Dictator Muammar Gaddafi (several alternate transliterations are familiar, such as Qaddafi and Gadhafi) was killed by his captors during the Libyan civil war on this date in 2011 — an act very much on the extrajudicial and summary side of the foggy borderlands defining an “execution”.
Libya’s despot since ejecting the British-supported King Idris way back in 1969, the wily colonel steered his state for 40-odd years; his blend of pan-Arabism, Islamic socialism, pan-Africanism, and direct democracy is known as the Third International Theory and expounded in Gaddafi’s own manual of political theory, The Green Book — which became required reading for generations of his subjects.
Eventually a figure of western vilification and a fixture in the United States’s enemy-of-the-month rotation, Gaddafi’s anti-imperialist credentials earned him respectful eulogies from Palestinians, black South Africans, and Latin American revolutionaries, all of whom he had at times aided. Whatever measure of genuine popular support he earned by measures like land distribution, Gaddafi did not hesitate to buttress with brutality. Internal regime opponents and dissident exiles alike had cause to fear him, and it’s not as if innocent bystanders could sleep easily either: a London constable was shot from the Libyan embassy during demonstrations in 1984, and only worldwide outcry prevented the execution of six foreign doctors who were scapegoated for an HIV outbreak in the early 2000s. Gaddafi’s government in 2008 paid $1.5 billion in compensation to settle a bundle of international terrorism incidents, including the 1986 West Berlin discotheque bombing and the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Fitting that his own savage end might enter periodization historiography as the fin de siècle américain.
The ham-fisted NATO intervention into Libya’s Arab Spring-era civil war that brought about Gaddafi’s death might be the last that Washington will have undertaken in its purported “hyperpower” era, accountable to none but its own intentions; certainly it was (in the words of James Mann) “the apotheosis of the Obamian approach to the world.”
The aftermath did not flatter the Obamians: post-Gaddafi Libya speedily descended into failed-state status and has spent most of the 2010s cursed by still-continuing civil war, human rights horror, Islamic terrorism, and even open slave markets, with knock-on effects stoking the refugee crisis in Europe.*
The chief advocate of the intervention within the Obama administration, Samantha Power of Strangelovian nomen and Bosnian war dreams, recently published her memoir, The Education of an Idealist and issued the enraging auto-exoneration, “We could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes in places where the culture was not our own.” Merely being alive for the aftermath of the Iraq omnishambles might have done her the job of scrying; Power’s boss, at least, learned the lesson well enough to shy from the reckless regime-change commitments demanded (including by Power herself) for the Syria conflict that might have brought not only similar catastrophe to its immediate “beneficiaries” but the prospect of nuclear confrontation with Russia. More warfare is surely on humanity’s horizon as the 2020s approach, but with great power competition rising alongside the seas, the prospect that it will be undertaken with such careless self-regard in such a large and consequential state seems remote.
Nor will future Libyas be so vulnerable as Libya, if they can help it. In the years prior, Gaddafi had ostentatiously surrendered his nuclear ambitions in exchange for aid and diplomatic normalization. Other observers like North Korea have justifiably concluded that states armed with nukes don’t get invaded while those armed with Foggy Bottom IOUs are just the next Melos in waiting. They’ll have the horrific viral videos of a bloodied and pleading Gaddafi being brutalized by his captors to remind them.
The dry narrative of his fate, from a UN investigation:
On 19 October 2011, Qadhafi’s son Mutassim decided they should leave Sirte because the thuwar had encircled and entered the city, trapping Muammar Qadhafi and his men in District 2. On the morning of 20 October they set off in a heavily armed convoy of approximately 50 vehicles. The convoy consisted of Muammar Qadhafi; his son Mutassim who was already wounded; Defence Minister Abubakr Younis … and approximately 200 armed men. There were also women and children in the convoy. Some of the armed men evacuated their wounded colleagues from the hospital and these unarmed men were placed in cars with their bandages still on; some still had tubes in their bodies.
The convoy headed east on the main road but ran into a rebel ambush. Numerous cars were badly damaged in the ambush and a number of people were injured. They circled to the sea road and headed west. The convoy split up. At this point a Toyota Corolla in front of Muammar Qadhafi’s green Landcruiser was hit by a NATO airstrike, probably by a Predator drone, and exploded. The explosion set off the airbags in Qadhafi’s car. Muammar Qadhafi and switched cars. The front of the convoy started taking fire from thuwar positions near the power plant and so Muammar Qadhafi, and others took refuge in a house as some of their bodyguards engaged in a fire fight with the rebel positions.
