Crime and Punishment in Libya: Inside Gaddafi's Surveillance System

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Ismail Zitouny / Reuters

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi attends a ceremony marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Mohammed in Tripoli, in this February 13, 2011 file photograph.

In the initial days after Libyan rebels overran Col. Muammar Gaddafi's forces in eastern Libya last February, one of the most prevalent emotions on the street was shock. "We thought 90% of the people were with Gaddafi," Camilla Esbak remarked in the rebel stronghold of the Green Mountains. "So we never expected this." For years, most Libyans had been hesitant to voice opposition, they said, even to their children and close friends, fearing the pervasiveness and brutality of their dictator's security network. And when the revolution finally came, they marveled that so many of their neighbors had shared their opinions all along.

And yet, as rebels have begun to sift through the buildings and archives of Gaddafi's internal security apparatus over the past week, Libyans are also finding confirmation that they had every reason to be paranoid.

Based on TIME's examination of documents, maps, computer files, and surveillance hardware found in a handful of security offices around Tripoli, Gaddafi's internal security network appears to have permeated every neighborhood, town, and city of the vast North African country for decades. The regime monitored thousands of people; tapping phone calls and hacking e-mails, according to the Wall Street Journal. And in some cases, it appears that a single person of interest was matched by at least one security officer who was assigned to him specifically. In other cases, Abdel Karim Gadoora, a former interior ministry surveillance officer told TIME: "Whenever there was someone, they would just go and arrest them right away."

In one unmarked security office in an apartment building off of Tripoli's Green Square — now renamed Martyr's Square — there are registration books full of the plainclothes men that internal security had staffed around the city. A chart in one binder details the "youth" that the government had given Kalashnikovs to. In Abu Slim, there were 9 gangs and 143 people with weapons, it says; there were 170 in the rebel stronghold of Souk al-Jumaa and 45 in the wealthy, diplomatic neighborhood of Hay al Andalus.

In a control room, Gadoora says that the seven TV screens are rigged to dozens of cameras around Green Square and downtown. The whole office, he says, was dedicated only to the surveillance of downtown Tripoli. But there are dozens like this, he adds, each dedicated to a different neighborhood. Detailed maps, including those produced by U.S. commercial satellite image providers, cover the walls. But Gaddafi's vast Bab al-Aziziya compound is always just a blank shape, suggesting that the dictator feared even the men who he had assigned to keep watch on his citizens. And indeed, the archives of another internal security building corroborates rebel claims that government employees and army officers were frequently targeted by the very regime that employed them.

For many, the opportunity to explore the long closeted corners of Gaddafi's security apparatus has been an emotional, even personal journey. "I've been here before," said Abdo, TIME's driver in Tripoli, upon entering the darkened and ransacked lobby of a larger internal security headquarters building. Abdo didn't mean recently, even though he has picked through the remnants of Gaddafi's regime for nearly two weeks, since the rebels took control of the Libyan capital. "It was years ago," he said, when he had come here to search for information about his brother and his brother-in-law. For seven years the family used to bring clothes to this building to have them delivered to the two men who they believed were in Abu Slim prison. But it wasn't until 2004 that the family learned that both men had been massacred by Gaddafi's forces, along with some 1,200 others in 1996. They have never recovered the bodies.

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