Brutal and defiant to the end


New York Times News Service

Published: Thursday, Oct. 20 2011 8:00 p.m. MDT

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.


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.

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