Moammar Gadhafi, the erratic, provocative dictator who ruled Libya for 42 years, crushing opponents at home while cultivating the wardrobe and looks befitting an aging rock star, met a vengeful and violent death Thursday in the hands of the Libyan forces that drove him from power.
In death, as in life, his circumstances proved startling, with jerky video images showing him captured, bloody and disheveled, but alive. A separate clip showed his half-naked upper body, with eyes staring vacantly and what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the head, as jubilant fighters fired into the air. In a third video, posted on YouTube, excited fighters hovered around his lifeless-looking body, posing for photographs and yanking his limp head up and down by the hair.
Throughout his rule, Gadhafi, 69, sanctioned spasms of grisly violence and frequent bedlam, even as he sought to leverage his nation's immense oil wealth into an outsize role on the world stage.
He embraced a string of titles: "the brother leader," "the guide to the era of the masses," "the king of kings of Africa" and — his most preferred — "the leader of the revolution."
But the labels pinned on him by others tended to stick the most. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan called him "the mad dog of the Middle East." President Anwar Sadat of neighboring Egypt pronounced him "the crazy Libyan."
As his dominion over Libya crumbled with surprising speed, Gadhafi refused to countenance the fact that most Libyans despised him. He placed blame for the uprising on foreign intervention — a U.N. Security Council resolution intended to defend civilians became the contentious basis for NATO airstrikes on his troops.
"I tell the coward crusaders: I live in a place where you can't get me," he taunted defiantly the uprising against his rule started in February. "I live in the hearts of millions."
That attitude endured to the end. In one of his last speeches, made weeks after Tripoli fell and he was a fugitive, he exhorted Libyans to defeat the uprising.
"The people of Libya, the true Libyans, will never accept invasion and colonization," he said in remarks broadcast by a Syrian television station because he had lost control of Libya's airwaves. "We will fight for our freedom, and we are ready to sacrifice ourselves."
Gadhafi was a 27-year-old junior officer when he led the bloodless coup that deposed Libya's monarch in 1969. Soon afterward, he began styling himself a desert nomad philosopher. He received dignitaries in his signature sprawling white tent, which he erected wherever he went: Rome, Paris and, after much controversy, New York in 2009.
Inside, its quilted walls might be printed with traditional motifs like palm trees and camels or embroidered with his own sayings.
Gadhafi declared that his political system of permanent revolution would sweep away capitalism and socialism. But he hedged his bets by financing and arming a cornucopia of violent organizations, including the Irish Republican Army and African guerrilla groups, and he became an international pariah after his government was linked to terrorist attacks, particularly the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Gadhafi announced that Libya was abandoning its pursuit of unconventional weapons, including a covert nascent nuclear program, ushering in a new era of relations with the West. But in Libya, he ruled through an ever smaller circle of advisers, including his sons, destroying any institution that might challenge him.
By the time he was done, Libya had no parliament, no unified military command, no political parties, no unions, no civil society and no nongovernmental organizations. His ministries were hollow, with the notable exception of the state oil company.
TIGHT GRIP ON POWER
Eight years into his rule, he renamed the country the Great Socialist People's Libyan Jamahiriya. (Jamahiriya was his Arabic translation for a state of the masses.) "In the era of the masses, power is in the hands of the people themselves and leaders disappear forever," he wrote in The Green Book, a three-volume political tract that was required reading in every school.
For decades, Libyans noted dryly that he did not seem to be disappearing any time soon; he became the longest-serving Arab or African leader. Yet he always presented himself as beloved guide and chief clairvoyant, rather than ruler. Indeed, he seethed when a popular uprising inspired by similar revolutions next door in Tunisia and Egypt first sought to drive him from power.
"I am a glory that Libya cannot forgo and the Libyan people cannot forgo, nor the Arab nation, nor the Islamic nation, nor Africa, nor Latin America, nor all the nations that desire freedom and human dignity and resist tyranny!" Gadhafi shouted in February. "Moammar Gadhafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution!"
It was a typically belligerent and random harangue. He vowed to fight to his last drop of blood.
"This is my country!" he roared as he shook his fist and pounded the lectern. "Moammar is not a president to quit his post. Moammar is the leader of the revolution until the end of time!"
