Our Middle East Correspondent Marie Colvin, who has known Gadaffi for 25 years, offers an insight into the mind of Libya’s fallen tyrant Gadaffi told me he was in love with Madeleine Albright.
By Marie Colvin
August 28, 2011
When I saw the looted chaos of the Bab al-Aziziya compound in the centre of Tripoli after its capture by rebels last week, I had a flashback to a night quarter of a century ago — the first time I met Muammar Gadaffi. In April 1986 I was driven through the empty, dark streets of the city to what was then his stronghold. The tall gates of Bab al-Aziziya swung open and I passed several tanks hidden in the shadows. I remember thinking I would not be leaving without the permission of the Libyan leader.
I was nervous. Gadaffi was in a tense stand-off with Ronald Reagan, the American president, who had called him “the mad dog of the Middle East” for sponsoring anti-western terrorism, including a nightclub bomb attack that month against American military personnel in Berlin. The US Sixth Fleet was off the coast. Superpower vengeance was expected at any moment.
Gadaffi had given no interviews to the scores of journalists in Tripoli. I was an American citizen, working at the time for United Press International, a US news agency. Why had I, a young female reporter, been awakened at 3am and told that “the leader” had summoned me? I didn’t know it at the time, but this was classic Gadaffi. He kept no set hours and summoned people. His whim had to be implemented immediately. You had only to see how quickly his aides scurried when he issued a command to know that his rule was based on fear.
My car was met by several beautiful young women in tight camouflage uniforms, high heels and make-up with pistols at their hips. They glared at me, led me underground down several staircases and left me alone in a room with a large desk and a sofa.
The door opened. In walked Gadaffi, dressed in a red silk collarless shirt, white silk pyjama trousers and lizard skin slip-ons. Over it all he wore a gold cape. He turned, locked the door, put the key in his pocket and said, “I am Gadaffi.”
I remember saying to myself, “No kidding.” But I think I was just stunned.
It was a weird interview. I kept turning on the tape recorder and he kept turning it off, putting his hand on my knee and saying he was tired and wanted to talk about something else. He seemed isolated. At one point I asked a not particularly clever question, something like, “How are you feeling now that President Reagan is about to bomb you?” “Who told you that?” he demanded. Missing my chance to be considered a journalist with highly placed sources, I said: “I heard it on the BBC.” Gadaffi leapt up, crossed the room and switched on a radio tuned to the World Service.
It was clear that he lived in a bubble of his own making. Libya was at the centre of an international crisis, yet he was sitting alone in his bunker, relying on the radio for news. The isolation could only have been enhanced by his obsession with the security he found underground.
We now know that the tunnels under the compound were more than just a secret way in and out. There was a whole world of living quarters where I must have interviewed him years ago, never knowing I was in a tiny corner of a secret complex.
The famous bedouin tent where he met dignitaries, including Tony Blair for the 2004 handshake, was one of the many props of his personal theatre. He played the bedouin sheikh but he never really lived there. He felt safe only in his burrow.
His paranoid obsession with safety underground became even more clear last week when I entered the house of Moatassim Gadaffi, one of his his sons and the national security adviser. Neighbours in the Ben Ashour district said Gadaffi senior had built the house about nine years ago, then given it to Moatassim.
Inside it was decorated in terrible taste, with mud-coloured leather furniture, dark brown modern paintings and an ostentatious, black-andwhite swirled marble floor. But down three staircases was an underground world. Much larger living quarters sprawled beneath the manicured gardens, complete with a fullyequipped operating theatre, an x-ray machine and a medical clinic. Armoured doors, painted green, punctuated the wide hallways, with instructions on how to release the lock if trapped by rubble.
“For four years workers were sending out trucks of dirt and no building appeared,” said Dr Ashraf al-Khadeiri, who lived across from the compound’s 30ft walls. “For four years, an enigma. We thought, maybe he is walking in the ground under us. Now we know.” Khadeiri was the first outsider to enter the underground home after Moatassim fled last week.
During the crisis of April 1986 I interviewed Gadaffi several times, always summoned at the last moment in the early hours, always meeting him underground. I never saw anyone besides drivers and guards. There was no sound from outside.
