The pariah who tried to sink the QE2 – then fooled Blair and the West
Published in the Daily Mail (October 21st, 2011)
Britain’s most famous cruise ship, Queen Elizabeth 2, set sail from Southampton for Israel in April 1973, packed with Jewish passengers travelling out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Jewish state. It was a joyous occasion, and the ship was filled with happy families. But little did they know how close they came to obliteration.
Deep beneath the Mediterranean waves was an Egyptian submarine under the temporary command of Libya as part of the two nations’ drive towards unity. When Colonel Gaddafi learned about the liner, he ordered the submarine commander to unleash its torpedoes and sink it in order to reinforce his stance as a global revolutionary and hero of the Arab world.
Fortunately, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat heard about the plot. He countermanded the order and told the submarine to return to its dock in Alexandria.
Otherwise, it would have been another terrible deed in Gaddafi’s hall of infamy, along with the blowing up of a jumbo jet over Lockerbie in 1988, the bombing of a French plane over Chad in 1989 and countless massacres of his own people and wars with his neighbours.
The two leaders fell out, later going into battle, and the urbane Sadat complained that Gaddafi was ‘100 per cent sick and possessed by the devil’.
But then the preening, posturing tyrant was called many things in his time. Ronald Reagan dubbed him ‘mad dog’, while a former president of Sudan said he was ‘someone suffering from a split personality — both evil’.
Now the desert despot is dead and the dark shadow of his 42-year rule — the longest in Africa — has finally cleared. Those who met the self-styled ‘Great Leader’ described him variously as weird, reflective, intellectually curious, charismatic and camp. One TV reporter who interviewed him was convinced he wore eyeliner.
He loved to shock — he broke wind noisily through one BBC interview and turned up to a summit in Belgrade with six camels and two horses, demanding to be allowed to ride to the conference.
But too many people in the West fell for the buffoonish image of comic costumes, batty badges, female bodyguards, facelifts and Botox. Yes, he was the world’s most maverick dictator, but there was nothing amusing about a man who left a trail of blood around the globe.
He was a cunning and ruthless politician, who ousted his king at the age of just 27 and held power by playing off political rivals against each other, trading tribal loyalties and crushing any sign of dissent.
While posing first as an Arab nationalist leader, then the potential unifier of Africa, and finally as an ally of the West in the so-called War on Terror, he created a perplexing political system designed to do one thing: keep him in control at all costs.
And he was protected by his feared secret police force — the only part of the state that worked with brutal efficiency — and was prepared to do whatever it took to stay in power. In his final months, that meant ferociously fighting his own people when they rose up against his rule earlier this year.
When I returned to Libya in February to meet dissidents preparing for the ‘day of rage’ that ultimately led to his overthrow, both sides of the man were on display. At the airport, visitors were greeted by revolutionary slogans and pictures of Gaddafi in heroic poses that festooned streets and public buildings. This was the image he liked to present: the Brother Leader, the revered pin-up.
Driving into Tripoli, I saw the real face of the regime: those long green walls of Bab al-Aziziya, his compound, with scores of machine guns poking out of squat, intimidating concrete towers. This was Gaddafi’s home, the vast enclave liberated in August to such exuberant joy. What about his famous tent in the desert, I asked a friend in Tripoli?
‘That’s just public relations,’ he replied. Like so many, he was openly contemptuous of the leader who destroyed his country’s reputation.
As soon as Gaddafi was ousted, all those absurd images were shot up or ripped down. Cartoons showing him on the gallows or as a baby in nappies were stuck up in the main square, and rugs bearing his face were placed in doorways for people to walk over. Libyans delighted in calling the man they once feared ‘Abu Shafshaoufa’ — or ‘frizzyhead’.
Little wonder there was such enjoyment at the WikiLeaks cables that revealed Gaddafi’s strange private life, proclivities and phobias, including a refusal to climb more than 35 steps; his fear of flying over water; and his reliance on a ‘voluptuous’ Ukrainian nurse, named Galyna, who alone knew his daily routine — and travelled everywhere with him until February when she returned home.
The documents also disclosed that the leader had such a fondness for flamenco dancing that he diverted his plane to Seville to catch a performance when returning from a trip to Venezuela.
Few would have predicted such a life given his humble beginnings. Muammar Gaddafi was born in 1942 in Sirte — where he died yesterday — a desert province, some 230 miles to the east of Tripoli. As the only son in a family of animal herders, Gaddafi was taunted by classmates as a poor Bedouin.
From a young age he was influenced by the nationalist politics of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. He loathed King Idris, who had taken power after Libyan independence from Britain and France, and who remained on good terms with the former colonial powers.
Gaddafi’s nationalist resentment was compounded by what he saw as the exploitation of Libya’s oil by U.S. and European oil companies. He saw that control of the country’s one asset could buy a new Libyan government respect and influence.
He hatched his plans to topple the king after joining the army and meeting up with a group of like-minded young officers.On September 1, 1969 — a date later commemorated as a national holiday — he and other officers launched a coup while the king was having medical treatment in Turkey.
The corrupt old regime was hated, and the young junta seemed idealists — expelling foreign workers and nationalising the oil. Libya sits on some of the world’s finest crude oil, with nearly 4 per cent of the world’s reserves. The year Gaddafi seized power, his country overtook Kuwait as the fifth-largest exporter. This gave him the funds to introduce free schools, housing and health care, while buying support abroad.
To begin with Gaddafi was popular. But Libyans soon despaired of the corruption swirling around his family and the ramshackle public services run by his henchmen. In a country where pupils had been encouraged to read Shakespeare in English and Maupassant in French, schools were forbidden to allow Western influences such as language classes and music.
