Archaeological evidence indicates that a Neolithic culture, skilled in the domestication of cattle and the cultivation of crops, existed as far back as 6000 BC along the Libyan coast. To the south, in what is now the Sahara, hunters and herdsmen roamed what was then a well-watered savanna. Increasing desiccation and the coming of the Berbers about 2000 BC presumably from southwestern Asia, ended this period. The pharaohs of the so-called Libyan dynasties who ruled Egypt (c.950–720 BC ) are thought to have been Berbers. Phoenician seafarers, who arrived early in the first millennium BC , founded settlements along the coast, including one that became Tripoli.
Around the 7th century BC , Greek colonists settled in Cyrenaica. In succeeding centuries, the western settlements fell under the sway of Carthage; the eastern settlements fell to the Egyptian dynasty of the Ptolemies in the 4th century BC . When the Romans defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars of the 3 and 2nd centuries BC , they occupied the regions around Tripoli. In 96 BC , they forced Egypt to surrender Cyrenaica, and Roman influence later extended as far south as the Fezzan. Libya became very prosperous under Roman rule; with the decline of Rome, western Libya fell in the 5th century AD to Germanic Vandal invaders, who ruled from Carthage. In the 6th century, the Byzantines conquered the Vandals and ruled the coastal regions of Libya until the Arab conquest of the 7th century. The Arabs intermixed with the Berbers, who were gradually absorbed into the Muslim Arab culture.
Western Libya was administered by the Aghlabids of Tunisia in the 9th century, and by the Fatimids of Tunisia and then Egypt in the 10th. During the 11th century, invasions by two nomadic Arab peoples, the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym, destroyed many of the urban and agricultural areas. Normans from Sicily occupied Tripoli and surrounding regions in 1145 but were soon displaced by the Almohads of Morocco; during the 13th century, the Hafsids of Tunisia ruled western Libya. The eastern regions remained subject to Egyptian dynasties. In the 16th century, Spanish invaders seized parts of the coast, turning over control of Tripoli to the crusading Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The Ottoman Turks occupied the coastal regions in 1551, ruling the country until 1711, when Ahmad Qaramanli, of Turkish origin, wrested semiautonomous status from Istanbul. Pirate captains, operating out of Tripoli, raided the Mediterranean and the Italian coasts. The Qaramanlis ruled until 1835, when the Ottomans again assumed control.
In September 1911, the Italians invaded Libya, meeting fierce resistance from both Turks and indigenous Libyans. A peace treaty of 17 October 1912 between Turkey and Italy placed Libya formally under Italian rule, but the Libyans continued their resistance. Led by a Muslim religious brotherhood, the Sanusi, the Libyans (with some Turkish help) fought the Italians to a standstill during World War I. Following the war, and particularly after the accession of Benito Mussolini to power in Italy, the Italians continued their often-brutal efforts to conquer Libya. In 1931, 'Umar al-Mukhtar, a leader of the Sanusi, was captured and executed, and in 1932 the Italian conquest was completed. In World War II, Libya became a main battleground for Allied and Axis forces, until it was occupied by victorious British and Free French troops. The Treaty of 1947 between Italy and the Allies ended Italian rule in Libya and, when the Allies could not decide upon the country's future, Libya's fate was left to the UN. On 21 November 1949, the UN General Assembly voted that Libya should become an independent state. On 24 December 1951, Libya gained independence, with Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi as-Sanusi as king. In 1959 significant oil discoveries were made.
On 1 September 1969, a secret army organization, the Free Unionist Officers, deposed the king and proclaimed a republican regime. On 8 September, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) announced the formation of a civilian government. This government resigned on 16 January 1970, and a new cabinet was formed under Col. Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi, chairman of the RCC. Later that year, the UK and the United States closed their military installations. On 15 April 1973, Qadhafi called for a "cultural revolution" based on Islamic principles. In subsequent months, hundreds of "people's committees" were established to oversee all sectors of the nation's political, cultural, and economic life. In April 1974, Qadhafi withdrew from the supervision of daily administrative functions (these were assumed by Maj. Abdul Salam Jallud), but he remained the effective head of state of Libya.
