Long before Kim Jong-Un became the go-to tyrant for five star absurdity, there was another dictator on the block. Muammar al-Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years with an iron fist wrapped in a sequined glove so garish it would’ve put Liberace to shame. His flamboyant reign was famous for its absurdity. For every headline relating to his terrorist activities, there were maybe a dozen more about his plastic surgery addiction or all-female bodyguard troupe. By the time Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, he was less feared than he was simply mocked.
But behind the monstrous vanity lay a man who was simply a monster. Rape in Gaddafi’s Libya was institutionalized. Mass executions were broadcast on TV. Dissidents were executed and their bodies kept in freezers for the self-styled “King of All Kings” to visit at his leisure. But such depraved behavior wasn’t created in a vacuum, it was only thanks to Libya’s tortured history that Gaddafi was able to imprint his psychosis on his nation. Today, we’re exploring how the life of the “Mad Titan of the Middle East”.
Origins — the Boy and the Master
Most histories of Gaddafi start at the obvious place: the sweltering June day in 1942 when he was born in a nomad’s tent near the dusty fishing village of Sirte. But to really understand Gaddafi, you have to go back further, all the way to September 28, 1911. That’s the day Italian warships appeared off the coast of Tripoli. It was the beginning of the Italian occupation, and the beginning of Libya’s very own reign of terror.
For the next few decades, Libya was not a nice place to be anything other than a pureblood Italian. Natives were worked to death in squalid labor camps, while resistance fighters were brutally executed in public. The whole ghastly horror show only ended when the Allies booted Italy from North Africa in 1943. By that point, over a third of all Libyans had been murdered by their colonizers. If Gaddafi was cruel, it’s because he was born into a world where cruelty was the only currency.
That being said, the boy himself missed the worst of it. With British help, King Idris of Cyrenaica seized power in 1951, joining the three colonies of Italian Libya into modern Libya and ushering in a period of peace. Not that young Gaddafi had it easy. His family were poor Bedouins. He lived in a tent. His only formal schooling was meant to be learning the Quran. It’s only because he showed promise that he was sent on to basic school. Presumably, his family hoped he was destined for great things. Spoiler alert: that’s foreshadowing.
While young Gaddafi was at school, scraping his knees and carving his name onto desks, Libya was sinking into a mire of poverty. King Idris was selling land to the US Army in return for cash in his family pockets, which was as popular as you’d expect. While this sort of naked corruption was humiliating for ordinary Libyans, it was just a symptom of the broader malaise gripping the Arab world. With culture in decline, and the rich looting their countries, the average Arab was looking for a champion, someone to make them feel proud again. Enter Nasser.
Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser is a man who could fill a dozen Biographics videos just by himself. The new ruler of Egypt following a bloodless coup in 1952, he was the guy about to light the spark of Arab nationalism and send it exploding across the region. In June 1956, he finally did. Furious with the British military presence in his nation, and angry at the new state of Israel on his borders, he nationalized the British-owned Suez Canal. So the British joined forces with France and Israel and invaded, triggering the Suez Crisis.
The whole Suez Crisis is a beyond our scope here, so let’s just skip ahead to the ending. Israel, France and Britain lost the Canal. Although their loss was more to do with the US yelling at them “get out now, you idiots, or you’re gonna spark WWIII!” that’s certainly not how the Arab world saw it. Overnight, Nasser became a sensation. Combined with his working-class roots, poverty reduction programs, and desire for Arab unity, he became a hero to millions.
Among those newly inspired was teenage Gaddafi. Still in school, he watched the Suez Crisis unfold with the sort of mixture of awe and excitement your parents felt watching the moon landing. As with so many others, Nasser’s boldness, his ambition lit a fire in Gaddafi’s soul. Before the Suez Crisis was over, he’d been expelled from school for political agitation. But if you think a simple expulsion is gonna halt Gaddafi’s new ambition to be the Libyan Nasser, are you in for a surprise.
