The Magazine

To the Shores of Tripoli

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By MATT LABASH
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Surely there are worse PR gigs than flacking for the Libyan government, but I can't think of many. It's not that there's never good news emanating from the province of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who's displayed humility throughout his 40-year dictatorial reign by never promoting himself to generalissimo (in his less demure moments, he calls himself the "King of Kings").

For even when Qaddafi dismantles his weapons programs or is removed from the State Department's state sponsors of terrorism list after 27 years near the top of the charts, it's still a one-step-forward-ten-steps-back proposition. Such as when he suggests abolishing Switzerland, or welcomes back the Lockerbie bomber, or asserts that the swine flu was created in U.S. military labs, or denounces sodomy in a speech at the U.N. Or such as when he calls Condoleezza Rice "my little black African woman," or when he shows up with his phalanx of Kalashnikov-toting all-virgin female bodyguards called the "Nuns of the Revolution," or when he suggests Israelis and Palestinians live together in a land called "Isratine" (which sounds less like a one-state solution, more like a muscle-building supplement for Jewish power lifters).

The guy has issues. So even when the philanthropic foundation of his sophisticated, Westernized son and heir apparent, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, has its PR firm fly in a bunch of junketeering reporters to prove what reasonable, America-friendly cuddle-bears the Libyans have become, there's a unique Qaddafi twist: an invitation to meet a mess of Islamic terrorists released from prison who've renounced violence and issued a revised code of jihad called The Book of Correctional Studies.

From the moment I touched down in Tripoli on this mission, I had the sensation that I was being watched. Not by secret police. But by a pock-marked F. Murray Abraham-with-a-jheri-curl doppelgänger who looked like he'd swallowed a fistful of Clozapine. No worries. It was just Qaddafi. His likeness is everywhere. There he is in ceremonial fez, there in his batwing Jim-Jones sunglasses, there in his Captain-Crunch epaulets. Oil might be what makes Libya go, but savvy investors should try to get a cut of the Qaddafi billboard-propaganda contract.

I didn't have long to take in Tripoli's charms. Luckily, it has few. The architecture not left behind by a daisy chain of occupiers looks like a Soviet planner was trying to unload his ugly-apartment-building surplus. Nightlife? It has none. "It's not a fun place," admitted our American flack escort. "Egypt is Adventureland by comparison." At the souk, I had my pick of authentic Libyan wares, like a Julio Iglesias CD, a Qaddafi watch, and a used toilet. "It very good," promised the toilet-barker. After a walk on the beach by the Mediterranean, or rather, on the plastic bottles that litter it, I returned to my hotel room for a Libyan beer, which is like a regular beer except without the delicious alcohol. (It's a dry country, and it shows.)

The terrorists themselves, members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, weren't much livelier. We shuffled between appointments at their houses, downing pear juice and pastries in their sitting rooms while working them over for hours with bad translators. Dressed in khakis and sweater vests, they looked less like jihadists than accountants from Scranton.

Their stories had a sameness: Go to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets (who were almost gone when they got there, but pre-Al Jazeera, news traveled slow), then disperse to the world's anti-Western hotspots--Yemen, Sudan, London. They fell in with the wrong crowd: al Qaeda. But mainly they just wanted to kill Qaddafi, leaving us Westerners with a quandary typical in the Middle East: Who to root against? They weren't very good at it. In years, they only came close once, throwing a grenade at the colonel that didn't go off. They should've recruited Ronald Reagan, who got a little closer in 1986.

As they talk, a minder from the Office of International Cooperation scribbles notes. (After reading the human rights reports on Libyan prisons, one has a suspicion of how cooperation is achieved.) Now, after years of jailhouse reeducation, they've been rethinking their jihadist drink. Their turn-ons include mouthing tepid support for Qaddafi. Their turn-offs include killing civilians, which they consider bad juju (pun intended for the good people of Isratine).

All they really want, they say, are normal lives. That, and patronage jobs, which Qaddafi is giving them. It's an odd tactic. But let's hope it works, Qaddafi employing his former aspiring assassins by taking the Huey Long approach to fighting terror: Every man, a King of Kings.

MATT LABASH