Africa's 'mad dog' dies after a lifetime of terror and brutality
HE died the dictator's death, violent and humiliating, dragged from the drain in which he had sought a last, desperate refuge, his bloodied body a plaything for a jubilant mob. So ended the career of Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, mercurial leader of Libya, patron of international terrorism, desert mystic, narcissist, figure of fun, one-time great survivor, Ronald Reagan's mad dog.
It was not that way in September 1969, when the young army officer seized power in a bloodless coup, overthrowing Idris, the king installed by the British in 1951. Libya had a population of just two million then, and had just overtaken Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer in the Arab world. Captain Gaddafi, promoted to the modest rank of colonel on his assumption of power, could have chosen accommodation with the West and a wealthy future for his people, but the boy born in a Bedouin tent near Sirte, the place of his death 69 years later, was too restless for comfortable obscurity.
Gaddafi then was a figure of hope for Arabs humiliated by Israel's triumph in the Six-Day War of 1967. Charismatic, unafraid, an admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Arab nationalism, he immediately evicted the Americans and British from their military bases in Libya, browbeat western oil companies into paying more for access to his country's oil and declared his support for the Palestinian cause. But his most enduring quality, his ability to estrange, would ensure his country's isolation, a pariah state on the fringe of international affairs, important only for the damage it could occasionally inflict.
The head of a brutal regime that killed, stole and imprisoned at will, assassinating dissidents wherever they were, Gaddafi was nevertheless seen as a comic-book dictator: the absurd robes, Ruritanian uniforms and ludicrous utterances.
Gaddafi claimed to have a political philosophy, contained in the 'Green Book', his version of Mao's 'Little Red Book'. An inexact mixture of socialism and Islam, it rejected liberal democracy and capitalism in favour of "direct democracy" waged through "popular committees". State ownership of the media was prerequisite. The result was the world's most cowed media, a vital ingredient in the development of the vast kleptocracy that Libya became.
The Gaddafi family and its allies creamed off hundreds of millions in oil revenues, funnelling them into overseas bank accounts, buying houses in Hampstead and shares in Juventus football club. Gaddafi purchased a wide-body A340 airliner for his personal use, equipped with jacuzzi.
Gaddafi became a sponsor of terrorism. In 1972 the dictator entertained Joe Cahill, chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, expressing in Cahill's words "an awful hatred of England". A major Libyan arms shipment to the Provisionals was intercepted in 1973, but the aid from Tripoli continued, including surface-to-air missiles.
In 1973 he tried to sink the liner Queen Elizabeth 2 as she carried a party of 600 Jewish passengers towards Israel. By 1975 intelligence suggested Gaddafi was bankrolling the most infamous terrorist of the era, Carlos the Jackal.
And all the time Gaddafi's henchmen were hunting down dissidents abroad, "stray dogs" as Gaddafi called them. When the London embassy was criticised by Tripoli for failing to fire on anti-Gaddafi demonstrators, the result was a hail of machinegun fire during a subsequent protest, and the death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. That incident, in 1984, resulted in the severing of Anglo-Libyan diplomatic relations.
Gaddafi seemed bent on collision with the West, ordering the bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by American servicemen in 1986. Denouncing the Libyan leader as a "mad dog", President Ronald Reagan ordered strikes on Tripoli by US aircraft. Retribution followed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988, killing 259 people on board, as well as 11 people on the ground, by far the heaviest loss of life in any terrorist attack in British history. Despite attempts to shift the blame, Lockerbie completed Gaddafi's transformation into a pariah.
The Libyan people suffered, too. Thousands died during the Libyan intervention in Chad, and as many as 1,200 opponents of the regime were murdered at Abu Salim, the notorious prison in Tripoli, in 1996.
Gaddafi was the subject of repeated assassination attempts. In the 1990s he faced growing opposition from Islamic extremists, particularly the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which nearly killed him in 1996. Remodelling his policy towards the West, Gaddafi agreed to surrender two Libyan intelligence officers implicated in the Lockerbie bombing. One was acquitted but the other, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was given a life sentence. In return, the United Nations suspended sanctions against Libya. In 2003 Libya formally accepted responsibility for Lockerbie. The rapprochement culminated in 2004 with a visit to Libya by Tony Blair, who commended Gaddafi as a new ally in the 'War on Terror'. During his visit, Blair lobbied on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell, which secured a deal with Libya worth $500m (€363m). The United States followed, restoring diplomatic relations with Tripoli.
That honeymoon period was short-lived. The Arab Spring and Gaddafi's brutal response to it blew away any illusion as to the nature of the man. As his regime crumbled, he refused to quit Libya for a life of affluent exile. A less narcissistic, more rational man would have seen the writing on the wall and headed straight for that Jacuzzi-equipped Airbus. Muammar Gaddafi believed his own deranged publicity, and paid the price. (© Daily Telegraph, London)