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Muammar Gaddafi

(1942 - 2011)

Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi is best known as the de facto leader of Libya from 1969 till his death in 2011.

Though Gaddafi did not have an official title or hold a public office since 1977, he was accorded the honorifics “Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” or “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” in government statements and the official Libyan press.

Early life

Gaddafi was the youngest child born into a peasant family and grew up in the desert region of Sirte. He was given a traditional religious primary education and attended the Sebha preparatory school in Fezzan from 1956 to 1961. Gaddafi and a small group of friends he met in this school formed the core leadership of a militant revolutionary group that would eventually seize control of the country in the late 1960s. Gaddafi’s inspiration was Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of neighboring Egypt, who rose to the presidency by appealing to Arab unity. In 1961, Gaddafi was expelled from Sebha for his political activism.

Gaddafi studied law at the University of Libya, graduating with high grades. He then entered the Military Academy in Benghazi in 1963, where he and a few of his fellow militants organized a secretive group dedicated to overthrowing the pro-Western Libyan monarchy. After graduating in 1965, he was sent to Britain for further training at the British Army Staff College, now the Joint Services Command and Staff College. He returned in 1966 as a commissioned officer in the Signal Corps.

Military coup d’état

On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by Gaddafi staged a bloodless coup d’état against King Idris I, while he was in Kammena Vourla, an area in Greece, for medical treatment. His nephew, the Crown Prince Hasan as-Senussi, was set to become King on September 2 when the abdication of King Idris dated August 4 was to take effect. Before the end of the day, the monarchy was abolished, and the Libyan Arab Republic was proclaimed, with the Crown Prince being placed under house arrest.

Unlike some other military revolutionaries, Gaddafi did not promote himself to the rank of general upon seizing power but rather accepted a ceremonial promotion from captain to colonel, a rank he remained at throughout his life thereafter. While at odds with Western military ranking for a colonel to rule a country and serve as Commander-in-Chief of its military, in Gaddafi’s own words, Libya’s utopian society is “ruled by the people,” so he needs no more grandiose title or supreme military rank. Gaddafi’s decision to remain a colonel is not a new concept among military coup leaders; Gamal Abdel Nasser remained a colonel after seizing power in Egypt, and Jerry Rawlings, President of Ghana, held no military rank higher than flight lieutenant. In the same fashion, the Republic of El Salvador was ruled by Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Osorio (1950-1956), Lieutenant Colonel José María Lemus (1956-1960), and Lieutenant Colonel Julio Adalberto Rivera (1962-1967).

Islamic Socialism and Pan-Arabism

Gaddafi based his new regime on a blend of Arab nationalism, aspects of the welfare state, and what Gaddafi termed “direct, popular democracy.” He called this system “Islamic socialism,” while he permitted private control over small companies, the government controlled the larger ones. Welfare, “liberation,” and education were emphasized. He also imposed a system of Islamic morals, outlawing alcohol and gambling. Gaddafi outlined his political philosophy in his Green Book, published in three volumes between 1975 and 1979 to reinforce the ideals of this socialist-Islamic state. In practice, however, Libya’s political system is thought to be somewhat less idealistic, and from time to time, Gaddafi has responded to domestic and external opposition with violence. His revolutionary committees called for the assassination of Libyan dissidents living abroad in April 1980, with Libyan hit squads sent abroad to murder them. On April 26, Gaddafi set a deadline of June 11 for dissidents to return home or be “in the hands of the revolutionary committees.” Nine Libyans were murdered during that time, five of them in Italy.

External Relations

Concerning Libya’s neighbors, Gaddafi followed Nasser’s ideas of pan-Arabism and became a fervent advocate of the unity of all Arab states into one Arab nation. He also supported pan-Islamism, the notion of a loose union of all Islamic countries and peoples. After Nasser’s death on September 28, 1970, Gaddafi attempted to take up the mantle of ideological leader of Arab nationalism. He proclaimed the “Federation of Arab Republics” (Libya, Egypt, and Syria) in 1972, hoping to create a pan-Arab state, but the three countries disagreed on the specific terms of the merger. In 1974, he signed an agreement with Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba on a union between the two countries, but this also failed to work in practice, and, ultimately, differences between the two countries would deteriorate into strong animosity.