The Libyan Nasser
Five years after his expulsion, young Gaddafi managed to finagle his way into the military academy in Benghazi. He did so for the express reason of staging a Nasserite coup. Seriously, he even brought a loyal group of school friends along with him, all of whom donned uniform for the first time on the understanding that they’d soon be overthrowing the government.
Albeit, not quite yet. For eight years, Gaddafi and his co-conspirators did nothing more than slowly rise up the army ranks. Gaddafi was made a captain and briefly trained in the UK. He met the American ambassador, who astutely noted that the young soldier’s intelligence was only matched by his extraordinary emotional instability.
By 1963, Gaddafi had established a secret Free Officers society in the army, modeled after Nasser’s old coup-planning team. By 1965, it had expanded its membership far beyond his childhood friends, becoming the army club to join. Now convinced destiny was on his side, Gaddafi simply needed a sign that Libya was ready for an uprising. In 1967, he got it.
On June 5, long-simmering tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors finally reached boiling point. The resulting Six Day War saw Israel wipe the floor with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan while barely breaking sweat. For our story though, it was the reaction in Libya that mattered. Angered at such epic Arab humiliation, the populace rioted. It was the first major sign of dissent against Idris’s rule, until now Libyans had been almost uniquely undemonstrative in the Arab world. For Gaddafi’s Free Officers, it was the sign they’d been looking for.
In August 1969, King Idris made the fateful decision to go to Turkey for medical treatment. While he was out the country, the Free Officers quietly seized control. When Libya awoke on September 1, it was to a new regime. The monarchy had been toppled in a bloodless coup, and the Free Officers now ruled via the Revolutionary Command Council, with Gaddafi as its chair. Aged just 27, the Bedouin boy born in a tent became de-facto ruler of Libya.
So, given what we know about Gaddafi, how was the coup received at the time?
Surprisingly, rather well. Most Libyans embraced it. While Idris had been popular with his clan, most others felt his rule had been weak and ineffective. And Gaddafi wasn’t just being vain calling himself the Libyan Nasser, ordinary Libyans really were crying out for a pan-Arab champion to restore their pride and drag them into the modern world.
Even on the international scene, the reaction was mostly warm. Henry Kissinger was willing to accept Gaddafi’s insistence that the US abandon its Libyan bases on the basis that the new leader was at least an anti-Communist.
In fact, the only group who turned out to be unhappy with the idea of a Gaddafi-led coup were the Free Officers themselves, who tried to stage yet another coup in December to replace Gaddafi. They were quickly crushed. As the sun dawned on the new decade, it was on a Libya that was now totally under Gaddafi’s control.
The Master’s Death — the Wheels Fall Off
The 1970s saw Libya get off to a fresh start that was if not exactly good, then not utterly terrible. Following Nasser’s lead, the now Colonel Gaddafi nationalized key assets like petroleum production, made education free, and distributed money to the poor. Also like his hero, Gaddafi expelled the Jews, along with all remaining descendants of the Italian colonists.
It’s here that we get our first glimpse of the man Gaddafi would become. For the new Libyan leader, it wasn’t enough that the Italians simply left, they had to be humiliated. He forced all those going into exile to dig up the corpses of their dead from the graveyards and take them with them. That very literal caravan of death must have been a chilling sight.
However, this was all small potatoes. The outside world paid little attention to Libya, even the Arab world. At least, until September 28, 1970. That was the day that a massive heart attack felled Gamal Abdel Nasser. The master was gone.
It was a tough time for the Arab world, probably made tougher by Gaddafi’s loud instance that he was Nasser’s heir and would lead them all from now on. While the Middle East mourned its hero, the Libyan upstart began pulling all sorts of tricks, from starting a war with Chad, to getting thousands of Libyan youths to storm the border with Egypt, waving petitions inked in their own blood demanding the unification of Libya and Egypt.
Mad as this was, there was still a chance at this stage that Gaddafi might wind up being, well, kinda OK. He’d made reforms, and nationalized petroleum meant money to spend on bribing the mostly nomadic populace with clean drinking water and irrigation ditches.
Yet the clues to his future madness were still there, if you knew where to look: inside Gaddafi’s Green Book.
