‘The Mad Dog of the Middle East’
Reagan was right about Qaddafi
Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By MATT LABASH
As I sat transfixed in front of a television this week, watching the revolution unfold in Libya—it beats the hell out of House reruns—I was transported back to a simpler time in the history of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, as its leader prefers (Muammar Qaddafi isn’t wordy just in speeches). Long before the Day of Rage became a staple of the region, or “Thursday” as they now call it in the Arab world, I traveled to Libya at the end of 2009.
I tasted the fruits of Tripoli, though not the fermented ones. Libya, like so much of the joyless Maghreb and Middle East, is a country that survives on near beer. I strolled along empty plastic bottles, also known as the beach. The only other beachgoer I spotted was a fellow who was openly relieving himself in the Mediterranean, and from the look of the mounds of trash on the shoreline, this likely improved the water quality. I sampled the charms, such as they are, of the Old City. At least I think it was the Old City. It’s hard to tell sometimes in Libya, where everything, from the Soviet-bloc-style tenement architecture to the used toilet someone tried to sell me at the souk, has lived beyond its expiration date.
But my real purpose there was to meet terrorists as a guest of the Qaddafi family. Or, to be more precise, a guest of Muammar’s heir apparent back when Qaddafi was still able to plan for such things as heirs apparent, his second son, Saif. The Qaddafi clan being a big one, Saif is not to be confused with his brother Al-Saadi, who was a professional soccer player in Italy for exactly one match before failing a drug test. Or with brother Mutassim, who a Serbian ambassador once described as “not very bright,” and who allegedly shook down the chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation for $1.2 billion in the interest of starting his own “military/security unit.” Nor is Saif to be confused with brother Hannibal, who beat his servants in a Geneva hotel with a belt and clothes hangers, and once was arrested for punching his future wife in a Paris hotel. She was eight months pregnant at the time.
Saif, by contrast, was considered the cosmopolitan, liberalized face of the Qaddafi family—the guy who called for reforms, who started charitable foundations, who championed ecotourism, and who got his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, where his thesis was entitled “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions.” Before last week, when he took to Libyan airwaves warning protesters there’d be “rivers of blood” in the streets if they persisted, he was considered the sanest Qaddafi brother, an admittedly low bar along the lines of being considered the most chaste Kardashian sister.
My visiting group of journalists and academics didn’t meet Saif personally—he was probably off in Europe somewhere, posting bail or demanding diplomatic immunity for one of his degenerate siblings. But we’d come at the behest of his Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which wanted to showcase how it was rehabbing former terrorists from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who were now rethinking their jihad drink and renouncing violence, as men who face life sentences, and in some instances death sentences, might tend to do.
The LIFG was once a sister organization of al Qaeda, and after the Afghanistan struggles of the eighties, some of its members had even become running buddies with Osama bin Laden (one LIFGer told me Osama was a nice guy, he’d just fallen in with the wrong crowd). But if LIFG members, in their day, fraternized with stone-cold killers of Westerners and innocents, they professed to having only a single objective: killing Qaddafi. This was once considered radical thinking in Libya, before last week, when the entire country essentially turned into the LIFG, and not the reformed edition, either.
We trekked from terrorist den to terrorist den, interviewing mild-mannered men in sweater vests who spoke haltingly through horrible interpreters. If they said something interesting, which they rarely did, we didn’t worry too much if we missed it, figuring we could borrow notes from the government minder from the menacingly named Office of International Cooperation, who sat in a corner, furiously scribbling down the LIFGers’ self-conscious utterances about how they once wanted Qaddafi dead but now thought he was a pretty okay King of Kings (one of the many demure titles Qaddafi has claimed for himself).