On February 21, 1973, a civilian Libyan aircraft flown by a French pilot accidentally flew over an Israeli Air Force base. Two Israeli fighter planes flew beside it but he did not understand the signals they gave him to land and flew on even after the planes fired warning shots. The fighters then shot down the aircraft, and 108 of the 113 passengers were killed. Israel apologized for the error but blamed it on the pilot for failing to change course.

Libya was also involved in a sometimes violent territorial dispute with neighboring Chad over the Aouzou Strip, which Libya occupied in 1973. This dispute eventually led to the Libyan invasion of the country and to a conflict that was ended by a ceasefire reached in 1987. The dispute was settled peacefully in June 1994 when Libyan troops were withdrawn from Chad in full respect for the International Court of Justice judgment issued on February 13, 1994.[4]

Gaddafi also became a strong supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which ultimately harmed Libya’s relations with Egypt when, in 1979, Egypt pursued a peace agreement with Israel. As Libya’s relations with Egypt worsened, Gaddafi sought closer relations with the Soviet Union. Libya became the first country outside the Soviet bloc to receive the supersonic MiG-25 combat fighters, but Soviet-Libyan relations remained relatively distant. Gaddafi also sought to increase Libyan influence, especially in states with an Islamic population, by calling for the creation of a Saharan Islamic state and supporting anti-government forces in sub-Saharan Africa.

Notable in his politics was his support for liberation movements and sponsoring rebel movements in West Africa, notably Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as Muslim groups. In the 1970s and the 1980s, this support was sometimes so free that even the most unsympathetic groups could get Libyan support. Often, the groups represented ideologies far away from Gaddafi’s own. International opinion was confused by these policies. Throughout the 1970s, his regime was implicated in subversion and terrorist activities in both Arab and non-Arab countries. By the mid-1980s, he was widely regarded in the West as the principal financier of international terrorism. Reportedly, Gaddafi was a major financier of the “Black September Movement,” which perpetrated the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics, and was accused by the United States of being responsible for direct control of the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 200, of whom a substantial number were U.S. servicemen. He is also said to have paid “Carlos the Jackal” to kidnap and then release a number of the Saudi Arabian and Iranian oil ministers.

Tensions between Libya and the West reached a peak during the Ronald Reagan administration, which tried to overthrow Gaddafi. The Reagan administration viewed Libya as a belligerent rogue state because of its uncompromising stance on Palestinian independence, its support for revolutionary Iran in its 1980-1988 war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and its backing for “liberation movements” in the developing world. Reagan himself dubbed Gaddafi the “mad dog of the Middle East.” In March 1982, the U.S. declared a ban on importing Libyan oil and exporting US oil industry technology to Libya; European nations did not follow suit.

In 1984, British police constable Yvonne Fletcher was shot outside the Libyan Embassy in London while policing an anti-Gaddafi demonstration. A burst of machine-gun fire from within the building was suspected of killing her, but Libyan diplomats asserted their diplomatic immunity and were repatriated. The incident led to the breaking-off of diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and Libya for over a decade.

The U.S. attacked Libyan patrol boats from January to March 1986 during clashes over access to the Gulf of Sidra, which Libya claimed as territorial waters. Later, on April 15, 1986, Ronald Reagan ordered major bombing raids, dubbed Operation El Dorado Canyon, against Tripoli and Benghazi, killing 45 Libyan military and government personnel as well as 15 civilians. This strike followed U.S. interception of Telex messages from Libya’s East Berlin embassy suggesting Libyan government involvement in a bomb explosion in West Berlin’s La Belle discotheque, a nightclub frequented by U.S. servicemen on April 5. Among the fatalities of the April 15 retaliatory attack by the U.S. was Gaddafi’s adopted daughter.

In late 1987, a merchant vessel, the MV Eksund, was intercepted. Destined for the IRA, a large consignment of arms and explosives supplied by Libya was recovered from the Eksund. British intelligence believed this was not the first and that Libyan arms shipments had previously reached the IRA.

Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103

On November 13, 1991, Libyan intelligence operative Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and his alleged accomplice Lamen Khalifa Fhimah were charged in the bombing if Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, including 190 Americans. For most of the 1990s, Libya endured economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation as a result of Gaddafi’s refusal to allow the extradition to the United States or Britain of the two men.