Qadhafi sought to make Libya the axis of a unified Arab nation. Union was achieved with Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, and Sudan at various times, but only on paper. Subsequent relations with the many Arab nations, including Egypt and Tunisia, have often been tense. Libya itself, despite rhetorical support for radical Palestinians, has stayed on the sidelines in Arab-Israeli conflicts.
Qadhafi has been equally active in Africa. In 1973, he annexed from Chad the disputed Aouzou Strip, an area that may contain rich deposits of uranium. In 1979, his armed forces tried unsuccessfully to prop up the failing regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. Libya sent over 10,000 troops into Chad in 1980 in support of the regime of Goukouni Oueddei, and a union of the two nations was proposed. Intense international pressure, however, led to a Libyan withdrawal in November 1981. After the fall of Oueddei's regime in June 1982, Qadhafi provided military support for Oueddei's efforts to topple the new French-backed government in Chad. Libya's and Oueddei's forces were in control of much of northern Chad until 1987, when Chadian forces ousted them, capturing or destroying $1 billion in Libyan military equipment, and attacking bases inside Libya itself. In 1989, after acknowledging his error in moving into Chad, Qadhafi agreed to a cease-fire and the submission of the dispute over the Aouzou Strip to the Court of International Justice. The Court settled the dispute in Chad's favor in 1994.
Qadhafi has been accused of supporting subversive plots in such countries as Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Senegal, and Mali and of providing material support for a variety of insurgents, including the Irish Republican Army, Muslim rebels in the Philippines, and Japanese and German terrorists. Qadhafi did find some support in small, poor black African countries, eager for Libyan aid. In 1982, however, he suffered a setback when the annual OAU summit scheduled for Tripoli failed to convene because of disputes over Libya's policies in Chad and its support of Polisario guerrillas in Western Sahara. As a result, Qadhafi was denied his term as OAU chairman. In contrast, in February 1997 in a deliberate jab at the UN Security Council's sanctions against Libya over the Lockerbie bombing affair, the OAU Ministerial Council met in Tripoli, the first time this meeting had been convened outside of its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In 1981, two Libyan jets were shot down by US fighters over the Gulf of Sidra, an arm of the Mediterranean claimed by Qadhafi as Libya's territorial waters. In 1982, the United States, charging Qadhafi with supporting international terrorism, banned oil imports from Libya and the export of US technology to Libya. In January 1986, the United States, citing "irrefutable evidence" of Libyan involvement in Palestinian attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna in the previous month, ordered all Americans to leave Libya and cut off all economic ties as of mid-1986. In March, a US naval task force struck four Libyan vessels after US planes entering airspace over the Libyan-claimed Gulf of Sidra were fired upon. On 15 April, following a West Berlin bomb attack in which US servicemen were victims, US warplanes bombed targets in Tripoli and Banghazi. Libya said that Qadhafi's daughter was killed and two of his sons were wounded in the attack. Qadhafi has survived several reported assassination and coup attempts in the 1980s and 1990s as well as the opposition of Islamist groups, which prompted him to crack down on militants in 1993.
