Gaddafi’s secret missionaries: Muslim preachers and Machiavellian politics
On a tidy campus in his capital of Tripoli, dictator Muammar Gaddafi sponsored one of the world’s leading Muslim missionary networks. It was the smiling face of his Libyan regime, and the world smiled back.
The World Islamic Call Society (WICS) sent staffers out to build mosques and provide humanitarian relief. It gave poor students a free university education, in religion, finance and computer science. Its missionaries traversed Africa preaching a moderate, Sufi-tinged version of Islam as an alternative to the strict Wahhabism that Saudi Arabia was spreading.
The Society won approval in high places. The Vatican counted it among its partners in Christian-Muslim dialogue and both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict received its secretary general. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the world’s Anglicans, visited the campus in 2009 to deliver a lecture. The following year, the U.S. State Department noted approvingly how the Society had helped Filipino Christian migrant workers start a church in Libya.
But the Society had a darker side that occasionally flashed into view. In Africa, rumors abounded for years of Society staffers paying off local politicians or supporting insurgent groups. In 2004, an American Muslim leader was convicted of a plot to assassinate the Saudi crown prince, financed in part by the Society. In 2011, Canada stripped the local Society office of its charity status after it found the director had diverted Society money to a radical group that had attempted a coup in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990 and was linked to a plot to bomb New York’s Kennedy Airport in 2007.
Now, with the Gaddafi regime gone, it is possible to piece together a fuller picture of this two-faced group. Interviews with three dozen current and former Society staff and Libyan officials, religious leaders and exiles, as well as analysis of its relations with the West, show how this arm of the Gaddafi regime was able to sustain a decades-long double game.
Yet Libya’s new leaders, the same ones who fought bitterly to overthrow Gaddafi and dismantle his 42-year dictatorship, are unanimous in wanting to preserve the WICS. They say they can disentangle its religious work from the dirty tricks it played and retain the Society as a legitimate religious charity – and an instrument of soft power for oil-rich Libya.