Through the intercession of South African President Nelson Mandela - who made a high-profile visit to Gaddafi in 1997 - and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Gaddafi agreed in 1999 to a compromise that involved handing the defendants to the Netherlands for trial under Scottish law. UN sanctions were suspended, but U.S. sanctions against Libya remained in force. In 2001, al-Megrahi was convicted, and Fhimah was acquitted,

In August 2003, after Al Megrahi’s conviction, Libya wrote to the UN formally accepting ’responsibility for the actions of its officials’ in respect of the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay compensation of up to $2.7 billion – or up to $10 million each – to the families of the 270 victims. The same month, Britain and Bulgaria co-sponsored a UN resolution that removed the suspended sanctions. (Bulgaria’s involvement in tabling this motion led to suggestions that there was a link with the HIV trial in Libya in which five Bulgarian nurses working at a Benghazi hospital were accused of infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV.) Forty percent of the compensation was paid to each family, and a further 40% followed once U.S. sanctions were removed. Because the U.S. refused to take Libya off its list of state sponsors of terrorism, Libya retained the last 20% ($540 million) of the $2.7 billion compensation package.

On June 28, 2007, Megrahi was granted the right to a second appeal against the Lockerbie bombing conviction. One month later, the Bulgarian medics were released from jail in Libya. They returned home to Bulgaria and were pardoned by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. 

Megrahi died in 2012, about three years after being released from prison with a cancer diagnosis.

Abu Agela Mas’ud Kheir al-Marimi was extradited from Libya to the United States in December 2022. Now 71, al-Marimi is a former Libyan intelligence officer charged with building the bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103. According to U.S. officials, Mas’ud admitted to making the bomb and assisting Megrahi and Fhimah in executing the plot. Mas’ud faces two different criminal charges, including the destruction of an aircraft resulting in death. He could be sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors said that while the charges Mas’ud faces now are punishable by death, they were not eligible for the death penalty in 1988.

Western Openness

Simultaneously, Gaddafi also emerged as a popular African leader. As one of the continent’s longest-serving, post-colonial heads of state, the Libyan leader enjoyed a reputation among many Africans as an experienced and wise statesman who had been at the forefront of many struggles over the years. Gaddafi earned the praise of Nelson Mandela and others and was prominent in various pan-African organizations, such as the Organization of African Unity (now replaced by the African Union). He was also seen by many Africans as a humanitarian, pouring large amounts of money into sub-Saharan states. Many Africans have come to Libya to take advantage of the availability of jobs there. In addition, many economic migrants, primarily from Somalia and Ghana, use Libya as a staging post to reach Italy and other European countries.

Gaddafi also appeared to be attempting to improve his image in the West. Two years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Libya pledged its commitment to fighting Al-Qaeda and offered to open up its weapons program to international inspection. The Clinton administration did not pursue the offer at the time since Libya’s weapons program was not then regarded as a threat, and the matter of handing over the Lockerbie bombing suspects took priority. Following the attacks of September 11, Gaddafi made one of the first and firmest denunciations of the Al-Qaeda bombers by any Muslim leader. Gaddafi also appeared on ABC for an open interview with George Stephanopoulos, a move that would have seemed unthinkable less than a decade earlier.

There are many explanations for the change in Gaddafi’s politics. The most obvious was that Libya’s once very rich became much less wealthy as oil prices dropped significantly during the 1990s. Since then, Gaddafi has tended to need other countries more than before and hasn’t been able to dole out foreign aid as he once did. In this environment, the increasingly stringent sanctions placed by the UN and US on Libya made it more and more isolated politically and economically. Another possibility is that strong Western reactions forced Gaddafi into changing his politics. It is also possible that realpolitik changed Gaddafi. His ideals and aims did not materialize: there never was any Arab unity, the various armed revolutionary organizations he supported did not achieve their goals, and the demise of the Soviet Union left Gaddafi’s main symbolic target, the United States, stronger than ever.

Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces in 2003, Gaddafi announced that his nation had an active weapons of mass destruction program but was willing to allow international inspectors into his country to observe and dismantle them. President George W. Bush and other supporters of the Iraq War portrayed Gaddafi’s announcement as a direct consequence of the Iraq War by stating that Gaddafi acted out of fear for the future of his regime if he continued to keep and conceal his weapons. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a supporter of the Iraq War, was quoted as saying that Gaddafi had privately phoned him, admitting as much. Many foreign policy experts, however, contend that Gaddafi’s announcement was merely a continuation of his attempts at normalizing relations with the West and removing the sanctions. To support this, they point to the fact that Libya had already made similar offers starting four years before it finally being accepted. International inspectors turned up several tons of chemical weaponry in Libya, as well as an active nuclear weapons program. As the process of destroying these weapons continued, Libya improved its cooperation with international monitoring regimes to the extent that, by March 2006, France was able to agree with Libya to develop a significant nuclear power program.