Qadhafi's most serious challenge has been the tough sanctions imposed since 1992 and 1993 on Libya by the UN Security Council after he refused to surrender two men suspected in the terrorist bombing of a Pan American passenger jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The UN resolutions (nos. 731 and 883) prohibit sales of equipment and air travel to Libya and freeze its overseas bank deposits but significantly, do not ban sales of petroleum products. Throughout the period of the sanctions the United States repeatedly attempted to persuade the UN to impose an oil embargo against Libya, but it was not successful. After numerous pleas to the UN by Arab and African countries and organizations to the UN Security Council to lift the sanctions, and numerous rounds of negotiations, in August 1998 Qadhafi agreed to eventually hand over the two Libyan suspects in the Lockerbie bombing for trial in the Netherlands before Scottish judges. The suspects were transferred to the Netherlands in April 1999. This decision has led to an easing of tensions, with a suspension of the UN sanctions (although they were not lifted) and Britain resuming full diplomatic relations in July 1999. The United States, however, remained committed to the branding of Libya as a supporter of international terrorism and therefore a pariah state. In January 2001, the Scottish court in the Netherlands found one of the two Libyan defendants guilty of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The other Libyan was found not guilty. US President Bush stated sanctions would remain in place not only until Libya compensated for the bombing of the aircraft, but also until Libya admits guilt and expresses remorse for the act. In mid-2002, Libya stated that it was ready, in principle, to pay families of the victims of the bombing compensation in the amount of US $2.7 billion ( US $10 million per each of the 270 victims).
In early September 1995, Libya began deporting thousands of Arab workers, primarily Palestinian, Sudanese, and Egyptian. In a speech on 1 September 1995, Qadhafi stated that foreigners (including some 30,000 Palestinians) were being expelled in order to create jobs for Libyans, although the move was widely interpreted as punishment of the PLO for holding peace talks with Israel. Qadhafi stated that many of those being deported were Islamic militant "infiltrators" posing as migrant workers. On 6 and 7 September, at least 30 people were killed in Benghazi when armed Islamic militants battled Libyan security forces during a roundup of workers for deportation. By 11 September, 7,000 Egyptians had been expelled, and thousands of Palestinians were stranded either at sea or at the border with Egypt. The deportations continued into October, when 650 Palestinians were stranded aboard a ferry off the coast of Cyprus, and 850 were still camped on the Egyptian border.
In March 1996, as many as 400 prisoners—many of them government opponents and Islamic militants—broke out of a prison near Benghazi. The ensuing clash with Libyan troops was viewed by many observers as an indication of significant antigovernment feeling in eastern Libya. The growth of the Islamist movement in Libya is cause for concern in the region and for Qadhafi's maintenance in power.
In April 1995, April 1996, and March 1997, thousands of Libyan pilgrims flew from Tripoli to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the annual Islamic hajj (religious pilgrimage). Most traveled aboard UN-approved Egypt Air flights, but some flew on Libyan Arab Airlines in defiance of UN sanctions. Also in defiance of the ban, Libyan aircraft transported Qadhafi to and from Cairo in June 1996.
In May 2001, Libya sent troops into the Central African Republic to aid President Ange-Félix Patassé and his supporters try to regain power after a failed coup attempt. It withdrew its troops in December 2002; Qadhafi stated the mission of restoring peace and stability to the country had been achieved. That month, Libya denied allegations put forward by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that it was sending troops and equipment into Congolese territory along the border with the Central African Republic. On 13 December, the DRC government wrote the UN Security Council to condemn Libya's actions and to demand an immediate withdrawal of Libyan troops from its territory. The DRC accused Libya of aiding the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), a rebel group.
Although Libya and the United States stated in January 2002 that they held talks with one another to improve relations after years of hostility, in January 2003 the United States renewed its economic sanctions against Libya. At an Arab League summit held in March 2003 to address the issue of a possible war in Iraq over its non-compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1441, that called upon the country to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction, Qadhafi threatened to pull his country out of the Arab League after he was insulted by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah. Qadhafi accused Saudi Arabia of being ready to "strike an alliance with the devil," meaning the United States, to shield itself from Iraq. Qadhafi has long called for reforms in the Arab League, including the creation of a single Arab currency, the forging of closer ties between the Arab League and the African Union, and the use of Arab military force against Israel if it does not agree to the "complete return of the Palestinians to their land." When threatening to pull out of the Arab League, Qadhafi indicated that Libya was "above all an African country," and that the African Union would be a sufficient enough organization for Libya to belong to.
In January 2003, Libya was elected by secret ballot to head the UN Commission on Human Rights. The votes were 33 in favor, 3 opposed, and 17 abstentions.