In the movie reel of his imagination, he sees himself standing alone in the desert, silhouetted against the moon, swathed in traditional Bedouin robes, a farsighted prophet of Islam and the mighty creator of the Great Arab Nation, stretching from the warm Persian Gulf to the dark Atlantic Ocean--a nation that would eclipse the West in power and glory and purity. Muammar Gaddafi is not a man of modest ambitions. Nor one without a sense of backlighting.
But his messianic vision, like the turbans in which he wraps himself, does not camouflage his vicious methods and his ruthless fanaticism. He believes his own erratic ends are justified by any means, however bloody. He has become the modern-day incarnation of the Society of Assassins, which flourished from the 11th to the 13th century in the Middle East, only his victims are random and spread over the entire map. The primary tool of his effort to achieve Islamic unity and the elimination of Israel is terrorism. Gaddafi regards himself not only as the last great hope of pan-Islam but as the scourge of the West, which he fervently believes has humiliated the Arab world for centuries. It is a humiliation he intends to avenge.
Although Gaddafi is often described as a madman, an irrational mystic who speaks in rhyme but without reason, there is a contorted yet intent philosophical underpinning to his actions and ideology. His madness has method in it--indeed, his apparent madness is a method. His very unpredictability is a way of keeping his enemies off guard. He revels when those in the West denounce him as a devil; it only confirms the righteousness of his cause.
Gaddafi's cause and the means with which he pursues it are the result of his desert youth, his early military training and his scattered reading of utopian and anarchist writers. His father was an illiterate Bedouin shepherd, and Gaddafi was born in a goatskin tent in the desert near Surt. "The desert teaches you to rely on yourself," Gaddafi has written. "The values I learned there have remained with me all my life."
His activism ignited early. He walked miles to school, often slept in a mosque, and was booted out of secondary school after starting a student strike. He later entered a military academy, where he immersed himself in the Koran and the passionate speeches in praise of Arab nationalism by Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom Gaddafi came to worship. After graduating, he spent ten months at a British army signals school.
When he returned to Libya, Gaddafi began to organize his fellow officers into secret cells to plan a way to overthrow the regime of the aged King Idris, whom he regarded as a corrupt and effete tool of Western oil companies. In 1969 Gaddafi led an efficient, bloodless coup, an effortless overthrow that seemed to have the tacit support of the U.S.