Osama bin Laden has small cells of followers around the world, and he may have pockets of fans who wear his image on a T-shirt, but he'll never be a world leader.
That's the lesson Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has learned, based on his own days of fomenting terrorism in the 1980s. So now he has designs of a different kind for example, to lead Africa to unity, and to rival Egypt as North Africa's presence on the international stage. His ultimate aim: to lift Libya's two-decade-old image as a pariah state.
Colonel Qaddafi's designs form the backdrop for the news this week that Libya has made an offer to the families of the 270 people who died in the airline bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The Libyan leader wants a deal to pave the way for the lifting of United Nations sanctions and ultimately US sanctions on his country.
For its part, the US has been sending mixed signals on Libya recently, indicating that it will proceed cautiously in restoring a longtime threat to good standing especially at a time of focus on international terrorism.
"It's not every day you reverse something like this," says Richard Murphy, who was assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs at the time of the Lockerbie bombing. "It's not going to be easy," he says, noting that US sanctions for terrorism have only been lifted once on Iraq, from 1986 to its invasion of Kuwait in 1991.
The compensation deal, announced Tuesday by lawyers for victims' families, offers $10 million to each of Pan Am Flight 103's 270 victims. Libya is demanding that the compensation trigger a lifting of US sanctions a factor that deal critics like Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts call "cynical," saying it puts the families in the position of playing Qaddafi's advocate before the US government.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called the offer a "step in the right direction," but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that even if the families decide the deal "somewhat satisfied" them, it would still be up to the US to decide if Libya has met UN requirements. Those include compensating the families, acknowledging responsibility in the bombing, and renouncing terrorism.
On Wednesday, the Libyan government issued a statement from its office at the UN, denying it had anything to do with the announced deal. But diplomatic sources say both the lawyers' announcement and Libya's disavowal are part of the legal game-playing that has characterized the case. Qaddafi is said to favor compensating the families without publicly accepting responsibility for the bombing. That desire fits with the 34-year ruler's obsession with remaking his image from a rogue terrorist to an international player and unifier of Africa.
"Qaddafi wants to be labeled a good guy, because much more so than when he got started three decades ago, today a good image is an important part of real participation in the international community," says Hocine Fetni, an Algerian lawyer and expert in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
He notes that Qaddafi condemned the September terrorist attacks and has sent Libyan officials to share intelligence on Islamic terrorists with the US. "It's not about being a friend of the US, it's about power and being able to influence events," he adds.
US officials have indeed been meeting with Libyans, sometimes secretly, to gauge how much information Qaddafi has to share not just on Islamic terrorists, but also on pro-Palestinian terrorist organizations, according to intelligence sources. Publicly acknowledged meetings, such as one Assistant Secretary of State William Burns has scheduled for June 6 with British and Libyan officials in London, are characterized as focused on Lockerbie and sanctions issues, but sources say such meetings also get into intelligence questions.
Libyan officials have also met with representatives of US oil companies, who still have concessions in Libya's high-grade oil fields and who are anxious to get back to investments stalled by the UN and US sanctions.
Still, the US position on Libya remains ambiguous.
Last week, the State Department noted Libya's progress in eschewing terrorist links and activities in its 2001 terrorism report. But earlier this month, Undersecretary of State John Bolton added Libya, Cuba, and Syria to the list of countries involved in attempts to trade products that could serve in the development of weapons of mass destruction.