The Despot's Demise: Gadhafi Legacy a Lasting Burden for Libya

Part 2: A Visionary and a Mass Murderer

Rebels stand next to Moammar Gadhafi's body in Misrata. Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Rebels stand next to Moammar Gadhafi's body in Misrata.

Dr. Ahmed Kara gets a jolt during his office hours. At the moment, he is treating a woman in his psychiatric clinic for depression caused by war-related trauma suffered in recent months. Outside the window, one salvo of gunfire follows the next. "Fuck you!" he yells. He hates the randomly aimed shooting. Just yesterday, someone he knew died after being hit by a stray bullet fired by one of these would-be tough-guys. "It's frightening," he says. "They all feel like John Wayne now just because they have rifles."

Many of Kara's patients are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They have seen the bodies of limbless dead children lying in the streets. Though they have many needs, gunfire isn't one of them -- even if it's only in celebration.

The doctor has only just learned that Sirte has fallen. Then, that rebel forces have captured Gadhafi. Then, that he is dead.

He turns on the television and sees images of the tyrant. Yes, that's him. That is the man responsible for the suffering of so many of his patients.

'The Guy Is a Psychopath'

He is often asked what makes Gadhafi tick, says the doctor. Then he pulls out a piece of paper and draws a line in the middle. "This," says Kara, "is normal." He draws two additional lines that extend from the middle. "These are the ones that diverge slightly, the borderline cases." Then he draws three lines along the edge of the paper. "And here, on the extreme edge, there are only very, very few truly evil, deeply disturbed individuals. We don't know much about them." There is only one every few decades, says Kara. He mentions Stalin, Hitler -- and Gadhafi.

The Libyan is a historical personality, an international political figure like no other -- one who mercilessly exploited his people, and yet was apparently deeply convinced that they loved him. He was a man who always felt that Libya was too small for him, and that he was destined to play in the Champions League of world leaders.

"The guy is a psychopath," said former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, who predicted in 1978 that Gadhafi would die an early death at the hands of assassins. But the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was wrong. For it was he who was assassinated, and not the Libyan. Former US President Ronald Reagan characterized Gadhafi as "this mad dog of the Middle East" whose bloody deeds must be stopped after it emerged that the Libyan leader was behind the 1986 deadly bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by American soldiers. Reagan retaliated by ordering air strikes against targets in Libya, including the devastating bombing of Gadhafi's military compound in Tripoli. The colonel survived. In fact, he survived eight US presidents and six German chancellors ever since he and a group of young officers deposed the aged King Idris in a bloodless coup in 1969.

It was always easy to dismiss this man as a clown of the international political stage, with his fantasy uniforms, his extravagant female bodyguards and his shrill one-liners. There is a tendency to reduce him to his periodic escapades of almost extraterrestrial outlandishness, such as when he celebrated his coronation as the "King of Kings" of Africa with a kind of toy crown -- or when he claimed that he had "overcome all the world's economic and social problems" in his rambling work, the "Green Book."

It doesn't do his role justice, though, to limit him to his peculiarities -- to the ubiquitous desert tents and camels at state visits, or the operetta-like array of medals. Gadhafi was an eccentric, an erratic man, an egomaniac. But he was also a visionary and a mass murderer -- one with many secret and cynical friends, especially in the West. And he didn't simply emerge from the mists of history like a random grain of sand in a desert storm.

A Burning Interest in History

Gadhafi's grandfather was among the 100,000 Libyans who were killed in the struggle against the brutal Italian colonial occupation. Italy's reviled fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, spoke contemptuously of the North African country as "a big box of sand" and gave himself the provocative title "Protector of Islam." The foreign rulers deliberately prevented Libyans from rising into positions of leadership. There was no general education system. Life revolved around the clan, herding goats, and the nomadic search for watering holes -- and it was no different for the young boy who was born in 1942 in a village near Sirte.

Even as a child, Gadhafi stood out by his ambition and his burning interest in history. He despised the rule of the foreigners and wanted to take revenge on the Italians for the humiliations suffered at their hands. The young Libyan also deeply admired Egyptian General Gamal Abdel Nasser, an outsider like Gadhafi, who, against all odds, managed to overthrow the monarchy in Cairo and rise to power. The often ridiculed "goat herder" realized that the military was his only chance to rise above his station in life.

In his early days as a revolutionary leader, he was heralded by many in the Third World as a kind of Arab Che Guevara. He sounded intriguing with his firm conviction that education should be free, that housing should not be used to earn money and that the people should rule in a kind of socialist-Islamic state. It soon became clear, however, that Gadhafi was not seeking a third, liberal path between capitalism and communism: He used the tenets of his political philosophy to cement the absolute rule of his family clan. Only his minions benefited from the country's enormous oil revenues. "I have created Libya, I can also destroy it," he said in one of his bizarre desert tent interviews.

