Muammar Gaddafi was once bigger than life. But at the end of his time in power, his braggadocio had become surreal, his threats disembodied; he was almost all feint and desperate manipulation. "It's time to leave frizz head," read one sign in Tripoli, the capital that was once both enthralled and scared to death of him, as his control over the city crumbled in August. Pay no attention to the man wearing the curtain.
Two months before his demise, his menace was already in retreat. In the late afternoon of Aug. 23, after hours of pounding battle, Libya's rebels smashed through the fortified perimeter of Gaddafi's compound in western Tripoli the nerve center of the old regime sending huge plumes of smoke over the city. Gaddafi and his loyalists fled. He declared the withdrawal "tactical," but he was running for his life. The triumphant transitional government, no longer comprised of rebels but rulers, offered more than $1 million for his head. They got it on Oct. 20, when a bloodied Gaddafi was captured as his hometown of Sirt fell to the new government after a ferocious siege of several weeks. He was quickly reported to have died of his wounds, and a gruesome cell-phone photo of a pale-faced man looking much like the colonel circulated online almost immediately. His last words may have been "Don't shoot." Gaddafi's long, weird run as unquestioned overlord of Libya was over.
Long before his end, Muammar Gaddafi had become the weird, creepy, certainly criminal uncle who showed up, because he was really rich, at reunions of world leaders. He did not begin that way. How a young man from deep poverty in a rural North African town rose to become one of the West's most intractable foes, and then one of its most critical political and economic partners, is an extraordinary political saga.
Gaddafi was scarcely destined for power. Born in 1942 into a tribal Bedouin family near the coastal town of Sirt, he was raised in a country still digging out from the ravages of World War II and a long struggle against Italian colonialism. The giant oil reserves that lay beneath the Libyan desert were years away from being explored. In fact, Libya was barely a nation at all. Gaddafi was 9 years old when the country finally gained its independence from France and Britain (which administered it jointly after the war's end) and became a monarchy under King Idris al-Sanusi.
Like many provincial boys with little education, Gaddafi joined the army. He became a captain, then trained at Britain's elite Sandhurst Academy, before returning home as an officer in the Signal Corps. It was in that position, at just 27, that he led a group of junior officers in a bloodless coup, toppling King Idris and declaring himself colonel. In the museum glorifying Gaddafi's "people's revolution," set within the high stone walls of the fortress in Tripoli's Green Square, one of the main exhibits was a battered sand-colored jeep with open sides, in which Gaddafi, according to his own legend, rode into the city, victorious on Sept. 1, 1969, to present himself as Libya's leader to a people hungry for popular leadership.
For many Libyans, it was a thrilling moment. Back in 1968, Gaddafi, a dashing young man with a chiseled jaw and piercing eyes, looked to many Libyans every bit as romantic a figure as Che Guevara. "We thought it was a revolution for freedom and human rights," says Fathi Baja, 58, a political science professor in Benghazi. Like countless young Libyans in 1969, Baja, who was in high school at the time, marched in the streets, hailing Gaddafi for overthrowing King Idris. Much later, Baja would become the opposition's head of political affairs when the rebellion against Gaddafi erupted in February 2011. By then, the vehicle of legend had become not Gaddafi's jeep but the ramshackle pickups that the rebel fighters rode to the front to battle his fearsome army.