Gaddafi's Final Run: The End of the Colonel's Long, Weird Ride

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Khaled el-Fiq / EPA

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2005

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Libyans would grow to rue the day Gaddafi took over. He declared a people's revolution and officially changed the country's name to the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah — the last word meaning "state of the masses" — a bloated designation that was as meaningless at the end as Gaddafi's title of Brother Leader.

Gaddafi's Libya was a parallel universe to the one the rest of humanity lived in. He laid out his plan for Libya in his 82-page Green Book, a quirky, often banal set of declarations that remained Libya's political bible for nearly four decades. Quotes from the Green Book were plastered across bridges, walls, schools and post offices across Libya. All children were required to learn the Green Book, and some could recite passages by heart.

In theory, according to Gaddafi, Libyans controlled their country through consensus decisions made in public meetings held every few months, as though Libya could be managed much like a rural village. In reality, Gaddafi ensured political disarray and paralysis, in which only one person's opinion counted in all decisions: his. Any challenge invited harsh punishment. Thousands died in Gaddafi's jails, and hundreds of thousands of Libyans fled into exile for fear of being ensnared by his ever watchful security forces.

Outside of Libya, Gaddafi will be remembered for his enmities. To Europeans and Americans in particular, Gaddafi's legacy will be indelibly marked by bloodshed and violence. The Libyan leader's foreign ambitions began in earnest after Libya became a major oil producer during the 1970s and '80s, bringing billions of dollars of revenue into the country and turning Gaddafi into a major financial benefactor in the region. He chose to spend some of his wealth on terrorist organizations, like the Palestinian Abu Nidal group, which, financed by Libya, carried out the 1986 bombing of the La Belle discothèque in West Berlin, which killed two U.S. service members. In retaliation, President Ronald Reagan sent planes to bomb installations in Benghazi as well as Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli, where they obliterated a two-story residence and killed Gaddafi's adopted daughter. Gaddafi memorialized the attack as a sign of the West's enmity toward him. A master of imagemaking, Gaddafi left the Reagan-era wreckage intact for a quarter-century, with a gold-painted statue in front of the smashed house, showing a raised fist around a crumpled F-16 bomber on which was painted "USA." The statue was just a short but provocative walk away from where Gaddafi hosted Western leaders in his tent over several years.

In December 1988, two years after the U.S. bombing, Libya struck back with its most devastating attack. A Pan Am passenger jet exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. In 1992, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions against Libya, forcing out U.S. oil companies, which ran much of the country's huge energy operations. Gaddafi was not deterred, however. With European oil companies still operating and his oil wealth continuing to grow, he financed other terrorist groups. Having been rebuffed by many of his Arab neighbors as an eccentric menace, Gaddafi cast himself instead as an African leader, backing regimes that conducted savage campaigns of violence in West Africa. But one global event in which Gaddafi had no role — the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. — drastically changed the Libyan leader's policies. Fearing that he might be the next target of attack, after the West's invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq, Gaddafi abandoned his pursuit of nuclear weapons in 2003. In painstaking deals cut behind closed doors, Libyan and CIA officials began sharing intelligence about al-Qaeda, which Gaddafi had long loathed. Indeed, Gaddafi was the first head of state, in 1998, to ever request an Interpol arrest warrant against Osama bin Laden.

When the U.S. lifted sanctions in 2005, American oil companies rushed back to Tripoli. So too did other Western companies, scrambling to re-enter one of Africa's biggest oil producers. Within a few years, sprawling InterContinental and Marriott Hotels had opened along Tripoli's Mediterranean seafront, and tall office towers sprung up to house the onrush of new business.

Gaddafi's willingness to change was extremely limited, both in terms of style and political substance — even as his eccentricities became self-parody. To the end, during Gaddafi's meetings with Western leaders, when they sat on a traditional divan in his Bedouin tent, he hectored them about historical wrongs against Libya. He insisted on traveling with his tent too, including to Paris during a frigid winter, and he attempted and failed to set up a tent in the New York area on a trip to address the U.N. in 2009. On that occasion, he harangued the West for more than 90 minutes, attacking its moral bankruptcy in an often nonsensical rant.

It can be argued Gaddafi has done some good. At least in some small measure, due to his efforts, the country now has modern highways, several cities, high literacy and relative prosperity for many Libyans. Yet despite the veneer of success, for most Libyans the Gaddafi years have an acrid taste. Their memories will likely be of a cloistered regime whose privilege and wealth was increasingly reserved for a small circle of Gaddafi loyalists and relatives. They will also remember the ghastly brutality.

When activists staged a limited rebellion in Benghazi in 1996, security forces retaliated by killing about 1,200 inmates — many of them from Benghazi — in the notorious Abu Salim prison. It was that attack that finally sowed the seeds for Gaddafi's demise. The relatives of those killed in 1996 formed a protest group, one part of which rejected Gaddafi's offers of compensation. It was the core group of those relatives who initially staged the fateful demonstration outside Benghazi's courthouse on Feb. 15, 2011, that sparked the revolt and ultimately brought down Gaddafi after nearly 42 years in power.

In the end, no one could save Gaddafi — not the mercenaries he had hired from Chad and Mali, not the Western politicians nor oil companies and not Gaddafi's seven sons, whose bitter rivalries he had helped feed over the years as they maneuvered for dynastic succession. After the uprising began last February, but before the NATO bombing began in March, Gaddafi climbed atop the stone wall of the fortress in Green Square. There, he told a few hundred supporters that he would "die here on the dear soil of Libya." Not for him an ignominious exile or surrendering to a war-crimes trial in the Hague. Instead, he vowed to die like a soldier, as a martyr in battle. He is now, it appears, dead. But he will not be remembered as a martyr. That honor is reserved for the countless lives he took and the many who died fighting to bring him down.

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