Health care became so bad people saved for treatment in neighbouring Tunisia — which was nicknamed ‘Libya’s hospital’, with queues of sick people at the border. In the Seventies, Gaddafi unveiled a bizarre system of direct democracy, supposedly a Libyan alternative to socialism and capitalism combined with aspects of Islam which, he later told Tony Blair, made him the real inventor of the Third Way philosophy.
Like other self-glorifying dictators, he changed his country’s name (to the Libyan Arab Republic), its flag and then set out his rambling beliefs in the Green Book — a naive version of Chairman Mao’s famous Red Book — with views on everything from menstruation to boxing.
Behind the facade of ‘people’s committees’ with nominal political power, he pulled all the strings and eliminated opponents with the help of his family and trusted members of his tribe. He purged the army of rivals with alarming regularity, sent death squads to murder critics living abroad and personally ordered executions in sports stadiums.
After jihadists tried to assassinate him in a car bomb in 1996, Gaddafi used French-made chemical weapons in the lush Green Mountains to eliminate the rebels. There are said to be charred, barren patches of ground there even today.
One Libyan blogger recently disclosed a story that revealed his ruthlessness. Soon after Libya joined a civil war in Chad in 1978, Gaddafi told some school pupils to prepare for a trip. He sent buses to their schools, then armed them with rifles and ordered them in to battle along the border with Chad.
Later, he told his military to kill any child soldiers left mutilated by the fighting to ensure they did not cause concern back home on the streets of Libya’s towns and cities.But for all the damage he has done to his country, it was his murderous adventurism abroad that turned him into an international pariah until Blair brought him in from the cold. This will be his real legacy.
Gaddafi was the original global terrorist. As U.S. journalist David Lamb wrote in his book The Arabs: ‘Gaddafi has been accused of mining the Red Sea, plotting the assassination of the heads of state of the United States, Britain, France, West Germany and Saudi Arabia, planning the capture of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, calling on American blacks in the U.S. Army to revolt, killing a score of Libyan dissidents abroad and trying to buy an atom bomb from China.’
And that was just for starters with this most unpredictable of leaders. He promoted Arab unity, then fought with five of his six neighbours. He proclaimed he was the saviour of Africa, but supported its most depraved rulers, such as Idi Amin in Uganda and Sese Seko Mobuto in Zaire.
He funded dozens of terrorist groups, then became the first leader to issue an arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden in 1998 — five months before the U.S. — after the terrorist was accused of killing German citizens on Libyan soil.
He sent the IRA millions of pounds in cash and massive shipments of weapons, including Semtex explosives, sub-machine guns, rocket-launchers and hundreds of AK47 rifles. He stepped up support after the 1981 hunger strikes, which were said to have impressed him.
And he set out to destroy Israel, funding the Palestinian murder of athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, before proposing the end to the Israeli-Palestine conflict in 2009 with the establishment of a single state called ‘Isratine’. And if the Jews did not accept his solution? They could move to Hawaii or Alaska, he said contemptuously.
In the early days, Gaddafi was given intelligence support by the West who saw him as an opponent of Communism. But attitudes hardened as he exported terrorism. Ronald Reagan adopted the toughest response, shooting down Libyan aircraft over the Mediterranean and then, in 1986, launching airstrikes against his army bases in Tripoli and Benghazi after a nightclub bombing in Germany.
Following the murder two years earlier of Yvonne Fletcher, the police officer shot outside the Libyan embassy in London, Margaret Thatcher had sanctioned the use of British airbases for the operation.
Gaddafi was left badly shaken by the bombings, claiming his adopted six-month-old daughter, Hana, was killed. It emerged recently that this was a lie — she survived, and grew up to work as a doctor in Tripoli until, reportedly, fleeing with her mother, sister and two brothers to Algeria in August.
Tony Blair, of course, took a friendlier approach. He fell for suggestions Saif Gaddafi, the second son being groomed to take over from his father, was pushing a reformist agenda against his more thuggish brothers Mutassim and Khamis. Of these, only Saif is thought to be still alive — although there were conflicting reports last night about his whereabouts.
Seven years ago, Blair flew to Tripoli to seal a deal that looks more despicable by the day, allowing Gaddafi to rejoin the international community in return for renouncing his weapons of mass destruction programme.
This led to the lifting of sanctions, compensation for the Lockerbie bombing and permission for Western companies to drill for that lucrative oil and sell armaments to the military. These were the weapons turned on those people fighting to overthrow Gaddafi.
The most controversial move was the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber suffering from cancer.
Secret British documents and letters from Downing Street I discovered in Tripoli last month revealed that Gaddafi threatened Britain with ‘dire consequences’ if Megrahi died in his Scottish jail, including the harassment — or worse — of British nationals, the cancellation of lucrative oil and gas contracts, and the end of defence deals and counter-terrorism co-operation.
But such was the public makeover to Gaddafi’s image he was even invited to speak to the United Nations in 2009.
As he celebrated the 40th anniversary of his revolution that year, the veteran Libyan leader was clearly happy with the way it had turned out. Western leaders and business people were trampling a path to Tripoli, which displayed clear signs of the oil boom, with swish hotels and new shopping centres — many controlled by his wealthy family. ‘There will be no more wars, raids or acts of terrorism,’ he declared.
Instead, this blood-soaked despot unleashed appalling acts of terror on his people in his desperation to cling on to power, only to die in ignominy in his home town.
Many Libyans who rose up against their dictator are dead. Many more have suffered terrible injuries. And Muammar Gaddafi, the man who shamed his people, brutalised his nation and terrorised the world, ended his life the international pariah that he should always have remained.