The interviews were increasingly strange. I arrived for one to find that a bodyguard had laid out petite green shoes for me to wear. It was Gadaffi’s favourite colour: he had changed Libya’s flag to a flat green banner and he had renamed Tripoli’s central square Green Square. But green shoes for an interviewer? Late on Friday April 11, he summoned me again and seemed in a more serious mood. He told me he had decided to “include all of southern Europe in a Libyan counterattack plan”.
Gadaffi painstakingly went over a communiqué with me, changing several words in a statement typed by his office and explaining exactly what he meant. He was anxious to hear what I thought the Reagan administration might do, and he pressed me for information from Washington. He told me: “I think Reagan must be mad.”
On the night of April 15 the Americans attacked. The use of Stealth F-117 aircraft was vetoed at the last minute — it would have been the first time the top-secret planes were used in anger — and a squadron of F-111s flew from American bases in Britain to hit the compound and other targets. I called the private number Gadaffi had given me to find out whether he had survived. An aide answered and hung up.
Several weeks later Gadaffi ended a long period of speculation that he had been killed by emerging to make one of his characteristic rambling speeches. He said Reagan was the problem, the American people loved Gadaffi, and to prove it he distorted the content of my phone call — which had been to find out if he was alive — to say that “an American woman had called and tried to warn me”. I was grateful he did not use my name.
Three years later I was in Tripoli again. It was a month after the Lockerbie bombing, which had not yet been definitively pinned on Libya.
American and British intelligence had identified a chemical weapons plant at Rabta, 60 miles south of the capital. US fighters patrolling the Mediterranean shot down two Libyan planes that had intercepted them. Gadaffi put human shields into Rabta, but this time no bombers came.
I saw him from a different perspective when I accompanied Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, on a visit to Libya. On the plane, Arafat worked through a mass of papers, always with his green pen. Without a break in stride after landing, he climbed into the limousine that whisked him to the hotel Gadaffi had assigned to him. When Gadaffi had still not seen him after 12 hours, Arafat took it as an insult.
He sent me in his convoy back to the airport. It was a feint. The call immediately came that the Libyan leader wanted to see Arafat, so my driver drove me at 100mph to join him at Gadaffi’s headquarters.
Gadaffi, in his finest robes, greeted Arafat then turned and noticed me. “Mary,” he asked (he has never been able to pronounce my name), “what are you doing here?” It was as if I had wandered in off the street.
“She’s with me,” Arafat said proudly, as though we were at a London film premiere. He then went on to lie outrageously about the state of my nose, which at the time was on the wrong side of my face.
Arafat told Gadaffi the Israelis had broken it. The truth was that Palestinian demonstrators had thrown a rock through the window of my car when I was posing as a Jewish settler on a reporting assignment.
Sometimes our encounters were even more surreal. When Madeleine Albright was Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, more than a decade after the bombing of Bab al-Aziziya, Gadaffi asked me at the end of an interview if I could get a message to her.
I thought I had a journalistic coup: the mad dog of the Middle East bidding for peace with Washington. Instead, he told me he loved “Madeleine”. He watched her every appearance on television, and he was annoyed that sometimes the cameras did not show her full face. The fact that, in her sixties, she was five years older than him and no longer a beauty seemed of no importance.
Could I get her special phone number for him, preferably for the phone next to her bed? Would I also communicate to her that if she felt the same as he did, she should wear green in her next television appearance? Albright appears to have been replaced since by a younger edition. An album of cut-out photographs of Condoleezza Rice, George W Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state, was found in one of Gadaffi’s underground salons last week. In 2007 he told an interviewer on Al Jazedera television how much he liked her: “Leezza, Leezza, Leezza — I love her very much. I admire her and am proud of her because she”s a black woman of African origin.”
For years, he seemed to be starring in his own movie. I never saw him in the same outfit twice. He was a bedouin tribesman, a colonel and a selfstyled revolutionary. He was an Arab and an African, a nationalist and a socialist, a Muslim, a poet and a would-be “philosopher king” and he had outfits for every role. His military uniforms had more medals than a Latin American generalissimo, and yet he had never fought a war until this year.
Beneath the ludicrous military caps his eyes were dark; they never revealed any emotion other than a canniness, as if a reptile within was always plotting. For his own people he was, in their words, “the leader”. He preferred “supreme guide” and fancied himself their mentor, patriarch and uncle.
