The figure stood dazed and bleeding, surrounded and jostled angrily by the frenzied crowd. In a matter of minutes the man would be dead and the country which he had ruled over for forty years with a bizarre mixture of terror tactics, genuinely impressive public projects and one of the strangest cult of personalities in the modern era, would begin a new chapter.
The death of Muammar Gaddafi on 20th October 2011 in the small Libyan town of Sirte, brought to an end one of the most outlandish periods of governance in recent history. This was a man who had led Libya from 1969 until his death at the hands of rebel fighters and whose rule had seen the country lurch from Islamic Socialism to state-sponsored terrorism, to Western buddyism – not technically a word but we liked it anyway.
The Libyan story over the last sixty years has been nothing short of turbulent and sadly today looks almost worse than ever. If you need an example of what happens when a mentally questionable man takes the reins of an oil-rich nation and then allows his follies and bizarre desires to play out to their heart’s content, then look no further. This is a tale of shocking repression, global terrorism and the pursuit of nuclear and chemical weapons, but also one of impressive social reforms, gender equality and huge infrastructure projects that completely changed Libya.
Situated in the North of Africa on the Mediettaren coast, Libya has a landmass of 1,759,540 square kilometres (679,362 sq mi), making it the 16th largest country in the world. Today it has a population of close to seven million and is comfortably one of the most dangerous countries in the world – but more on that later.
Libya’s history goes way, way back. Tens of thousands of years ago the area had a temperate Mediterranean climate and instead of plenty of sand like today, the region was thick with fertile vegetation. There is evidence of people living in the coastal areas of Libya roughly 10,000 years ago but after intense desertification sped up around 4000 BC, the population slowly dwindled.
During the ancient period, the area that is today called Libya but was then three distinct areas called Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan were passed between the Phoenicians and the Greeks, before the arrival of the Romans in 1st Century BC. There they remained for over 500 years before the fall of Rome saw it become part of first the Byzantine Empire, then Arab rule under Islamic law and finally the Ottoman Empire right up until the 18th Century.
Chances are that few have ever heard about the First and then Second Barbary Wars but they constitute two of the more intriguing conflicts in history that saw the United States (with the help of Sweden of all countries during the First War) declare war on a group known collectively as the ‘Barbary States’ – three of which were autonomous regions of Ottoman Empire, Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis, and the fourth was the independent Sultanate of Morocco.
Essentially it all came down to piracy and when the American ship Betsey was captured on 11th October 1784 it set off a chain of events that eventually led to war. Initially, the American government agreed to pay a ransom (or yearly tribute depending on how you want to look at things) for the Betsey, but seven years later, shortly after Thomas Jefferson had been sworn in as President, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 (around $3.5 million today) from the new administration as a tribute. Understandably, Jefferson refused and Karamanli declared war on the United States.
Now, what followed was fairly strange and involved a U.S naval blockade of Tripoli and other ports on the African coast. Two small battles proved inconclusive but an overland invasion, if you will, involving eight U.S. Marines and five hundred mercenaries made up of Greeks, Arabs, and Berbers captured the Tripolitan city of Derna. This was the first time that the U.S flag was raised in victory on foreign soil and is also immortalised in the Marines’ Hymn with the line ” to the shores of Tripoli”.
This led to peace talks and eventually a treaty was signed but lasted less than ten years before pretty much exactly the same row erupted again as Barbary pirates once again began attacking U.S ships. A small American armada was dispatched to the Mediterranean and after capturing several ships and gently insinuating that they were willing to destroy Algiers if need be, the Barbary States once again backed down.
The King of Libya
In 1911, the area fell under Italian rule after the Italo-Turkish War and remained that way until the Second World War when the area was finally conquered by the allies in 1943. After the war, Libya was again divided with the British controlling Tripolitania and Cyrenaica between 1943 and 1951, while the French controlled Fezzan.
But this was of course the time of independence around the world and Libya was no different. On 24th December 1951, Libya declared its independence as the United Kingdom of Libya. The country was decreed as a constitutional and hereditary monarchy under King Idris – a politician and religious leader who had long been the focal point of the Libyan independence movement.
At this point, the nation had a population of around 1 million and a crippled infrastructure that had been all but destroyed by the war. Libyans were among the poorest in the world at this stage of our story, with a 40% infant mortality rate and a 94% illiteracy rate.
While it would have been difficult for Libya to get any worse, the country’s 18 years under King Idris saw rampant corruption and favouritism exacerbate social problems. He banned political parties from operating in the country while also cosying up to the west, a fact that infuriated many, especially during the period of rising Arab nationalism that eventually led to the Six-Day War with Israel.