He blamed all manner of bogeymen — including the U.S., operatives of al-Qaida and youths "fueled by milk and Nescafe spiked with hallucinogenic drugs." But he also made it clear that he was ready to hunt "all" the "rats" to eliminate anyone who participated. "Everything will burn," he vowed.
At least once a decade, Gadhafi fomented shocking violence that terrorized Libyans.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, he eliminated even mild critics through public trials and executions. Kangaroo courts were staged on soccer fields or basketball courts, where the accused were interrogated, often urinating in fear as they begged for their lives. The events were televised to make sure that no Libyan missed the point.
The bodies of one group of students hanged in downtown Tripoli's main square were left there to rot for a week, opposition figures said, and traffic was rerouted to force cars to pass by.
In the 1990s, faced with growing Islamist opposition, Gadhafi bombed towns in eastern Libya, and his henchmen were widely believed to have opened fire on prisoners in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison, killing about 1,200.
"Gadhafi's ability to have survived so long rests on his convenient position in not being committed to a single ideology and his use of violence in such a theatrical way," said Hisham Matar, the author of "In the Country of Men," a novel that depicts the devastation of life under Gadhafi. "He deliberately tried to create a campaign that would terrorize the population, that would traumatize them to such an extent that they would never think of expressing their thoughts politically or socially."
Gadhafi survived countless coup and assassination attempts and cracked down harshly afterward, alienating important Libyan tribes. He imported soldiers from his misadventures in places like Sudan, Chad and Liberia, transforming Libya's ragtag militias into what he styled as his African or Islamic legions.
A RAPID RISE
Gadhafi was born to illiterate Bedouin parents in a tent just inland from the coastal town of Sirte in 1942. (Some sources give the date as June 7.) His father herded camels and sheep.
One grandfather was killed in the 1911 Italian invasion to colonize Libya.
His parents scrimped for his education, first with a local cleric and then secondary school. He began to idolize President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who preached Arab unity and socialism after deposing the king in a 1952 coup. He showed enough promise to enter the Royal Military Academy at Benghazi, in eastern Libya, and in 1966 was sent to England for a course on military communications. He learned English.
On Sept. 1, 1969, he led young officers in seizing the government in just a few hours while King Idris was abroad. They dissolved Parliament and set up a 12-member Revolutionary Command Council to rule Libya, mirroring Nasser's Egypt. He was promoted to colonel and armed forces commander.
Egypt was Gadhafi's blueprint, and he proclaimed that the newly named Libyan Arab Republic would advance under the Arab nationalist slogan "Socialism, unity and freedom."
Yet in a country where the deposed king, Idris, had come from a long line of religious figures, Gadhafi felt compelled to shore up his Islamic credentials. He banned alcohol and closed bars, nightclubs and casinos. He outlawed teaching English in public schools. Traffic signs and advertisements not in Arabic were painted over.
Decades later, only one nightclub had opened in Tripoli in a nondescript building plastered with revolutionary slogans and displaying the mandatory picture of the leader, who seemed to stare down from every wall in Libya.
Gadhafi claimed that Nasser had declared him his son, and in the early years of his rule, he set about trying to win his idol's approval by modernizing Libya and trying, in vain, to unite it with other Arab countries. He expelled U.S. and British military bases, then nationalized the property of Italian settlers and a small Jewish community. He railed against Israel.
He also vowed to eliminate Libya's tribes, worried that they were too powerful, even though Libya's urbanizing population had been moving away from them for some time.
Libya had been desperately poor until oil was discovered in 1959. A decade later, Libyans had touched little of their wealth.
The 1969 coup changed that. The new Libyan government forced the major oil companies to cede majority stakes in exchange for continued access to the country's oil fields, and it demanded a greater share of the profits. The pattern was emulated across the oil-producing states, profoundly changing their relationship with the oil giants.
With the increased revenue, Gadhafi set about building roads, hospitals, schools and housing. And Libyans, who had suffered during the Italian occupation before World War II, were allowed to celebrate an anti-colonial, Arab-nationalist sentiment that had been bottled up under the monarchy, said Ali Ahmida, an expert on the colonial period and professor at the University of New England.
Life expectancy, which averaged 51 years in 1969, is now over 74. Literacy leapt to 88 percent. Per capita annual income grew to above $12,000 in recent years, though the figure is markedly lower than that found in many oil-rich countries. Yet Gadhafi warned his people that the oil would not last.