It was the people, though, who felt the vicious side of his character, and where the lack of pity in those eyes mattered most. He was feared and hated. He would stop at nothing to maintain power.
GADAFFI made much of his birth in 1942 into an illiterate bedouin family in the desert near Sirte, the coastal town where his diehard supporters have been fighting their final battle. But his world view seems to have been shaped during his schooldays by revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world, principally Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser’s seizure of power in Egypt.
He joined the army as the path out of poverty and seized power in 1969 in a coup similar to Nasser’s: the virtually bloodless unseating of a weak king by young officers from whom Gadaffi emerged as the most prominent and then dictator.
For a while he was fairly normal. I once thumbed through an old photo album put together by one of his former confidants, which showed Gadaffi on a building site in a pork-pie hat and shorts, looking at an architect’s drawing. “He was always a little strange, but he was easy with us, like a normal person. He changed greatly,” the friend said.
He posed as a tribesman who wanted only the simple life, but Libya under Gadaffi degenerated into a corrupt state that enriched his family and hangers on. He made himself colonel, then abolished all military ranks above that. Despite all his talk of rule by the people for the people, it soon became clear there was only one colonel in Libya — and only one voice, among 6m, that really mattered.
Increasingly unchallenged, he gradually created an unreal world in Libya that mirrored his own fascinations. Grandiose projects never worked. All that remains of his $20 billion man-made river are oversized pipes scattered by the sides of roads or standing bizarrely at the centre of roundabouts in mute testimony to his folly.
He could afford it. Libya had valuable oil on the doorstep of European markets. Until the events of this year it was earning about $47 billion a year from exports — and Gadaffi used the wealth and influence it brought to keep potential enemies at bay and the country under firm control.
Much of the oil wealth was s q u a n d e r e d , s t o l e n o r embezzled. Gadaffi and his six sons, increasingly important props for his one-man regime, became immensely rich.
He was an impossible interview in many ways. When I last talked to him during this year’s uprising, I asked who was giving the army orders. He looked puzzled and said, “But there is no army in Libya!” This at a time that Libyan soldiers were shooting unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli. He said he would not have to step down as he held no government position, and chided me for not understanding the Libyan system of rule. In 1977, he had invented the “jamahiriya” or state of the masses, in which the nation is supposedly governed by the people through local councils. In reality, it was a parallel power base that he, his relatives and tribal allies controlled.
His ego knew no bounds. He fancied himself a philosopher, setting out his ideas in a “green book” filled with banalities such as, “A man is male, and a woman is female”. Every Libyan school child had to study the pocket-sized tome.
The green book was based on his “third universal theory”, which, an aide once told me admiringly, Gadaffi came up with after lying in a darkened room for weeks with a blanket over his head. When Tony Blair’s new Labour announced the “third way”, Gadaffi claimed it vindicated his theory and even threatened to sue for plagiarism.
Libya’s population was small in comparison with countries such as Egypt, but despite its riches its people struggled and infrastructure fell apart. It was impossible to imagine Libya as a wealthy oil country. Streets were potholed, cheap brick housing lined the highways.
Libyans went abroad for good healthcare, the wealthy to Europe or America, the middle class next door to Tunisia and only the poor attended Libyan hospitals. Education was among the worst in the Arab world. Gadaffi banned the study of English, pointedly keeping his people isolated from the wider world.
For Gadaffi, the great disappointment was that he never graduated to the bigger stage. He was desperate for international recognition. No matter how much he jumped up and down like a child, the great powers did not consider Libya important enough — strategically or militarily — to worry too much about him, at least at first. So he took to violence to get attention. He made Libya into an isolated, pariah state by spending millions backing anti-western terrorist groups, part of his revolutionary mission to change the world. His support was as indiscriminate as it was lavish. He funded and armed the Provisional IRA, but when Ulster Protestant paramilitaries came begging, he gave them money too. His largesse went to the Red Brigades in Italy, and Eta in Spain, to Shining Path in Peru and the Sword of Islam in the Philippines.