Released in 1974, the Green Book remains a work like no other. An explanation of Gaddafi’s political philosophy, it’s a heady mix of utopianism, Arab nationalism, Islamism, socialism, tribal values, and a great huge dollop of xenophobia, all thrown together in a way that doesn’t really make any sense. That may be why, when Gaddafi declared Libya the Green Book’s prophesized utopian government the Great Jamahiriyah in 1977, only Burkina Faso ever seemed enthusiastic. The rest of the Arab world simply shrugged.
Well, almost. Gaddafi’s Green Book prophesized that other Arab powers would be so jealous of the Jamahiriyah that they would try to destroy it. So, in July 1977, he attacked Egypt first before they could attack him. Only it turned out Egypt never intended to attack, but now they were in this war they were damned if they were gonna lose it. 500 dead later, the world had a very good indication that Gaddafi’s Jamahiriyah did not intend to play nice.
The Mad Dog
By the end of the 1970s, it was clear what way the winds were blowing. Frustrated by the end of his dreams of becoming the next Nasser, Gaddafi instead settled for becoming notorious on his own insane terms.
Inside Libya, this meant a return to the repression of the Italian era, only with a weirdness unique to Gaddafi. The Mad Titan banned cinemas, concerts and football matches. As well as anywhere else people could plot against his regime. Music was designated Western imperialism, and a great bonfire of musical instruments burned in Tripoli’s central square.
On the economic front, rampant corruption led to supermarkets so empty that there were frequent, deadly food riots. Not that you could complain, of course. Complaining meant becoming another victim in the mass executions broadcast day and night on public TV, another victim to be humiliated then brutally slaughtered. Gaddafi may have expelled the Italian colonizers, but he kept the cruelest of their methods.
Outside Libya, this was also when Gaddafi began throwing money at every extremist group on the planet. So it was Semtex for the IRA, weapons for the Black Panthers, and money for the ANC. Yes, the same ANC led by Nelson Mandela, at that point still sitting in prison. Remember that, ’cause it’ll be important later.
As 1981 shuddered into view, Libya had basically gone mad. The death toll of the ongoing war in Chad was brutalizing the whole society, now also crumbling under a British-led economic embargo. It was around this time that Gaddafi first appeared on American screens, when US warships were forced to shoot down two Libyan jets over the Gulf of Sirte. It was the first military clash between America and an Arab power in modern times. As you already know, it wouldn’t be the last.
Fast becoming an international pariah, Gaddafi doubled down. In the early 1980s, he made a public speech in which he called Libyans living abroad “stray dogs” who would be hunted down. He also promised to bring chaos to Europe, a promise he quickly fulfilled.
It would take the rest of our time today to give you a running timeline of Gaddafi’s atrocities over the next few years. Suffice to say they were numerous and shocking. A highlights, or maybe a lowlights reel might go something like this:
April 1984. A submachinegun fires out the window of the Libyan embassy in London, injuring 11 anti-Gaddafi protestors and killing 25 year old policewoman Yvonne Fletcher.
December 1985. Arab terrorists funded by Libya launch simultaneous gun attacks on Rome and Vienna airports, killing 19 and wounding 138. Their targets were Jewish passengers.
April 1986. Libyan intelligence bombs a West Berlin nightclub frequented by US soldiers. 2 soldiers and a Turkish civilian die, while nearly 230 are injured.
It was this last one that finally made the international community take action. Faced with dead American soldiers, Ronald Reagan authorized a bombing run on Tripoli, intended to take out Gaddafi himself. Just days after the bomb went off in Berlin, American jets streaked across the pale blue Libyan skies, raining missiles onto the capital.
In his compound, Mad Dog Gaddafi was shaken to life by an enormous explosion. Staggering outside, he supposedly found the bomb crater that had been meant for him. Near its smoking remains lay the torn and bloodied body of his adopted daughter.