Moments after Muammar Qadhafi entered the house, an airstrike hit the vehicles, setting off secondary explosions. The strike and subsequent explosions left many wounded lying on the ground. At this point the thuwar began shelling the house where Muammar Qadhafi was hiding. Mutassim Qadhafi took approximately 20 fighters and left to look for vehicles. Muammar Qadhafi reportedly wanted to stay and fight but was persuaded to escape. The group belly-crawled to a sand berm. On the way an electrical transformer was struck and electrical wires fell on Qadhafi, striking his head, but he was saved by his blue flak jacket and a Kevlar helmet which was knocked off. The group reached the berm and ran behind it to the road where there were two drainage pipes. The group crawled through the pipes and took up a defensive position on the west side of the road where the pipes terminated.
Muammar Qadhafi crouched outside and between the two pipes. Abubakr Younis was in the right pipe and two fighters took up a position by a berm facing south and the other fighters faced north. The group was sheltered from the road and was unseen by the rebels … [until it] decided the group would make a stand and opened fire on a passing rebel vehicle. There was a fire fight. One of the guards threw a grenade. The grenade hit the top of the cement wall above the pipes and fell in front of Muammar Qadhafi. The guard tried to pick up the grenade but it exploded, killing him … Qadhafi was wounded in the blast by grenade shrapnel that hit and shredded his flak jacket. He sat on the floor dazed and in shock, bleeding from a wound in the left temple.
At that point, one of the party fashioned a white flag from his turban and waved in surrender to the thuwar from the 501st Brigade. The thuwar laid the men on their faces and bound their wrists. Muammar Qadhafi was immediately surrounded by thuwar and beaten. Muammar Qadhafi was heard to ask, “What is going on?” The survivors were placed into vehicles and taken away. [Mutassim Gaddafi and Abu-Bakr Yunis were also killed that same day by their captors. -ed.]
This is where the eyewitness evidence received by the Commission ends. Videos of the scene show Muammar Qadhafi being roughly handled by the thuwar, many screaming “We are Misrata” to identify where they are from. He is apparently stabbed with a bayonet in the buttocks. He is placed on the hood of a vehicle, bloody but alive, before being placed in an ambulance. He clearly has one head wound from the grenade shrapnel, but is otherwise not wounded. This is the last time Muammar Qadhafi is seen alive.
A televised interview of one of those who accompanied Muammar Qadhafi in the ambulance gave an account of what happened next. The young man, who states he is from Benghazi but was travelling with men from the Misrata thuwar when the Qadhafi convoy was attacked, claims he was the one that found Muammar Qadhafi and got into the back of the ambulance with him and two men from the Misrata thuwar. The ambulance started to drive to Misrata. The young man claims there was an argument between himself and the men from Misrata on what to do with Muammar Qadhafi, with him wanting to bring Qadhafi back to Bengazi. He claims he shot Qadhafi in the head and abdomen.
The Commission is unable to verify his claims. Video shows he was in the ambulance when Muammar Qadhafi was placed in it. What is clear is that Qadhafi was alive when he was taken into custody and placed in an ambulance in Sirte by members of the Misrata thuwar and was seemingly dead when the ambulance arrived in Misrata …
According to news reports, the official autopsy states Qadhafi was killed by a gunshot to the head. The Commission was not provided access to the autopsy report despite numerous requests to the NTC. Photos of Muammar Qadhafi’s body were provided to the Commission by members of the medical committee of Misrata who participated in the external examination of Qadhafi’s body … Analysis of the photos of the abdominal wounds by the Commission’s forensic pathologist determined they were penetrating wounds in the epigastric area, the nature of which was difficult to determine from photographs. Interviews with journalists who saw the body indicate Qadhafi was shot once in the head and twice in the abdomen.
* Just months ago as of this writing, the German sea captain Carola Rackete was arrested for breaking an Italian blockade to dock in Sicily with some 40 migrants: they’d been rescued off the coast of Libya.
On this day..
- 1526: Bianca Maria Gaspardone, the Insatiate Countess - 2020
- 1790: Joseph Mountain, Atlantic picaro - 2018
- 1575: Archbishop Leonid of Novgorod - 2017
- 1933: Dallas Egan, dancing - 2016
- 1939: Operation Tannenberg public mass executions begin - 2015
- 1858: Owen McQueeney, Green Tent Murderer - 2014
- 1571: Hans Haslibacher, Bern Anabaptist - 2013
- 1865: William Grant, evidently a ringleader, a persuader, and adviser - 2012
- Daily Quintuple: The Morant Bay rebellion - 2012
- 2009: Four Tibetans - 2011
- 1401: Klaus Stortebeker, Victual Brother pirate - 2010
- 2005: Luis Ramirez, claiming innocence - 2009
- 1865: Champ Ferguson, Confederate guerrilla - 2008