Gaddafi’s Ghost: How the Tyrant Haunts Libya a Year After His Death

One year after being cornered and killed by Libyan rebels, fallen dictator Muammar Gaddafi still casts a long shadow from the grave

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Children play with slingshots in Sirt, Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown, on March 31, 2012

The killing of Muammar Gaddafi exactly a year ago — on Oct. 20, 2011 — ended the world’s longest dictatorship, and this week, Libya’s first freely elected government in decades appointed its new Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan. Zeidan should expect no easy ride: Libya’s feisty new media sites and television channels have spent the past year lambasting the new leaders for their poor performance — just the kind of criticisms that would have earned journalists years in prison under Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. For sure, Libya is violent and chaotic. But it is finally free. “There is progress,” says Ali Tarhouni, one of the leaders of last year’s revolution, by phone from Tripoli. “After all, Gaddafi is dead. This ‘mad dog’ is gone.”

Yet while Gaddafi lies buried in a secret location in the desert, Libyans are grappling with his troublesome legacy, one year after his gruesome demise. Here are three issues still playing out in Libya’s new democracy:

Is one Gaddafi scion still in hiding?

A year since rebel leaders proclaimed victory, many Libyans still believe that Khamis, Gaddafi’s youngest son, who headed the feared 32nd Army Brigade, is laying low, perhaps in his father’s old stronghold of Bani Walid, and plotting attacks with remaining loyalists. The widespread rumors persist despite evidence that Khamis was killed on Aug. 24 of last year, after fleeing Tripoli with his fighters; one man who survived that chaotic escape told the New York Times in May that he witnessed Khamis killed in a gun battle and that he then saw Kahmis’s brother Saif al-Islam — Gaddafi’s most famous son — greeting mourners in Bani Walid.

But in Libya, rumors have their own momentum. So long as enough people (and there are plenty) believe Khamis survived, the fear will likely persist that the Gaddafis could mount a return. “Unless you can tell us where the body is, a lot of people will be suspicious,” Jalal el-Gallal, ex-rebel spokesman, told TIME this week. “Why the secrecy? Because he is still alive?” he says. “People are worried. Is there going to be a comeback for the Gaddafi family?”

There is little doubt about the rest of Gaddafi’s known children (the Brother Leader was notorious for summoning countless young women to his compound for sex), or rather, about most of them. Gaddafi’s adopted daughter Hanaa, who he claimed had died in the 1986 U.S. bombing raid on his home, in fact was found to have survived that attack and until last year was a doctor in a Tripoli hospital. Her current whereabouts are unknown.

For the rest: Mohammed, Gaddafi’s son from his first wife, fled to Algiers, where he is now in exile, together with three other members of the slain leader’s immediate family: Gaddafi’s second wife Safiya, his daughter Aisha and his son Hannibal. Saadi, Gaddafi’s fifth son, is holed up in the neighboring country of Niger, whose government has allowed him to stay, albeit under house arrest. Another son, Saif al-Arab, was killed in last year’s war. And Saif al-Islam — long hailed as the great reformist hope and his father’s heir apparent — is still in custody in the western town of Zintan, whose militia captured him last November. After hearings this month at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Saif looks likely to stand trial, maybe next year, in Libya. Perhaps he might finally reveal where his brother Khamis is buried.

Where is Gaddafi’s plundered wealth?

Beyond being cruel and repressive, Gaddafi’s regime was hugely rapacious too. Billions of dollars were squirreled out of the country, with Gaddafi’s sons using Libya’s massive oil wealth to fund their lavish lifestyles as they splurged with abandon in luxury destinations from the Alps to the Caribbean.

Libyan officials are still waiting for those assets to return to them. In part, officials have felt it more prudent to wait until a new government is in place — still not the case — before taking possession of the lost wealth, for fear that the money could vanish into the hands of Gaddafi’s old allies.

Tarhouni, who was Minister of Finance under the National Transitional Council last year, was in charge of trying to trace the lost billions and believes that the Gaddafis embezzled at least $160 billion out of Libya, some of which is known to be in the U.S. and Europe. “We know a lot about where the money is,” he says. “The assets of the Central Bank and the Libyan Investment Authority we have a pretty good idea about.” That is only a portion of what is missing, however. The task of tracing all the assets could take years, judging by previous international efforts in Nigeria and Haiti, after dictatorships in those countries collapsed. “There is a good chunk of money, millions and millions, which we do not really know about,” Tarhouni says. “Those are physical and other assets. It will take time and cost money to trace them.”

Where are the weapons?

Gaddafi was one of the world’s biggest arms buyers, spending a good chunk of his oil revenue on sophisticated weapons systems. When U.S. and E.U. sanctions ended in the mid-2000s, Gaddafi become a prized customer for Western defense contractors, spending hundreds of millions on British tanks and armored vehicles and French fighter jets. After the regime’s collapse last October, dozens of warehouses piled high with rockets, missiles and other weaponry were uncovered near Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirt.

Much of that arsenal is now missing, having filtered into the hands of militia groups or smuggled across Libya’s borders to armed groups in Mali, Mauritania and other North African countries. Gaddafi’s weapons cache appears also to have been sold or distributed to Syrian rebels who, ironically, are at war with one of Gaddafi’s onetime allies, Basher Assad. The Wall Street Journal this week reported that some of Gaddafi’s huge stockpile of handheld antitank and antiaircraft missiles are in evidence in Idlib province. “Most of the shoulder-fired missiles in rebel arsenals have come from Libya, smuggled into the country through the Turkish border without the official blessing of regional states or their Western backers, several rebel coordinators said,” said the article.

What worries Libyan officials more, however, is the armed groups inside the country who now possess some of Gaddafi’s massive quantities of weaponry — enough to last several wars and to make the task of disarming the militia groups daunting, if not impossible. Says Tarhouni: “My guess is that most of the weaponry is not in the hands of the government.”

2 comments
siavashjal
siavashjal

I think newly installed libiyan government can't or does not want to control gaddafi's loyalists. such moves like attack on sirt or banivalid are just symbolic move.