Time and again, he tried to unite neighboring Arab states, and later also central African countries, in an empire under his rule. When that failed, he began to finance virtually every terrorist organization in the world, from Northern Ireland's IRA and Germany's Red Army Faction, to Colombia's FARC and the Palestinian Black September network. He saw them all as underdogs fighting a legitimate struggle against the powers that be.

In addition to oppressing his political opponents with extreme brutality, both at home and abroad, he instigated the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am passenger jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The US air raids on his residence both depressed him and spurred him to renewed action. Indeed, although he vehemently denounced Reagan's attack on Tripoli, for Gadhafi what was even more insufferable than being punished by the superpower was to be simply ignored by it: "How should I behave as the only healthy person in this sick world?"

A Spectacular Turnaround

The CIA's discovery of his plans to build nuclear weapons gave him an opportunity to make a spectacular turnaround in 2003. The revolutionary leader renounced all weapons of mass destruction and allowed this to be verified by international inspectors. He paid the families of the Lockerbie victims a total of $2.7 billion in compensation. He bought his way, so to speak, back into the international community, which welcomed him with an almost alarming degree of enthusiasm: business as usual.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi became a "dear friend" and French President Nicolas Sarkozy rolled out the red carpet for him during a state visit to Paris. This was followed by deals with London and Berlin, and the cynical Bush-Cheney administration even flew suspected terrorists to Tripoli, where they could be subjected to "enhanced" forms of interrogation. Only Switzerland tentatively took on the despot. The Swiss arrested his son Hannibal on charges of violent behavior, but released him two days later. Gadhafi was so outraged, however, that he called for a jihad against the Alpine republic and urged the UN to abolish the country and divide it among Germany, France and Italy.

The revolutionary leader, notorious for his torture chambers, even managed to get his country elected to the UN Human Rights Council in May 2010 -- despite the fact that he had proven himself to be a provocateur of the worst kind during a speech delivered to the UN General Assembly just a few months earlier. He called the UN Security Council a "terror council," tore pages from the UN Charter and declared that Israel was the root of all evil in the world -- as well as being responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Nevertheless, he referred to the African-American US President Barack Obama as "our son". Afterwards, he carved his name into the lectern.

Maximum Brutality

When the Arab Spring swept from power the authoritarian regimes of Tunisia and Egypt in February 2011 and resistance began to stir in Libya, Gadhafi cracked down on his opponents with maximum brutality. He never did entirely trust his Libya and, as an eternal son of the desert, he harbored an even greater mistrust of city dwellers. "Yes, I love and fear the masses," he wrote in his prophetic book. "The tyranny of one man is the most infamous of all tyrannies, but the despot is a man who the community can eliminate -- in fact, even an insignificant individual can accomplish this."

First, the eastern part of the country fell, and Benghazi became the internationally recognized capital of the opposition movement. Then fell Misrata, and finally the capital. Gadhafi still managed to put in a few memorable performances. He appeared once with an umbrella in his hands and, always aggressive, was determined to "fight to the last drop of blood" against the "traitors." Then he disappeared from sight in late August, and was only heard from occasionally via audio messages smuggled to Syria. Some claimed that they saw him on the Algerian border, while others suspected that he was already living in exile.

But this time he kept his word: He remained with his last loyal supporters and never lost his faith in a turn in the military tide. Or, in his desire for historic greatness, he consciously sought a heroic end, not realizing that, in view of his horrendous record, not many would see him as a "martyr." "Sometimes death is cowardly and stabs from behind or lurks hidden in the earth. In my escape to hell, I have snatched my soul from you," he prophetically wrote in his surreal style of prose two decades ago.

Patching Together a World View

It was only logical that he would retreat to Sirte for his final stand. Gadhafi's home was not the city on the coastal road, an urban conglomerate of 130,000 inhabitants, but rather a deserted spot more than half an hour's drive into the desert, along a sandy track that winds through the rolling hills. The ensemble of tents -- old patchwork ones and new ones anchored with concrete pillars -- is easily recognizable on satellite images. This is where he resided and received his guests, including SPIEGEL reporters, most recently in April 2010.

Gadhafi preferred to sit in his drafty old tent than in the air-conditioned new one, reclining on white plastic chairs and fanning the flies away from his face with a palm frond. But he always had his computer. The Bedouin was also a news freak who apparently patched together his world view from clichés and conspiracy theories from the Internet.

In Sirte, a lackluster and well-maintained city, now largely destroyed in the wake of the fighting, the colonel had a conference center built in the early 1990s -- a complex that was much too big for the city, yet rather modest compared to his pan-African ambitions. It is here that Gadhafi put in his last big international appearance, precisely one year ago, in October 2010: In the final photo taken at a summit of the Arab League, he can be seen in the first row joking with Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh. Three of these four men have been deposed, and the fourth, the Yemeni president, is desperately clinging to power.

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