The Son Also Sets: Behind Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's Capture

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Ammar El-Darwish / Reuters

In captivity Saif al-Islam Gaddafi among his enemies

He looks dazed, his eyes wide open but seeing nothing ahead of him. Perhaps it is all hindsight now for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, 39, the son and would-be heir of the recently and violently deceased Muammar, as he sits in detention in western Libya. No longer a fugitive from his country's new powers-that-be, Saif can now look back at the time in early February when Libya was about to descend into catastrophe, and he came under pressure from close associates to break ranks with his father. One of the younger Gaddafi's former top aides told TIME that they believed that he, more than anyone, might have been able to save his country from a disastrous war and thousands of deaths. Instead, Saif's final role will be as a reviled defendant in a trial that will likely end with either his execution or imprisonment for life.

Saif might have avoided those options altogether — and perhaps changed the course of Libyan history. According to Youssef Sawani, who until February was executive director of the younger Gaddafi's hugely powerful foundation, "My recommendation to him before the revolt was to dissociate himself completely from the regime." Says Sawani: "He could have broken away."

Sawani says that on Feb. 6, days before the revolt erupted, he went to Saif's home. "I suggested that if he was completely frustrated he should quit, become a dissident and leave the country, and lay the responsibility on the shoulders of the regime," he says. Sawani believes Saif might have been able to persuade his father to go into exile — earning himself the gratitude of Libyans and a key role in the new country. "Libyans were banking on Saif," Sawani says. "He was widely accepted by intellectuals, activists and the liberal opposition in the diaspora."

That view is rejected by other Libyan figures, including the former rebel Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, who, like Sawani, was hired by Saif to oversee reforms. "Saif deceived us all," Jibril tells TIME. "The real Saif was much uglier than his father."

Sawani, who has a political-science doctorate from the University of Canterbury, joined Saif in 2007 but in time found the way toward reform blocked by regime hard-liners. In interviews with me in February 2010 and March '11, Saif claimed his attempts at change were stonewalled. By early February, he was frantic about the Arab Spring spreading to his country. Revolution had just forced Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak from power as Libya's activists were planning mass demonstrations in Benghazi and surrounding towns. Saif vacillated for days about how to respond. Ultimately, says Sawani, Saif could not grasp that Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year rule was doomed. Indeed, in March — days before NATO bombing began — Saif told me he believed his father would end the revolt and re-establish control, even if the alliance bombed Libya.

Saif, explains Sawani, felt he could not betray his family. On Feb. 16, one day before Libya's revolution began, Sawani visited Saif and told him he was resigning. Saif was upset, he says. "It was a time he needed more help and assistance."

On Feb. 20, Saif appeared on television vowing to crush the rebellion. According to Sawani, a friend of Saif met the younger Gaddafi shortly before that speech, and the two agreed that Saif would reassure Libyans that the regime would "advance their demands." Instead, says Sawani, "he came out and said the opposite. Everyone was shocked." His fate was sealed.

Though he slipped into the vast Libyan Sahara in late October, just as fighters closed in on and killed his father, Saif was cornered on Nov. 19 in a desert town about 645 km south of the capital, Tripoli, after four weeks on the run. His captors were militiamen from Zintan, who flew him to their hometown as a war trophy and a valuable bargaining chip for influence in the new regime. Though he's wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, most Libyans appear to want him tried at home. Unlike the Netherlands, the death penalty is on the books.