"Petroleum societies are lazy everywhere," he observed. "People are used to having more money and want everything available. This revolution wants to change this life and to promote production and work, to produce everything by our hands. But the people are lazy."
The mercurial changes in policy and personality that kept Libyans off balance began in earnest with the three volumes of his Green Book, published from 1976 to 1979. (Green, he explained, was for both Islam and agriculture.) The book offered his "third universal theory" to improve on capitalism and socialism, and elevated the mundane to the allegedly profound, condemning sports like boxing as barbarism and pointing out that men and women are different because women menstruate.
Gadhafi also introduced Orwellian revolutionary committees in every neighborhood to purge the country of the ideologically unsound, calling it "people power." He began foisting social experiments on Libyans.
Once he demanded that all Libyans raise chickens to promote self-sufficiency, even deducting the costs of cages from their wages.
"It made no sense to raise chickens in apartments," said Mansour O. El-Kikhia, a Gadhafi biographer at the University of Texas and a member of a famous opposition family. "People slaughtered the chickens, ate them and used the cages as dish racks."
Gadhafi said women were not equal to men, but he exhibited them as a symbol of the success of the Libyan revolution. None had a higher profile than his phalanx of female bodyguards, who wore camouflage fatigues, red nail polish and high-heeled sandals and carried submachine guns.
To consolidate his power, Gadhafi tried to eliminate or isolate all of the 11 other members of the original Revolutionary Command Council. Strikes or unauthorized news reports resulted in prison sentences, and illegal political activity was punishable by death. Western books were burned, and private enterprise was banned. Libyan intelligence agents engaged in all manner of skulduggery, reaching overseas to kidnap and assassinate opponents.
He vowed to turn Libya into an agriculture powerhouse through the Great Man-Made River, a grandiose $20 billion project to pump water from aquifers underneath the Sahara and send it over 1,200 miles to the coast through a gargantuan pipeline.
Meanwhile he was cementing Libya's rogue-state status by bankrolling terrorist and guerrilla organizations, including Abu Nidal, the radical Palestinian organization, and the violent Red Army Faction in Europe. At least a dozen coups or coup attempts in Africa were traced to his backing.
That set him on a collision course with the West.
In the early 1980s, Reagan closed the Libyan Embassy in Washington, suspended oil imports and shot down two Libyan fighters after Gadhafi tried to extend Libya's territorial waters across the Gulf of Sidra.
In London in 1984, gunshots from the Libyan embassy killed a police officer and wounded 11 demonstrators. In 1986, Libyan agents were linked to the bombing of a disco La Belle in West Berlin, killing two U.S. service members and a Turkish woman and wounding 200 people.
Reagan retaliated 10 days later by bombing targets in Libya, including Gadhafi's residence in his compound at the Bab al-Aziziya barracks in Tripoli.
He preserved the wreckage of the house as a symbol of U.S. treachery and, in front of it, installed a sculpture of a giant fist crushing a U.S. jet fighter. It became his preferred stage for major events; his major speech during the 2011 uprising was delivered from the first floor.
During the '80s that Gadhafi also invaded Chad after encroaching on its border for years. Chad finally defeated the effort in 1987 with French and U.S. military aid.
THE LOCKERBIE BOMBING
In 1988, in the deadliest terrorist act linked to Libya, 259 people aboard Pan Am Flight 103 died when the plane exploded in midair over Lockerbie. The falling wreckage killed 11 people on the ground. Libyan agents were also believed to have been behind the explosion of a French passenger jet over Niger in 1989, killing 170 people.
Nearly a decade of international isolation started in 1992, after Libya refused to hand over two suspects indicted by the United States and Britain in the Lockerbie bombing. France also sought four suspects in the Niger bombing, among them Abdullah Senussi, a brother-in-law of Gadhafi's and the head of external intelligence. He was convicted in absentia.
The United Nations imposed economic sanctions, and when his fellow Arabs enforced them, Gadhafi turned away from the Arab world. He began his quest to become leader of Africa, coming closest in title, at least, in 2009, when he was named the chairman of the African Union for a year.
In 1999, Libya finally handed over two Lockerbie suspects for trial in The Hague under Scottish law and reached a financial settlement with the French. One suspect was acquitted but another, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in a Scottish jail. When the government released him in 2009, on the grounds that he was terminally ill, the outcry was swift. The British were accused of trying to curry favor with Tripoli for oil and arms deals.
