Feature

The new Qaddafi

Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was long considered an international outlaw. Now he’s renouncing terrorism and offering to give up his weapons of mass destruction. Can Qaddafi be trusted?

How did Qaddafi come to power?
Qaddafi, a young military officer, led a 1969 coup against the pro-Western monarchy of King Idris. Almost immediately, Qaddafi installed himself as Libya’s ruler, and charted a new “revolutionary” course of aggressive nationalism and “armed struggle” against the West. He began using his country’s massive oil wealth to support far-flung rebel groups, from the I.R.A., in Northern Ireland, to leftist guerrillas in Angola, and sent agents to assassinate Libyan exiles abroad, killing dozens of people. In the 1980s, President Reagan cut off diplomatic relations with Libya and imposed an embargo on its oil, calling Qaddafi the “mad dog of the Middle East.”

Is he truly insane?
The evidence would suggest that Qaddafi is rational enough to act in his own self-interest, though his public behavior is often bizarre. Qaddafi favors blue-toned, 1970s-style sunglasses and flashy silk robes. When he travels abroad, he brings along a security force of 400, including a bevy of what one British newspaper called “luscious female bodyguards.” But it is his penchant for wild outbursts that has sealed his reputation as a borderline lunatic. He once called on the Arab world to push Israelis into the sea; later, he changed his mind and suggested that Israelis and Palestinians unite in a land called “Isratine.” He has offered to buy “all the Caribbean bananas” to liberate the region economically. Jaafar Nimeiri, a former president of Sudan, has called Qaddafi “a man with a split personality—both of them evil.” But Qaddafi has described himself as a source of “peace and delight.” It’s the U.S., he has said, who is “the devil.”

Has he ever actually attacked Americans?
Repeatedly, and it almost cost him his life. In the 1980s, he sent fighter jets to harass U.S. forces off the coast of his North African nation. Tensions between the two nations mounted when, in 1986, Libyan fighters attacked the U.S. 6th Fleet as it conducted maneuvers off the Libyan coast. Then, in April 1986, U.S. intelligence blamed Libyan agents for a bomb blast that killed two American soldiers and a Turkish woman in a West Berlin discotheque. The Reagan administration retaliated by bombing several Libyan targets, including Qaddafi’s house. He narrowly escaped, but Libya said 37 people were killed in the attack, including Qaddafi’s 15-month-old adopted daughter.

Was he chastened?
Far from it. About two years later, his outlaw status reached new heights. In December 1988, a bomb blew up in the belly of Pan Am Flight 103, over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 people on board were killed, along with 11 villagers on the ground. Two Libyan nationals were named as prime suspects, but Qaddafi defiantly refused to hand them over. At the same time, the U.S. believed Libya was ramping up production of chemical weapons. The United Nations, in 1992, imposed tough sanctions, prohibiting air travel and arms sales to Libya, and later blocking the sale of spare parts that the country needed to keep its oil pumps working. The sanctions, said Mary-Jane Deeb of the Library of Congress, made Libya “a true pariah state.”

Did the sanctions work?
Emphatically. Libya’s suddenly isolated economy collapsed, and its 5 million subjects grew restive. With his oil revenues waning and his power in jeopardy, Qaddafi slowly began to change his stance toward the West. He assumed a lower profile and severed ties with many of his terrorist comrades. After Sept. 11, Qaddafi condemned the suicide hijackings, calling them “horrifying.” He has since shared intelligence about al Qaida with the U.S., and he even quietly approved of the invasion of Afghanistan. He has also cracked down on radical Islamist groups, especially since the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group tried to assassinate him, in 1998. “It is strange,” he told The New York Times Magazine, “as far as Libya is concerned, that we find ourselves today in one trench fighting one common enemy with America.”

Does Qaddafi mean what he’s saying?
Clearly, Qaddafi has decided it’s in his self-interest to align himself with the U.S. and the West. He provided the strongest evidence of that last year when, after 14 years of denials, Libya took responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. A Libyan intelligence official had been convicted of plotting to bring the Pan Am airliner down, using a bomb built into a radio hidden in a suitcase. Libyan Ambassador Ahmed Own wrote a letter to the U.N. Security Council, saying, “Libya, as a sovereign state, accepts responsibilities for the actions of its officials.” The country agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the victims’ families.

So is Qaddafi no longer a pariah?
He will not be honored at any White House dinners in the foreseeable future, but Qaddafi has become a poster boy for the Bush administration’s policy of pre-emptive war against terrorist threats. The Libyan leader recently promised to give up his chemical and biological weapons programs, and he agreed to abandon a nuclear program that shocked inspectors found to be very advanced. This dramatic change of heart is being widely cited as proof that Bush’s get-tough policy is working. But the U.S. State Department says it needs more concrete proof that Qaddafi has forsaken terrorism for good. Qaddafi insists he’s sincere. “It is time for peace,” he said, “it is time to be part of world peace.”

Son of Qaddafi

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