In March 2004, British Prime Minister Tony Blair became one of the first Western leaders in decades to visit Libya and publicly meet Gaddafi. Blair praised Gaddafi’s acts and stated that he hoped Libya could now be a strong ally in the international war on terrorism. In the run-up to Blair’s visit, the British ambassador in Tripoli, Anthony Layden, explained Libya’s and Gaddafi’s political change thus:

“35 years of total state control of the economy has left them in a situation where they’re simply not generating enough economic activity to give employment to the young people who are streaming through their successful education system. I think this dilemma goes to the heart of Colonel Gaddafi’s decision that he needed a radical change of direction.”

On May 15, 2006, the U.S. State Department announced that it would restore full diplomatic relations with Libya once Gaddafi declared he was abandoning Libya’s weapons of mass destruction program. The State Department also said Libya would be removed from the list of nations supporting terrorism. On August 31, 2006, however, Gaddafi openly called upon his supporters to “kill enemies” who asked for political change.

In July 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Libya and signed several bilateral and multilateral (EU) agreements with Gaddafi.

Internal dissent

In October 1993, there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Gaddafi by elements of the Libyan army. In July 1996, bloody riots followed a football match as a protest against Gaddafi.

Fathi Eljahmi is a prominent dissident who has been imprisoned since 2002 for calling for increased democratization in Libya.

A website that actively sought his overthrow was set up in 2006 and listed 343 victims of murder and political assassination. The Libyan League for Human Rights (LLHR) – based in Geneva – petitioned Gaddafi to set up an independent inquiry into the February 2006 unrest in Benghazi in which some 30 Libyans and foreigners were killed.

In February 2011, following revolutions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, protests against Gaddafi’s rule began anew and in earnest. These escalated into an uprising that spread across the country, with the forces opposing Gaddafi establishing a government based in Benghazi. This led to the 2011 Libyan Civil War, which included a military intervention by a NATO-led coalition to enforce a Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone and protection of civilians in Libya.

Gaddafi and his forces lost the Battle of Tripoli in August, and on September 16, 2011, the newly formed government took Libya’s seat at the UN, replacing Gaddafi. He retained control over parts of Libya, most notably the city of Sirte, to which it was presumed that he had fled. Although Gaddafi’s forces initially held out against the NTC’s advances, Gaddafi was captured alive as Sirte fell to the rebel forces on October 20, 2011, and he died the same day under unclear circumstances.

Personal life

Gaddafi had eight children, seven of them sons. His eldest son, Muhammad Gaddafi, is by a wife now in disfavor but runs the Libyan Olympic Committee and owns all the telecommunication companies in Libya.

The next eldest, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, was born in 1972, is a painter, and runs a charity that has been involved in negotiating freedom for hostages taken by Islamic militants, especially in the Philippines. In 2006, after sharply criticizing his father’s regime, Saif Al Islam briefly left Libya, reportedly to take on a position in banking outside of the country. He returned to Libya soon after, launching an environment-friendly initiative to teach children how they can help clean up parts of Libya. He has also been at the forefront of resolving the HIV case of a Palestinian doctor and Bulgarian nurses described previously.

The third eldest, Al-Saadi Gaddafi, is married to the daughter of a military commander. Al Saadi runs the Libyan Football Federation, plays for Italian Serie A team U.C. Sampdoria, makes billions of dollars in the petrol industry, and produces films.

The fourth eldest, Mutasim-Billah Gaddafi, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Libyan army. He fled to Egypt after allegedly masterminding an Egyptian-backed coup attempt against his father. Gaddafi forgave Mutasim-Billah and returned to Libya, where he was given the post of national security adviser and heads his own unit within the army. Saif Al Islam and Mutasim-Billah are both seen as possible successors to their father.