The international sanctions against Libya were lifted in 2003 after it accepted responsibility for the bombing and agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of victims in the Lockerbie bombing and in other attacks.
The Libyans did not admit guilt, however. They made it clear that they were simply taking a practical step toward restoring ties with the West. But when Judge Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the justice minister, defected during the uprising in February 2011, he told a Swedish newspaper that he had proof that Gadhafi had ordered the operation.
RESTORING WESTERN TIES
Tripoli truly began to emerge from the cold after the September 2001 attacks against the United States. Gadhafi condemned them and shared Libya's intelligence on al-Qaida with Washington. Libya had been the first country to demand an international arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden.
Gadhafi also said he would destroy his weapons stockpile. President George W. Bush said Libya's decision demonstrated the success of the invasion of Iraq, in that it had persuaded a rogue state to abandon its menacing ways, although Libya had made a similar overture years before and many experts did not consider its programs threatening.
Nevertheless, Britain and the United States re-established diplomatic relations. Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice led a parade of world leaders to Gadhafi's tent seeking trade deals. Rice was the first U.S. secretary of state to visit since 1953.
Before the visit, Gadhafi was effusive about Rice. "I support my darling black African woman," he said on the network Al-Jazeera, adding, "I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders. Yes, Leezza, Leezza, Leezza — I love her very much."
State Department cables released by WikiLeaks suggested that there was another woman who had won Gadhafi's affection, and confidence — a "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse, described as the senior member of a posse of nurses around him.
The cables described him as a hypochondriac who feared flying over water and who often fasted twice a week. He followed horse racing, loved flamenco dancing and added "king of culture" to his myriad titles, the cables said.
Around 1995 he published a collection of short stories and essays called "The Village, the City, the Suicide of the Astronaut and Other Stories." It later came out in Britain as "Escape to Hell and Other Stories." As a reviewer in the British newspaper The Guardian put it: "There are no characters, no twists, no subtle illuminations; indeed, there is precious little narrative. Instead, you get surreal rants and bizarre streams of consciousness obviously unmolested by the hand of any editor."
Gadhafi married at least twice. His oldest son, Mohammed, from his first marriage, became a businessman and the agent for foreign companies working in Libya.
Seven other children — six sons and a daughter — came from his marriage to Safia Farkash, a former nurse. Seif al-Islam, the oldest son, had been the face of modern Libya, establishing an international charity and forever pledging that political reform was just around the corner. His moderate reputation evaporated with the uprising after he vowed that Libya would flow with blood. He was later indicted by the International Criminal Court, accused of crimes against humanity during the uprising.
Among Seif's brothers, Muatassim, Hannibal and Khamis were military officers who commanded their own brigades. Muatassim headed the National Security Council but was also known for carousing in hot spots like the Caribbean island of St. Bart's, where he was reported to have paid singers, including Mariah Carey, $1 million each for appearing at his holiday parties. Libyan television showed what it called his lifeless body on a gurney Thursday.
Hannibal gained notoriety for beating his wife and servants in luxurious European hotels. After he was arrested in Switzerland in 2008, Moammar Gadhafi broke off diplomatic relations and held two Swiss businessmen hostage.
The anti-Gadhafi forces said they killed Khamis, once head of the feared Khamis Brigade guarding Tripoli, in August as he and his bodyguards tried to break through a rebel checkpoint.
Another son, Saadi, a military officer, had been a professional soccer player who was allowed onto Italian teams more for the publicity than for his skills. The seventh son, Seif al-Arab, was believed killed in an air raid, with his brothers acting as pall bearers.
The daughter, Aisha, gained attention as a lawyer after she offered to join Saddam Hussein's legal defense team.
Gadhafi was also believed to have adopted two children: Hanna and Milad, a nephew.
Mohammed, Hannibal and Aisha all fled to neighboring Algeria, while Saadi was given refuge in Niger to the south. There were conflicting reports Thursday over whether Seif al-Islam had been captured or killed.
As the circle around Gadhafi shrank, his sons increasingly became his advisers, but it was never clear if he had anointed any of them as his successor. He was believed to play one off against the other, granting and then withholding favor.
