Muammar al-Qaddafi, 1942–2011
The ‘mad dog’ who ruled Libya for 42 years
Six years after he seized power in a 1969 military coup, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi promised that his regime would soon fade away. “In the era of the masses, power is in the hands of the people themselves, and leaders disappear forever,” he wrote in the Green Book, a religious and political tract that was required reading for every Libyan schoolchild. While insisting the country was now a democracy, he ruled Libya with an iron fist, torturing and killing anyone who challenged him. In his 42 years as Libya’s autocratic ruler, Qaddafi was defined by his contradictions. He was a sponsor of international terrorism who later aided the U.S. in the war on terrorism. He was an Arab nationalist who once claimed, “There are no men in the Arab world.” He preached the need for constant revolution, but bitterly resisted the popular uprising that would eventually claim his life.
The only son of an illiterate Bedouin herder, Qaddafi was born in a goatskin tent near the coastal city of Sirte. “His father scrimped and borrowed to send his son to a nearby Muslim school,” said the Los Angeles Times. The young Qaddafi listened daily to a Cairo radio station broadcasting speeches by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the Arab independence movement. “We must go into the army,” Qaddafi told his classmates. “That is the only way to make a revolution.” At 19, he joined the military, and in 1966 was sent to England to study warfare.
On Sept. 1, 1969, the 27-year-old captain and a group of young officers “wrested control of key government installations in Tripoli and Benghazi” from the corrupt pro-Western monarchy, said The Washington Post. King Idris, on a trip abroad, abdicated within days. Qaddafi promoted himself to colonel, took leadership of the Revolutionary Command Council, and embarked on a series of major reforms. “He expelled American and British military bases,” said The New York Times, “then nationalized the property of Italian settlers and a small Jewish community.” Qaddafi demanded that foreign energy firms pay more for access to the country’s oil fields, and used the revenue to develop agriculture and build schools, hospitals, and housing.
His popularity started to wane with the 1975 publication of the Green Book, which claimed to offer a middle way between capitalism and communism. “He declared Libya to be a ‘Jamahiriya’—an Arabic neologism he created meaning roughly ‘republic of the masses,’” said the Associated Press. The people’s councils he established, though, were powerless, while his own power was absolute. He annoyed Libyans with bizarre edicts—ordering them to keep chickens, and demanding that shop owners paint their doors green. Any sign of dissent was punished. “Several dozen deaths a year of political opponents were attributed to his secret police,” said The Economist.
Qaddafi didn’t only target domestic foes. He funded any group waging war with the imperialist West, from the Irish Republican Army to radical Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal. His agents were linked to a 1986 bomb blast in a Berlin disco that left two U.S. servicemen dead. Calling Qaddafi the “mad dog of the Middle East,” President Reagan ordered U.S. jets to bomb his Tripoli compound. Some 40 Libyans died. Two years later, Libya was implicated in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. The West was outraged, and years of sanctions followed.
Libya’s path back from pariah status began in 1999, when Qaddafi handed over two Libyans wanted for the Lockerbie attack. He also paid $2.7 billion to victims’ families, but never acknowledged any guilt. Then, as the U.S. began hunting terrorists worldwide in the wake of 9/11, Qaddafi carried out his greatest U-turn, renouncing his fledgling nuclear program and helping U.S. spy agencies track radical Islamists.
“But these changes, designed to please the West, were not matched by any remotely comparable ones on the home front,” said the London Guardian. When the Arab Spring swept through the region, his frustrated subjects rose up in revolt. Qaddafi promised to crush the “rats” and “cockroaches” challenging his rule. After eight months of fighting, rebels discovered him cowering in a drainage pipe in Sirte, and shot him dead. “He called us rats,” said rebel fighter Ahmed Al Sahati, “but look where we found him.”