The American bombs may have failed in their goal of killing the dictator, but they at least seemed to shake him to his senses. Attacks on Europe faltered. In 1987, Gaddafi officially ended the war in Chad. In 1988, he even mimicked Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union, allowing capitalism back into Libya and personally standing atop a bulldozer that smashed down the wall of a jail in Tripoli, freeing hundreds of political prisoners.
At the time, it looked like a cynical ploy for winning back the hearts of a population he’d abused for so long. Now we know the Mad Dog was likely just playing for time.
Shortly after 6pm on December 21 that year, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from Heathrow Airport in London. It flew upwards, over Britain, until it reached the skies above the village of Lockerbie, Scotland. There, it disappeared from radar screens. When a control tower tried to signal it, only silence returned.
We all know what had happened. At two minutes past seven, a Libyan bomb exploded in the hold of Pan Am 103, killing all 259 onboard. Flaming wreckage then crashed down onto Lockerbie, killing a further 11 people on the ground.
In the aftermath of the bombing, it took an international investigation two years to pin the blame on Libya. By that time, Gaddafi’s agents had already downed another aircraft, the French operated UTA Flight 772, which exploded over Niger in 1989, killing 170. In 1992, the UN instigated a harsh sanctions regime against Tripoli. It was the beginning of Gaddafi’s total isolation from the world.
The ’90s — Isolation
If Gaddafi had begun 1988 trying to emulate the reformist zeal of Gorbachev, he entered the 1990s an isolated madman, no longer caring what the world thought. It’s around this time that some of the darkest characteristics of the Mad Dog began to emerge.
There are tales of secret, soundproofed chambers built into public buildings across Tripoli. If Gaddafi happened to be visiting and saw a girl he liked, she would be slipped away and locked in these rooms until he was ready to come and rape her. Those who disappointed him were never heard from again. Those he liked might become one of his all-female bodyguard retinue.
Then there are the young boys. They were all underage, all pretty, in their own way. Kept caged beneath his compound, they formed what became euphemistically known as “the Services Group”, a gang of child sex slaves the dictator could use whenever he wanted.
Finally, there are the tales of the freezers. After the 2011 revolution, a large group of ice rooms were discovered below Gaddafi’s palace. Inside each one lay some rival who’d been killed on the Mad Dog’s orders. Some had been there for over 25 years. It’s said Gaddafi would often come down here in the night, and touch their frozen corpses, to be reminded again of his omnipotence. Of his God-like power over life and death.
These tales don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the regime’s horrors in the ’90s. There’s the day in 1996 when guards walked into Abu Salim political prison in Tripoli, dropped grenades into the cells, and killed 1,270 men. Or the extreme methods used to crackdown on those who began a tribal rebellion against his rule in 1993. Or the way the sanctions bit so hard that speculating in water became punishable by death.
All in all, Libya in the 1990s was as great a horror show as during the Italian occupation. Perhaps greater.
Yet Gaddafi still retained one unlikely friend. Remember that mention of Nelson Mandela a few moments ago? Now free, Mandela spent most of the ’90s trying to talk his onetime sponsor into turning over the Lockerbie bombers. In 1999, the South African statesman managed to extract both a promise to do just that from Gaddafi, and an apology for the murder of Yvonne Fletcher back in 1984.
But it would be a world-changing event that finally brought Gaddafi in from the cold. In the aftermath of 9/11, he became the first Arab leader to offer both condolences and practical military support to the USA. Suddenly, in the crazy new War on Terror era, Mad Dog Gaddafi didn’t seem such a bad guy after all.
The Last Decade — The Statesman, and the Revolution
For the relatives of Gaddafi’s many victims, the Noughties were like falling through the Looking Glass. After Libya paid reparations to the Lockerbie families, the UN lifted its sanctions.
Then, in 2004, Gaddafi suddenly announced Libya was giving up all its chemical and biological weapons. As a reward, both the George Bush and Tony Blair governments began encouraging business investment in Libya. The UK’s MI6 even kidnapped the families of two Libyan dissidents from Bangkok and handed them over to Tripoli with a note saying “thank you”.