In 1959, oil was discovered in Libya and it didn’t take long for foreign companies to surge in and begin pumping frantically. By 1967, it was supplying a third of the oil entering the West European market but it’s probably not a great surprise to hear that murky outside forces had begun to pressure the king and his government over reforms and control over the oil fields.
Of all of the coups that have popped up around the world, this was one that many could see coming. Libya, while much better off than just a couple of decades before, remained a relatively poor nation that was effectively being drained of its natural resources without the people really getting a decent slice of the pie.
On 1st September 1969, a group of about 70 young army officers known as the Free Officers Movement led by twenty-seven-year-old Captain Muammar Gaddafi, a man from humble beginnings in Western Libya who had somehow managed to not only rise quickly through the military ranks but also to place himself as the leader of this would-be revolution, launched a coup d’etat while King Idris was in Turkey for a medical procedure.
It shows the level of resentment that had grown under the King’s rule because the coup was carried out relatively smoothly and with little to no bloodshed. Rule was officially placed in the hands of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), a twelve-man group, and almost immediately the nation was renamed the Libyan Arab Republic, while Gaddafi was promoted to colonel and appointed as commander in chief of the Libyan Armed Forces.
Before we go any further it’s probably worth focusing our attention a little on the main character of the story here, Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi. Born sometime in 1942 – and yes that’s the best that we can do – near Qasr Abu Hadi, a rural area outside the town of Sirte, the young Gaddafi came into a situation that couldn’t really be any further from his glittering heyday.
The term rags to riches is often overused, but in this case, it is absolutely perfect. His father was a goat and camel herder and the family eked out a difficult existence at a time of deep insecurity as a distant European war came to the deserts of western Libya.
His early education came in Sirte and the young boy would sleep in a mosque during the week before walking the 32 km (20 miles) back to his parent’s house every weekend. As he progressed through his teenage years to adulthood, he became increasingly politicized and retained a deep admiration for Egyptian President Nasser who he saw as a shining Arab beacon in the face of imperialism.
After deciding that studying history at Benghazi University wasn’t quite for him, he dropped out and joined the military in 1963 and just the following year he established the Central Committee of the Free Officers Movement, a group that would eventually topple the monarchy but started as a small revolutionary-minded faction who the authorities paid little to no attention to.
Shortly after graduating in August 1965 he became a communications officer in the army’s signal corps and travelled to the UK the following year to complete an English-language course at Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, an Army Air Corps signal instructors course in Bovington Camp, Dorset, and an infantry signal instructors course at Hythe, Kent.
Despite openly stating his disdain for the British, and any imperialist nation it must be said, Gaddafi was hugely impressed with Britain, especially compared with what remained back in Libya, and when he returned in 1967, he did so with renewed vigour for change.
As the dust settled after the 1st September coup, Gaddafi and others in the RCC sought to assert their control over this new young nation that had emerged. Another attempted coup – let’s say a coup within a coup – was prevented in December 1969 and the resulting reorganization saw Gadafi add the roles of prime minister and defence minister to his blossoming portfolio. If there was any doubt over where the real power lay within Libya now, it was quickly being answered.
Part of this clearinghouse involved the trials of more than 200 former government officials, including the King and his family, as well as seven former prime ministers and numerous cabinet ministers, charged with treason and corruption by the Libyan People’s Court, an emergency tribunal set up purposely for this reason. The king himself was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to death, with four more death sentences and countless prison sentences handed down.
In 1971, the Free Officers Movement was renamed Arab Socialist Union (ASU) and quickly the muzzle of repression descended as strikes and demonstrations were banned, the media conscripted under governmental control and foreign nationals, many of whom were either Jewish or of Italian descent, were expelled from the country.
A Rocky Ride
And so began the age of Gaddafi and what a bumpy, whacky, up and down ride it would be. Let’s start with his ideologies which seemed to come and go with the seasons. In 1975, Gaddafi published his Green Book, in which he outlined his political philosophy which mainly came across as jumbled ravings on socialist utopias. In it, he claimed to have found the happy marriage between capitalism and communism, but its implementation in Libya was patchy at best.
Part of this was a cultural revolution that swept through the country in the early years after the coup designed to create bureaucratic efficiency, public interest and participation in the subnational governmental system, and national political coordination. Gaddafi openly encouraged citizens to rise up and take control of government organisations by creating committees at different levels of society. If this is starting to sound a little Soviet Union, well, yes kind of, but no socialist nation in the world was quite like Libya.
