Kenneth Noble
Kenneth Noble

Fellowship Title:

The United States, Libya and the Liberian Civil War

Kenneth Noble
April 24, 1998

Fellowship Year

Note: The pictures published with this story are copyrighted and not available for reproduction.


MONROVIA, Liberia — The Liberian civil war strikes many Westerners as a incomprehensible jumble of tribes, feuding warlords and senseless mayhem. How else can one describe what began as an effort to overthrow a much-loathed despot — Samuel Kanyon Doe — and ended seven years later with hundreds of thousands of people having been slaughtered in the genocidal aggression that became the war’s signature? Put those facts together, along with an assortment of child soldiers, torturers and death squad assassins, and the result is a conflict that is the epitome of African war: bizarre and perplexing to the outsider, and apparently meaningless.

Noble01.jpgMaster Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, Liberia’s former chief of state, flourished a walkie-talkie radio as he posed with members of the ruling “People’s Redemption Council,” shortly after the 1980 overthrow of President William R. Tolbert Jr. Doe and Liberia’s revolutionary government declared martial law and suspended the nation’s 133-year-old constitution.

In an influential April 1994 Atlantic Monthly article, journalist Robert Kaplan voiced fears that Liberia and its troubled neighbor, Sierra Leone, are part of a growing “zone of anarchy,” where armed young men fight not because of faith or ideology, but because they have little else to do. His nightmarish vision, which has gained many adherents, is of a region driven by rampant joblessness and overpopulation, of unraveling families and ecological disaster, and the inexorable rise of a culture of violence.

Noble02.jpgLibyan President Moammar Qaddhafi, right, and South African President Nelson Mandela, salute a crowd in Zuwarah, 60 miles west of Tripoli, in 1997. Mandela stopped in Libya on his way back from the Commonwealth summit in Scotland to honor Qaddhafi with the Cape Horn award, the highest South African honor to foreign figures.

The trouble with this scenario is that several important players — the United States, and Libya and its strongman, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — are missing. Since 1816, when Congress chartered the American Colonization Society to begin organizing ship caravans of free slaves who wanted to return to the land of their forefathers, the U.S. has remained a major presence in Liberia. The range of opinions here on this subject is extremely narrow. The only debate is over semantics; whether Liberia should be called an American colony, or merely its vassal state.

Libya’s involvement in Liberia is more recent, but just as compelling. Beginning in the mid-1980’s, Col. Qaddafi bankrolled almost anyone who asked for help in overthrowing the ruinous Doe regime, including the man whose fighters eventually succeeded in doing so, the American-educated warlord Charles Taylor. It is doubtful, however, that the Libyan leader really cared who would take over following Doe’s downfall. Qaddafi’s real motive was revenge.

He wanted to get back at the United States for frustrating Libya’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East and Africa.

What brought the simmering rivalry between these two foreign powers to violence was a confluence of events: U.S. pressure on Liberia to sever its ties with Libya, Libya’s response, which was to give arms and money to Liberian dissident groups, and the decision of Charles Taylor, the biggest recipient of Col. Qaddafi’s largesse, to invade Liberia in December 1989.

These events, little known outside of Liberia, are the main elements of the story that emerged from weeks of traveling across West Africa and from scores of interviews with Liberians, diplomats and others who have followed the conflict from its earliest days. It is a story that is still unfolding, with Taylor’s victory in Liberia’s presidential election.

With Taylor’s victory, Col. Qadaffi’s role in recent Liberian history has come full circle. Samuel Dokie, a longtime political activist who trained in Libya with Taylor during the early months of the war, put it simply: “Taylor is Qaddafi’s surrogate” and his election is also “Qaddafi’s biggest victory in Africa.”

Noble03.jpgFormer Liberian President Samuel Doe at the last press conference he held at the Executive Mansion in Monrovia, June 1st, 1990.

The story begins in the spring of 1980, shortly after Doe, an untutored twenty-eight-year-old army sergeant, shot and bayoneted President William R. Tolbert, Jr. Almost immediately, Doe found himself beleaguered on several fronts. For one thing, the government was effectively bankrupt. For another, Tolbert’s reservoir of good will in the region, built over nine years as Liberia’s president and as chairman of the Organization of African Unity, had become a major obstacle: Doe was a pariah to his African neighbors. Making matters worse, the United States, Liberia’s longtime ally and benefactor, wanted nothing to do with Tolbert’s murderers.

Libya, meanwhile, was having its own troubles. Col. Qaddafi’s recent effort to annex Chad was sending ripples of concern across Africa; Libya’s neighbors, particularly Egypt, the Sudan and Nigeria, warned that they would resist attempts to destabilize and subvert their nations.

Liberia’s fledgling new government, however, was in no position to complain about Libya’s global ambitions. Qaddafi spied an opportunity and seized it. Just days after the coup, Libya announced with much fanfare that it would recognize the new Doe regime — becoming the first nation to do so — and moved quickly to establish full diplomatic relations.

For Doe, Libya’s blandishments, along with its vague promises of loans and grants, were a potential bonanza. For Qaddafi, Liberia represented another step in his often-expressed dream of building a pan-Islamic African federation across the continent.