European capitals were bombed. Assassination squads were sent around the world, targeting Libyan dissidents whom Gadaffi labelled “stray dogs”. There was no escape; one exile was gunned down at his grocery store in west London. But it was when Gadaffi turned his murderous attentions directly to the United States, sending agents to bomb the nightclub in Berlin packed with American servicemen in 1986, that Washington and its allies drew the line.
He was not even very good with his few misguided supporters.
He put on an Alice in Wonderland “victory party” after the 1986 US bombing of Libya. Western peaceniks watched from stands erected in the ruins of Bab al-Aziziya as cute children marched by with examples of their hobbies. Then came the Libyan boy scouts carrying live chickens and a few live rabbits.
They appeared to be showing how well they cared for animals — until they suddenly threw them to the ground, disembowelled them with their bare hands and ate chunks of the still-quivering flesh. The peaceniks ran from the stands, screaming.
Gadaffi seemed ever more eccentric. After another interview, I went back to my hotel to be awakened in the middle of the night by a knock at the door. Standing in the doorway were a tall woman and a short Libyan man. She was wearing a full nurse”s uniform, complete with hat. Her little companion came up to her hip.
He announced that Gadaffi had thought I looked tired in the interview and had sent his personal nurse. She pulled out what looked to my sleepy eyes like the largest hypodermic needle I had ever seen, and said: “I Bulgarian. I take blood?” I said no, I was exhausted, she could do that tomorrow. It was never healthy to give an outright refusal in Gadaffi’s Libya. She insisted — “Just a little blood” — obviously under strict orders. I said: “Okay, but I know myself and if you take my blood I will definitely be too tired to interview the leader tomorrow.” They conferred, and we agree she could come by in the afternoon.
I decided to catch the first plane out of Tripoli — to anywhere.
But when I went downstairs to check out, I found that reception was under orders to keep my passport.
Luckily, Arafat was in town again and was seeing Gadaffi. Members of Force 17, Arafat’s elite bodyguard, had decided to have a coffee in the hotel while they waited for him. When they walked into the lobby, they saw me in distress.
They asked what was the matter, and wrested my passport back after a fierce argument.
Driving me to the airport, they saw me safely on to the plane.
The next time I went to Libya I was nervous; but Gadaffi started the interview by practically slapping his leg and laughing: “Remember the time I tried to take your blood?” THE Lockerbie bombing in 1988 succeded in winning the attention Gadaffi craved, but it led to tougher international sanctions and ostracism. Libya was cast into outer darkness for more than a decade. Then came the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and with them, an opportunity. The Americans’ subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 spooked Gadaffi.
In a spectacular volte-face, the Libyan leader came over to the West. Oil companies returned to the desert. His comeback was crowned in 2009 by his first address to the UN general assembly.
He admitted no fault for the terrors of the past, and oppression at home continued. The Libyans were never fooled. As younger generations across the Arab world rose in search of their rights this year, young Libyans decided to fight too.
His rehabilitation has, with hindsight, been rescinded by Europe and America over the past six months as his army has ruthlessly killed civilians to defend his regime. If captured he will now face an international indictment for war crimes. Or will the Libyans mete out their own justice? “My people love me,” he said in the last interview I had with him this year.
Did he really believe that? I looked into his eyes, trying to read him, and saw not a spark of duplicity showing. Yet he must have known his world was crumbling.
He chose the site of the interview cannily, appearing for the only time I met him above ground — in a fish restaurant of all places. It was puzzling until I realised the backdrop to the huge windows was Tripoli’s distinctive port, which would counter rumours that he had fled the country.
Where is he now? The streets I drove through to Bab al-Aziziya 25 years ago are littered with spent bullet cases, broken glass and burnt cars. The walls are daubed with cartoon caricatures of Gadaffi with exaggerated permed hair. The Libyan leader is on the run, with a bounty of $2m on his head. But he remains a showman. Will his exit be as dramatic as his entrance that night when he told me: “I am Gadaffi”? ”He was angry the cameras did not show Albright’s full face
Marie Colvin was woken at 3am to see Gadaffi Albright: surreal meeting Colonel Gadaffi in 1973, left, four years after he took power. The Lockerbie bombing and other terror attacks made him a pariah, but by 2009, right, he had turned himself into a friend of the West
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