As Gadhafi grew older, the trim, handsome officer with short black hair gave way to someone more flamboyant. Brocade and medals festooned his military uniforms, as if he were some Gilbert & Sullivan admiral, while his black curls grew long and unruly. After he adopted Africa as his cause, he favored African robes in a riot of colors.
His long effort to eliminate the government left Libya in a shambles, its sagging infrastructure belying its oil wealth. That fact never seemed to bother Gadhafi.
"Once he was in a position to sustain himself, the fact that nothing improved in Libya was something he did not notice," said Lisa Anderson, the president of the American University in Cairo.
He was "notoriously mercurial," a cable obtained through WikiLeaks said, a man who "avoids making eye contact" during meetings and thinks nothing of "long, uncomfortable periods of silence."
He would sometimes show up hours late for a state banquet honoring an African head of state, then sit in a far corner before bolting away. African leaders accepted this behavior in exchange for a check for a million dollars or two, diplomats said.
After he put his worst years of sponsoring terrorism behind him, the West and the rest of the Arab world tended to treat him as comic opera, though he could still outrage, as he did in 2009, when, appearing for the first time before the United Nations General Assembly, he spoke for some 90 minutes instead of his allotted 15 and seemed to tear a copy of the charter, condemning the Security Council as a feudal organization.
When scores of children in a Benghazi hospital developed AIDS, most likely because of unsanitary conditions, Gadhafi accused the CIA of developing the virus that caused it and of sending a group of Bulgarian nurses to spread it in Libya. The nurses were arrested, tortured, tried and sentenced to death before eventually being freed.
He never tired of pushing his idea for an Israeli-Palestinian solution, a unified country called "Isratine" in which both Jews and Arabs would enjoy equal rights as soon as all Palestinian refugees were allowed to return. The proposal elicited derision from other Arab leaders or senior officials.
At home, though, Libyans suffered under his dictates. He switched from the standard Muslim calendar to one marking the years since the Prophet Muhammad's death, only to decide later that the birth year was a more auspicious place to start. Event organizers threw up their hands and reverted to the Western calendar. He also decided to rename the months. February was Lights. August was Hannibal.
Given the conceit that "popular committees" — and not Gadhafi himself — ran the country, everyone was required to attend committee sessions called at random once or twice a year to discuss an agenda "suggested" by the grand guide. Every single office — schools, government ministries, airlines, shops — had to shut for days, sometimes weeks. Scofflaws risked fines.
Gadhafi once declared that that any money over $3,000 in anyone's bank account was excessive and should revert to the state. Another time he lifted a ban on sport utility vehicles, then changed his mind a few months later, forcing everyone who had bought one to hide it.
Libyans grumbled that they had no idea what had happened to their oil money; the official news agency said the country earned $32 billion in 2010 alone. When prices were low or Libya was under sanctions during most of the 1980s and '90s, the nearly 1 million people on the public payroll never got a pay raise; experts calculated that most lived on $300 to $400 per month.
The general disarray was another way of ensuring that no one developed the confidence and connections to try to overthrow him. Libyans lived constantly on edge.
"It is an awful feeling when you don't know what tomorrow is going to bring," said Kikhia, the biographer. "People don't work — they cannot make a decision at any level."
Gadhafi saw his rule as a never-ending quest, without ever defining the objective.
"The state of Libya was a state of constant revolution, which suggests there was no goal," said Matar, the novelist. "It was all false; it was a way to keep them all occupied."
When revolutions succeeded in two Arab neighbors, deposing the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, Gadhafi was among the only leaders in the region to speak out publicly. The people had been swayed by foreign plots, he maintained. He tried to warn his people that Tunisians now lived in fear of being killed at home or on the streets. But few Tunisians died.Comment on this story
His first speech after the Libyan uprising erupted proved a classic Gadhafi moment, mocked by the outside world while accompanying a grueling civil war at home. He vowed to hunt down the insurgents "house by house and alley by alley" The usual Libyan word for alley — "zenga zenga" — was turned into a jingle, with various young women belly dancing to it in YouTube videos.
Even as Libyans died, Gadhafi demanded recognition that he alone had made them relevant.
"In the past, Libyans lacked an identity," Gadhafi roared in the February speech. "When you said Libyan, they would tell you Libya, Liberia, Lebanon — they didn't know Libya! But today you say Libya, they say Libya — Gadhafi, Libya — the revolution!"