There was a time when Colonel Gaddafi of Libya enjoyed extensive popularity among the Arabs, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, he continued to garner support and fans until the turn of the century. Although he had spent his entire 42 years in power without any real achievements, propaganda helped to portray Gaddafi as the “hero of the Arabs”. He shared this image with two other Arab dictators, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Hafez al-Assad of Syria. They were portrayed as the guardians of Arab causes, when in reality they were the most brutal and suppressive leaders against their own people.
I was studying in the United States during the 1980s when I first heard of the Libyan leader’s violence. A Libyan student, studying in a university in Colorado, was targeted by an assassin. It turned out that Gaddafi, a man who would not tolerate even the mildest criticism, was behind the crime. In fact, according to Amnesty International, the [Gaddafi regime] has been responsible for more than 20 murders or attempted murders against Libyans in Europe alone.
His violence then proceeded to turn global and without restraint. Most of his crimes passed by without punishment, such as the incident whereby protestors were shot at outside the Libyan embassy in London, resulting in the death of a British policewoman. Gaddafi then ordered the bombing of a nightclub in Germany. With the West only issuing verbal condemnation, the Libyan leader even dared to bomb PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland. Subsequently, a limited military operation was launched by the US, targeting Gaddafi’s residence and causing minor damage.
Like his comrades Saddam and al-Assad, Gaddafi used terrorist groups from all locations, the most famous of which was the Abu Nidal Organization. This group committed a horrific number of crimes against civilian planes, embassies, and religious locations. Most victims were Arabs, specifically Palestinians, whom Abu Nidal accused of treason and animosity towards their nation. Yet Nidal’s crimes were actually intended to eradicate or terrorize his opponents.
Gaddafi caused so much pain and misery, even to other nations in the developing world. He funded the civil war in Chad against Hissène Habré, which continued for eight years and destroyed the country. Since the 1980s, he has intermittently funded conflict in south and west Sudan every time he has disagreed with the governments of Khartoum.
Gaddafi also provided funds for rebel groups such as the Moroccan separatist Polisario Front, after his relationship turned sour with the late Moroccan King Al Hussein II. He is also believed to have killed the Lebanese leader Imam Moussa al-Sadr, who was invited to Libya and subsequently disappeared.
In a manner similar to al-Qaeda today, Gaddafi’s terrorist activities reached global heights when he funded the Irish Republican Army, a militant rebel group. He went on to sponsor other terrorist groups, such as the Baader-Meinhof in Germany, and hosted Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan terrorist. He was also proven to be behind the kidnapping of OPEC ministers. Over four decades, Gaddafi never ceased his global terrorism.
When compared to al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi enjoyed considerably deeper pockets than the other two dictators. His oil income was spent mostly on terrorist activities worldwide, whilst the Libyan people lived in poverty. Anyone who visited Libya would be shocked by the lack of development nationwide. Even residents in Tripoli were forced to live on salt water until a decade ago.
People outside Libya thought of Gaddafi as an eccentric and intriguing character. That image may be true to an extent, but his ‘clown face’ was a mask worn by a psychopath with a criminal demeanor. On one occasion the deranged leader framed a group of Bulgarian nurses, accusing them of injecting over 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus. In reality, Libyan hospitals had been denied much needed funds for basic relief and medical equipment. Instead of bearing the responsibility, Gaddafi’s court condemned the Bulgarian nurses to death. They were only spared execution and extradited when a deal was struck with the EU.
Seeking fame and leadership in Africa, Gaddafi supported dictators such as [Yoweri] Museveni in Uganda, [Robert] Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Charles Taylor in Liberia, and [Foday] Sankoh in Sierra Leone. He repeatedly lectured these African leaders on how democracy was not suitable for them. He told them: “For instance, Egypt is an independent and ancient country, but the fact is that when elections were held in rural Egypt, and a voter was asked for whom he would vote, he replied Saad Zaghloul. This man passed away in 1920, having led the 1919 Revolution, and is evidently still latent in the minds of Egypt’s farmers. Thus this Egyptian voter was unaware that Saad Zaghloul had been dead for decades.”
Now, with Gaddafi’s disappearance, the Libyan people – who lived under his regime, poor and suppressed – will inherit a country with great opportunities. Libya’s funds, in Swiss banks and other financial institutions, are estimated to be more than $160 billion.
In his absence, our region and the whole world can celebrate a real Eid, and a new era devoid of his atrocities. Peace will prevail and hopefully other dictators of the region will learn the lesson, or they will likely meet the same fate.