Given that Liberia was once one of Washington’s closest friends in Africa and Colonel Qaddafi was one of its chief enemies, U.S. intelligence officials found plenty to worry about in the budding partnership. “We were barely settled when I started getting calls from the embassy urging us to back off, distance ourselves from Libya,” recalls George Boley, a senior cabinet member and one of Doe’s closest advisers.

There were myriad reasons for Washington’s agitation. For one thing, Libya was zealously anti-Israel; it was also scorned for having close ties to the Soviet Union. Most grievously, however, was Libya’s long record of giving money and sanctuary to an A-list of terrorists, from the Abu Nidal group to the Irish Republican Army to Marxist revolutionaries in Central America.

And Washington’s discomfort with Libya rose several notches when word went out that Doe had accepted an invitation from Qaddafi to visit Tripoli in December 1980.

Doe’s motive was money.

“We were having problems with cash flow to meet salaries for Christmas, and we realized that we weren’t going to have the money,” said Gabriel Bacchus Matthews, Liberia’s foreign minister during the early years of the Doe regime. “The Libyan’s had been pushing for Doe to make a visit, and they wanted to know what the problems were, and how they could be helpful, and in the end we proceeded to go. The Libyans were very excited.”

Noble04.jpgAccording to Liberia’s foreign minister, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Moose, center, brought $10 million in cash to Liberia in 1980 to prevent then-President Doe from seeking money from Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Concerned about Libyan expansionism, the Americans wanted badly for Doe to stay home and indicated that they were now prepared to deal with the new government. Doe’s terms were simple: he wanted cash.

“In the end,” Matthews said in an interview, Richard Moose, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, flew “in here on a chartered aircraft, with $10 million in cash, so that Doe wouldn’t go to Libya.”

The American reaction to the Libyan trip offered an important lesson, Liberian officials said: any reservations Washington may have had about the Doe regime paled in comparison to their dislike for Qaddafi.

Doe put that knowledge to use the following spring as he approached the first anniversary of the coup. As it happens, Doe was fascinated with air shows and had become fixated on the idea of putting on a flying exhibition, complete with stunt planes and precision parachute jumping, to celebrate his rise to power.

An air show was not just a way of providing entertainment, Matthews said. Monrovia was rife with rumors that senior military officers were growing restless and Doe needed to demonstrate that he was firmly in charge. A show of support from the Americans, he reasoned, would silence his critics.

Doe approached Washington with a proposal. He would close Libya’s embassy in Monrovia — the “People’s Bureau” as the Libyans called it — and expel its diplomats if the U.S. put on a military air show. It did not take long for Washington to accept the deal.

As promised, shortly before April 12, about 100 U.S. Special Forces arrived in Monrovia for maneuvers with the Liberian military. Within days, the Libyans were sent packing.

While no Liberian or Western diplomat interviewed here professes to understand Colonel Qaddafi’s mercurial personality, if past behavior serves as any indication, Doe’s decision to sever diplomatic ties is certain to have angered the Libyan leader. With his Liberian courtship having ended badly, Qaddafi turned to revenge.

“I suspect that they had at least three reasons for wanting to get involved in Liberia,” said James K. Bishop, a former U.S. Ambassador to Liberia during the Doe regime. “One was to get even with Doe. One was just to ferment mayhem and support revolutionaries, and the third was to poke an eye out on the Americans because we of course had a very substantial stake in Liberia and they could take psychological satisfaction from having done us dirt.”

Whatever the combination of reasons, the result was that Libyan agents began recruiting Liberian dissidents based in neighboring countries, particularly Sierra Leone, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Ghana. At one point during the 1980’s, several hundred Liberians were training in Libya at least three different terrorist camps. Among those who found their way there were Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh, a former university professor and Minister of Education, and Samuel Dokie, a former Minister of Public Works.

The biggest Liberian contingent, however, was led by Charles Taylor, then an obscure figure, a former procurement official in the Doe regime who had fled the country after he was accused of embezzling nearly a million dollars.

He was later arrested in Massachusetts, and while being held in prison pending his extradition back to Liberia, he staged a daring escape. From there he traveled, first to Mexico, then England and France, eventually ending up virtually penniless in Accra, Ghana.

Accra was then a center for Liberian dissident activity, and within weeks Taylor was shuttling between a new home, purchased with Libyan money, in nearby Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and Tripoli. With Qaddafi’s personal encouragement and intervention, Taylor was soon recruiting men in preparation for the December 1989 assault against Doe.

Taylor’s debt to Qaddafi is undoubtedly deep, but with so much else to worry about, the fact that virtually all of the arms and money that fueled the war were supplied by Libya has receive scant attention during the recent election campaign. Part of the reason for this is war fatigue; of wanting to let go of the past and turning away from the horror that has befallen them. But Col. Qaddafi may have other plans, especially now that Taylor is Liberia’s new president. I don’t think the Libyans are going to roll over and play dead.

©1998 Kenneth Noble

Kenneth Noble, a New York Times national correspondent, is writing about the Liberian civil war.

Kenneth Noble
Kenneth Noble