This new, international phase for Gaddafi was marked by him formally turning his back on the Arab world. In a public speech, he begged God to keep the Arabs out of Libya. It seemed that, if he couldn’t be the Nasser of the Arabs, then Gaddafi would settle for being the Nasser of another people.
From the mid-2000s on, Gaddafi began laying the ground for his final, quixotic dream: a United States of Africa. This Africa would have one passport, one external border, one army… and one ruler. Care to guess who he thought was the man for the job?
Most African leaders unsurprisingly dismissed the Mad Dog’s latest fantasy, but not all. In 2008, Gaddafi managed to convince over 200 African kings and tribal chiefs to crown him the “King of Kings” of all of Africa. It was classic Gaddafi pageantry, but it did have immediate consequences. As a show of good will, he threw Libya’s borders open to all Africans. The result was four and a half million Arab and Muslim Libyans resentfully being forced to share their country with a million and a half Christian Africans.
While the US-Africa never went anywhere, the decade ended with Libya on its best international footing since 1969. In 2009, Gaddafi even managed to use his diplomatic clout to have the Lockerbie bomber freed on compassionate grounds.
All in all, things were looking up for the monster of the Maghreb. He was the longest-serving non-royal leader on Earth. He had friends in Europe and America. The petro-money was pouring in. Gaddafi in 2010 looked unstoppable. And he might have been, were it not for an anonymous Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi.
On December 17, 2010, Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his harassment by Tunisian authorities. He died of his wounds a couple of weeks later, but his suicide led to large-scale protests that forced Tunisia’s autocratic ruler from power. The Arab Spring was here, and it was about to hit Libya like a hurricane.
If you’re of a certain age, you may remember what happened next. Gaddafi was so sure his people loved him that he was caught completely on the backfoot when the country exploded in revolt on February 15, 2011. Benghazi fell, then the rest of the east. Finally aware of what was happening, Gaddafi dropped the mask of moderation he’d worn since 9/11. The Mad Dog came roaring back, and he was hungry for blood.
As the world watched on, the Libyan Army began rolling towards Benghazi. Those inside were trapped. Fearing an impending massacre, NATO stepped in. A no-fly zone quickly turned into bombing runs against Gaddafi’s units. With Western airpower now on their side, the rebels broke out of Benghazi and pushed West. In no time at all, Gaddafi’s forces were in retreat.
The resulting civil war lasted 8 months, and killed somewhere in the region of 20,000 people. In its end days, the world witnessed all of Gaddafi’s worst impulses. He ordered the starvation of Misurata in a horrifying siege. His jailers tortured prisoners to death. His soldiers were given orders to rape civilians.
Yet Gaddafi simply couldn’t counter NATO’s airpower. By the end of summer, he was in hiding in Sirte — the one time fishing village he’d been born outside, now transformed by four decades of his patronage into a bustling city. On October 20, 2011, rebel fighters finally overran its defenses. Gaddafi was found hiding in a storm drain, his flamboyant clothes soaked with blood and excrement, surrounded by rubbish and cowering like a rat.
Sadly, in Libya, cruelty still remained the currency. As Gaddafi whimpered “what’s this, my sons? What are you doing?” he was surrounded by a jeering crowd. One soldier took his bayonet and sodomized the dictator with it, slicing his insides open. As phones were waved to record his last moments, gunshots rang out. The crowd panicked. The images went blurry. When they finally refocused, Gaddafi was dead, nothing more than a bloodied corpse in the back of a truck. The first and last King of All Africa was no more.
Today, some seven years after Gaddafi’s unceremonious execution, Libya is a mess of tribal conflict and deadly instability. There are at least five groups in control of swathes of the country, on top of countless militia. Over 10,000 have died since the post-Gaddafi settlement collapsed in 2014, making it one of the worst wars currently raging.
In the end, perhaps all Gaddafi really did was hold his country back. For a nation forged in the cruelty of the Italian occupation, the cruelty of the Gaddafi regime led only naturally to the cruelty of today’s conflict. Maybe under a different leader Libya could have been something more. As with so much in history, we will likely never know.