With this revolutionary zeal came some real economic progress and Libya’s Five-Year Economic and Social Transformation Plan announced in 1975, was designed to pump $20 billion into the economy to try and diversify away from the country’s huge reliance on oil. The Great Man-Made River may come with a slightly pompous name but as the world’s largest irrigation project that brings 6.5 million m3 (22.9 million ft3) of freshwater per day to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte and others, from roughly 1,300 wells further south, it almost deserves it.
Enormous economic and infrastructure progress was certainly made under Gadaffi and this was joined by some genuine social strides forward. The previous regime had placed severe restrictions on women and this was one area that saw significant change. In 1970, a law was introduced affirming equality of the sexes and insisting on wage parity and in 1972, a law was passed criminalizing the marriage of any females under the age of sixteen and ensuring that a woman’s consent was a necessary prerequisite for marriage. Now, I know that might not sound too extraordinary, but this was an Arab nation in the 1970s and it would be decades until neighbouring countries caught up – and some never have.
As we’re about to come to, Gaddafi got involved in plenty of heinous actions around the world that led to the deaths of thousands, but it is important to be clear about what he did for the people of Libya. He was certainly no saint and many hated his quasi-soviet cum Arab revolution, but he was also not simply a tyrannical dictator who destroyed his country.
And before we move on, let’s just touch on some of the more bizarre aspects of Gadaffi. There were the well-known “Amazons”, a group of forty female bodyguards who reportedly kept watch over him – complete with pristine makeup and high heels. He was said to have had quite an infatuation for ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice so much so that a creepy photo album made up entirely of pictures of her were found in one of his homes. Oh, and despite his progress with female equality, he was an absolute sexual deviant who apparently even had a secret signal when meeting people that showed his entourage that this woman should be escorted back to his personal boudoir and I’m sure you can guess where things went from there.
Now, it’s no exaggeration to say that we could probably do an entire video on Libyan involvement in terrorist activities and international militant movements. Say what you will about Gaddafi, the man had a vision of a global uprising against imperialism that he did his utmost to put into practice. While some causes were aligned with his own ramblings in the Green Book, others had little to do with his ideas, and at times it seemed like Gaddafi simply threw his support by any resistance group going at the time.
Let me just rattle off a few of the big hitters that Libya got involved with around the world: the Black September Movement responsible for the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics, the Provisional IRA, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, the Palestine Liberation Organization, FARC in Colombia, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Red Army Faction in West Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, and there were even reports of Libyan agents attempting to stir up a Maori uprising in New Zealand and an Aborigine revolt in Australia.
With most of these, it’s not entirely clear how far support went and whether it was financially, militarily in the form of weapons or simply with vocal support – although when he publically said, “the bombs which are convulsing Britain and breaking its spirit are the bombs of Libyan people. We have sent them to the Irish revolutionaries so that the British will pay the price for their past deeds”, he did make that pretty clear, but by that point, an Irish coast guard ship had already intercepted a boat carrying Soviet-made arms from Libya destined for the Provisional IRA.
Gaddafi also did his utmost to get his hands on nuclear weapons, but while the Libyan program huffed and puffed it never really materialised. The Soviet Union helped to construct a 10 MW research reactor at Tajura which was opened in 1981, but Gaddafi repeatedly failed to convince outside nations to assist with his program, with first the Chinese and then the Pakistanis rebuffing his advances. He had much more luck with chemical weapons and while the total amount that Libya amassed is up for debate, in 2004 when the country signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, it declared 24.7 metric tonnes of mustard gas, 1,390 metric tonnes of chemical precursors for making sarin, as well as 3,563 unloaded chemical weapon munitions to be used as aerial bombs.
Now, while the world may have grudgingly tolerated Gaddafi’s flirtations with resistance movements around the globe, the jump to state-sponsored terrorism was quite a different matter. The bombing of the La Belle club in Berlin on 5th April 1986, which killed 3 and injured 229, was suspected to be Libyans at the time but was only confirmed after the reunification of Germany. However, it was another attack that focused the world’s attention on Libya.
On 21st December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was travelling from Frankfurt to Detroit via a stopover in London. After refuelling in the English capital, it flew north and was above the Scottish town of Lockerbie when a bomb planted before takeoff detonated, tearing the plane apart and sending debris crashing down on Lockerbie. The attack killed 270 people, including 11 on the ground and remains the worst terrorist attack on British soil.
