, is alive and well, detained in a Libyan prison, now 83 years of age. But operatives of the Libyan regime have recently admitted that the imam was indeed killed while on his brief visit.

The murder was done, they claim, at the behest of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Gadhafi was more than willing to do Arafat's bidding. The Shiites and the Palestinians had opened up a small war of their own over southern Lebanon. Sadr had wearied of the Palestinians and their anarchy and bravado, of the state within a state they had built in Lebanon. Literate and stylish, he hadn't been cut out for the role of a militia leader, but he had taken the plunge. Arms were the adornment of men, he told his followers, as he put together a militia of his own, the Amal Movement, and traveled to foreign lands for support.

For Sadr, that passage to Libya was one of ill-omen. He was last seen in public in a Tripoli hotel on Aug. 31, 1978. He told a group of Lebanese visitors that he was on his way to a meeting with Gadhafi. On Sept. 1, the celebration Sadr had come to attend had taken place, but the cleric was nowhere to be seen. When questioned, the Libyans routinely answered that he and his companions had left for Rome. Gadhafi had men in Lebanon—newspapers he financed, gangsters who saw in him the second coming of a pan-Arab redeemer—and they put the word out that Sadr might have made his way back to Iran for the unfolding struggle between the shah and Ayatollah Khomeini.

Sectarianism, rancid and vicious, hung over the affair: A self-styled Bedouin Sunni ruler doing in a turbaned Shiite cleric, and a Persian at that. This was to play out a month after Sadr's disappearance. Gadhafi had come to Damascus, and a vast Shiite outpouring descended on that city, eager to know of their leader's fate. Four clerics confronted Gadhafi. The imam, they said, was a mortal man, his people could understand and accept his death. But they could not accept that he could just disappear, be "dissolved like some grain of salt." Gadhafi had no satisfaction to offer. "I am told that Musa al-Sadr is an Iranian; is he not?" he inquired. Lines were being drawn—between Arabs and Persians, between Sunnis and Shiites.

A decent man tried to broker this feud, King Hussein of Jordan, himself a Sunni claiming descent from the prophet. He wrote to Gadhafi: These are "sensitive times," he said, for Palestinians and Lebanese alike, "help us with this matter so we can help you, with God's permission."

It was all to no avail. There would remain the persistent rumors—a sighting of the imam in this or that prison, a deal yet to be brokered on his behalf by the new clerical regime in Qom. And there would of course play upon Shiites of Lebanon a visceral hatred for the Libyan ruler.

In retrospect, this was Gadhafi's debut—the criminal audacity of the man, his indifference to the canons of his culture. This was still a time when large numbers of Arabs took the man seriously. (Not so, it should be noted, Egypt's Anwar Sadat, who dubbed him "the crazy boy" and dismissed his hallucinatory Green Book of political tenets as a "toaster manual" purporting to speak to the problems of international governance.)

True, Gadhafi now kills and wars against his own people, and Arabs squirm when they ponder him—"the king of the kings of Africa," he called himself, after giving up on the Arabs. But it was the Arab world that made Gadhafi and other strongmen in the region. They chanted their names, excused their crimes, believed their bogus promises. Until now. Until the Arab Spring.

That shameful silence, in the summer of 1978, in the face of a good man's murder, foreshadowed the future. Gadhafi would go on to commit bigger crimes—he would bring down French and American airliners and bomb discotheques, he would war against his neighbors. In time, he would launch a war against his own population. But truly in that summer we had seen what was to come.

Some NATO planners are worried that we might yet make a martyr of the tyrant if the military campaign against him were to succeed. This is but a variant of the soft bigotry of low expectations. If and when the end comes for Gadhafi, he shall fall alone. In Beirut and Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, and in the streets of Iran and Shiite Iraq—where Musa al-Sadr still enjoys a saintly aura—there shall be joy. The undoing of Gadhafi would be seen as the grant of belated justice.

Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is co-chair of the Hoover Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.