Why Muammar el Qaddafi Matters:
In power for 42 years after orchestrating a bloodless coup in 1969 until his death in 2011, Muammar el-Qaddafi was repressive, inclined to use violence, sponsor terrorism and dabble in weapons of mass destruction to advance his erratically revolutionary aims. He was also a contradiction, inciting violence against the West in the 1970s and 80s, embracing globalism and foreign investment since the 1990s, and reconciling with the United States in 2004. He wouldn’t have mattered that significantly if he hadn't leverage power from oil money: Libya has the Mideast's sixth-largest oil reserve
. In 2007, it had $56 billion in foreign-exchange reserves.
Early Life and Family:
Qaffadi was born into a poor Arab-Berber family on June 7, 1942 in Sirte, a desert province on the Mediterranean, and the town where he'd find his end at the hands of violent rebels. Classmates taunted him as a poor Bedouin. Influenced in high school in the late 1950s by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser
’s Arab nationalism, Qaddafi established his first political organization and was expelled. He graduated from a military academy in 1965, attended a British army school for six months, attended college, dropped out for the Libyan military, and led a coup in 1969. He had seven children and two successive wives.
Qaddafi’s political philosophy, like his character, is difficult to pin down. In the 1970s he rejected capitalism and “atheistic communism” in favor of his third way: a blend of Islamism and socialism that nationalized industries, redistributed wealth and made all Libyans “owners.” He rejected what he called “conventional democracy” in favor of direct democracy: “The most tyrannical dictatorships the world has known have existed under the aegis of parliaments,” he writes in his famous Green Book
But his version of direct democracy through “people’s committees” was never realized: Qaddafi remained the supreme leader.
Qaddafi long opposed private property and wage-earning in the Western sense. People should not earn more than what they need, he claimed. What that meant in reality was Qaddafi freezing wages at their 1970s level. His version of economic democracy was disastrous. When, in the late 1970s, Qaddafi urged Libyans to take over factories and businesses, the result was economic chaos that crippled the Libyan economy for years. The collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s worsened matters, forcing Qaddafi, by the beginning of the 1990s, to temper his global terrorism financing.
Qaddafi hoped in the early years of his reign to do what Egypt
’s Gamal Abdel Nasser failed to do: unite the Arab world and North Africa into one nation. What he got instead from regime after regime was enmity, contempt and ridicule. Qaddafi was more comfortable associating with rogue regimes and militant causes subversive of Western interests. Nevertheless, Qaddafi’s idealization of the Arab common person—the peasant, the Bedouin, the industrial worker—was relatively genuine, if inconsistent.
Qaddafi and Terrorism:
Qaddafi was the original globalist terrorist—an early version of what al-Qaeda
would become. As David Lamb writes in The Arabs
, Qaddafi “has been accused of mining the Red Sea, plotting the assassination of the heads of state of the United States, Britain, France, West Germany and Saudi Arabia, planning the capture of the Grand mosque in Mecca, calling on American blacks in the U.S. Army to revolt [...], killing a score of Libyan dissidents abroad and trying to buy an atom bomb from China.”
Qaddafi was also accused of financing the Palestinian murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“Yes, I am a Terrorist":
In 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called him “this mad dog of the Middle East.”
Worse was to come, including Qaddafi’s role in the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, killing 270 people, and France’s UTA Flight 772 over the African country of Niger on Sept. 19, 1989, killing 170 people.
“Yes, I am a terrorist when it comes to the dignity of this nation,” he said in 1985. “I will take up responsibility and begin terrorism against the Arab rulers, threaten and frighten them, and sever relations. And if I could, I would be head them one by one.” Similarities between Qaddafi and Osama bin Laden were rife.
In 1998, Libya was, in fact, the first country in the world to issue an arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden—five months before the United States did so. In 2003 Qaddafi took responsibility for the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, ascribing it to “the actions of its officials” and agreeing to pay the victims’ families $2.7 billion. Qaddafi, who had sought nuclear-weapons technology from Pakistan
, also reversed course on that count, agreeing to halt all military nuclear programs (but not civilian ones). Qaddafi opened the country to foreign investors again for the first time since 1979.
Relations With the United States:
In August 2008, President Bush signed into law the “Libyan Claims Resolution Act
” directing the U.S. State Department to settle all American citizens’ terrorism-related lawsuits against Libya. In January, however, Congress also passed a law enabling American victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism to seize Libyan assets in Libya
or those of companies doing business with Libya. That law prompted Qaddafi to question whether the thaw in Libya-United States relations would continue.
Qaddafi: The end of a Tyrant:
Meanwhile, Qaddafi himself was been received by heads of state across Europe. On Sept. 5, 2008, Condoleezza Rice became the first U.S. secretary of state in more than 50 years to visit Tripoli. Qaddafi himself has never hidden his affection for Rice, calling her “my darling black African woman.”
In 2006, Qaddafi was the subject of an opera by the English National Opera and the BBC.
But the end was near.
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia and Egypt and soon spread to Libya, where violent a civil war erupted in mid-2011. It looked at first as if rebels had the upper hand. Qaddafi regrouped and drove them back to Benghazi, and looked poised to crush them, until NATO intervened on the side of the rebels, pushing back his advances and turning the war's tide in the rebels' favor.
On Aug. 21, 2011, Qaddafi fell as rebels took over the capital, Tripoli. After a long search, Qaddafi was believed to be in Sirte, his hometown, with several of his children. He was. On Oct. 20, 2011, Qaddafi was found in a tunnel, dragged out, bloodied, manhandled and apparently brutalized and, just as apparently, executed, ending his reign of fear.