After a three year investigation, involving multiple agencies across the world, arrest warrants were issued for two Libyan nationals in November 1991. Gadaffi refused to extradite the two men – I wonder why – and the following year sanctions were placed on Libya that would slowly choke the life out of the country.
With the global community rallying together the economic punishment placed upon Libya was swift. UN sanctions cut airline connections with the outer world, reduced diplomatic representation and prohibited the sale of military equipment, while Libya’s foreign assets were frozen and the sale of refinery or pipeline equipment to Libya was banned.
The country suffered an estimated $900 million ($1.6 billion today) financial loss as a result of the sanctions that dragged on through the 1990s until Libya agreed to hand over Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah to the court in Holland to be tried for their parts in the Lockerbie bombing. Al-Megrahi was convicted of the murder of 270 people while Fhimah was acquitted on all charges.
But there was one final step that the UN demanded before Libya could be fully welcomed back into the international fold and in 2003 the country paid $2.7 billion (around $4 billion today) to the families of those killed in the bombing – though Gadaffi always strenuously denied any knowledge of the attack.
With Libya now a fully settled up member of the global community, Gaddafi experienced something of a renaissance as he was openly courted by numerous European governments, the Chinese, the Russians and of course the Americans. Suddenly, everybody’s favourite moderate-to-very crazy dictator was being pictured with the real movers and shakers of the global community and it was as if all those terrorist misdemeanours had just never happened.
Suddenly foreign money was pouring into Libya and those ideas of socialism and nationalisation that Gaddafi had based so much of his early energies on all but disappeared. Gradually the country was becoming an autocratic desert democracy (minus any elections of course) with more money than it knew what to do with.
In many ways, Gaddafi had performed a quite extraordinary 180 and in 2010 plans were announced that would have effectively privatised half of the nation’s economy over the following decade. While the move proved deeply unpopular, it wasn’t all bad news for the people with price controls and subsidies over oil and food remaining in place, along with state-provided benefits such as free education, universal healthcare, free housing, free water and free electricity. But it was events that began outside Libya that would eventually lead to Gadaffi’s downfall.
The Arab Spring
When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, many of the region’s long-lasting leaders feared for the future. As huge protests rippled through the Arab world, Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh were all forced from power. Not exactly always peacefully, but it was in stark contrast to what would happen in Libya.
Protests that began in February 2011 quickly gathered steam and the country collapsed into civil war with the National Transitional Council of Libya declaring itself as the legitimate government and calling on the international community for support.
But considering what happened in nearby Syria, where a ten-year civil war is still ongoing, the fall of Gadaffi and his regime came swiftly, greatly aided when the UN implemented a no-fly zone in March 2011. This UN mandate began as a way of protecting civilians but quickly escalated into attacks on government forces themselves.
In August 2011, the final battle for Tripoli began and lasted barely a week. On 16th September 2011, the National Transitional Council was recognised by the United Nations as the legal representative of Libya and as the rebels fanned out across Libya, the hunt for Gadaffi was on.
The Final Fall
There was significant confusion over the whereabouts of Gadaffi as the war began to wind down. Many assumed he had fled the country, either going west or south, but there was always an inkling that he may be hiding near Sirte, close to where he was born and one of the few areas still loyal to him.
The final hours of his life are far from clear. It’s thought that he may have been part of a convoy attempting to flee Sirte that was attacked by foreign aircraft. What we know is that Gadaffi was found badly injured hiding in a disused water pipe and dragged out by the rebels. Much of his final moments were recorded and quickly found their way onto the internet, though the exact circumstances of how he died remain unclear. His lifeless body was later shown lying in an ambulance and later that day, Libyans were informed of his death.
A Failed State
Sadly we are becoming accustomed to nations that were once under heavy-handed dictatorships collapsing into civil war once that ruler is removed – and Libya has been a perfect example.
Ten years on and Libya is still a complete mess that is being pulled apart by two competing “governments” who both claim complete authority and legitimacy. The country also became a focal point for ISIS and other extremist movements, but with western nations recoiling at the idea of another military adventure in the middle east, the Libyans have pretty much been left to their own devices.
Few countries around the world have a story quite like Libya’s. A rise from one of the poorest countries in the world after World War II to a solid middle-ranking nation in terms of development and spending, via a lengthy stay on the terror watch list thanks to their leader’s ravenous appetite for revolution. Sadly Libya seems to be staggering backwards right now. Gaddafi may be long gone, but for this beleaguered nation on the African shores of the Mediterranean, there seems no end in sight to this frantic rollercoaster experience.