The fifth eldest, Hannibal, once worked for a public marine transportation company in Libya. He is most notable for being involved in a series of violent incidents throughout Europe, including charges against him for beating up his then-pregnant girlfriend, Alin Skaf. (In September 2004, Hannibal was involved in a police chase in Paris.)

Gaddafi has two younger sons, Saif Al Arab and Khamis, a police officer in Libya.

Gaddafi’s only daughter is Ayesha Gaddafi, a lawyer who had joined the defense team of executed former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. She married a cousin of her father in 2006.

Gaddafi’s reportedly adopted daughter, Hanna, was killed in the 1986 USAF bombing raid. At a “concert for peace” held on April 15, 2006 in Tripoli to mark the 20th anniversary of the bombing raid, U.S. singer Lionel Richie told the audience:

“Hanna will be honored tonight because of the fact that you’ve attached peace to her name.”

In January 2002, Gaddafi purchased a 7.5% share of Italian football club Juventus for $21 million through Lafico (“Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company”). Though Gaddafi is an avid football fan, this more importantly continued a longstanding association with the late Gianni Agnelli, the primary investor in Fiat. Gaddafi has also become involved in chess: in March 2004, FIDE, the game’s world governing body, announced that he would be providing prize money for the World Championship, held in June-July 2004 in Tripoli.

Lahore, Pakistan’s primary cricket stadium, Gaddafi Stadium, is named after him.

In addition to his Green Book, al-Gaddafi is the author of Escape to Hell, a 1996 collection of short stories.

In November 2002, he hosted the Miss Net World beauty pageant, a first for Libya and, as far as is known, the world’s first to be held on the internet.

Gaddafi’s bodyguard, the Amazonian guard, was composed of women who are martial arts experts and highly trained in using weapons. The Amazonian guard accompanied him on his 2004 visit to Brussels.

The Amazonian Guard sparked an international incident in 2006 when Gaddafi landed in Nigeria with over two hundred armed guards for a summit. Nigerian security officials refused to allow the Libyans entry based on their armaments, and Gaddafi angrily resolved to set off on foot 40 km to Nigeria’s capital from the airport. The Nigerian President personally intervened, and a compromise was sought. However, the Libyans rejected mediation and threatened to fly home, whereupon the Nigerians revoked their compromise offers and announced that the Libyans could only bring in 8 pistols, which is the limit for international delegations. The Libyans finally backed down and complied with the Nigerians after several hours.

Gaddafi holds an honorary degree from Megatrend University in Belgrade, proclaimed by former Yugoslav President Zoran Lilic.


“Ronald Reagan plays with fire! He sees the world like the theater.”

“I have nothing but scorn for the notion of an Islamic bomb. There is no such thing as an Islamic bomb or a Christian bomb. Any such weapon is a means of terrorizing humanity, and we are against the manufacture and acquisition of nuclear weapons. This is in line with our definition of—and opposition to—terrorism.”

“Israel is a colonialist-imperialist phenomenon. There is no such thing as an Israeli people. Before 1948, world geography knew of no state such as Israel. Israel is the result of an invasion, of aggression.”

“I’ve got two idols in my life — President Lincoln and Dr. Sun Yat-sen.”

“Irrespective of the conflict with America, it is a human duty to show sympathy with the American people and be with them at these horrifying and awful events which are bound to awaken human conscience.” — September 11, 2001

“Man’s freedom is lacking if somebody else controls what he needs, for need may result in man’s enslavement of man.”

“We have four million Muslims in Albania. There are signs that Allah will grant Islam victory in Europe – without swords, without guns, without conquests. The fifty million Muslims of Europe will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades. Europe is in a predicament, and so is America. They should agree to become Islamic in the course of time, or else declare war on the Muslims.”

“The Libyans said they’ll buy their way out of these three [terrorism] black lists. We’ll pay so much, to hell with $2 billion or more. It’s not compensation. It’s a price. The Americans said it was Libya who did it. It is known that the president was madman Reagan who’s got Alzheimer’s and has lost his mind. He now crawls on all fours.”


Due to the inherent difficulties of transliterating written and regionally pronounced Arabic, Gaddafi’s name can be transliterated in many ways. An article published in the London Evening Standard in 2004 lists 37 spellings; a 1986 column by The Straight Dope quotes a list of 32 spellings known at the Library of Congress. In this article, Muammar al-Gaddafi is the spelling used by Time magazine and the BBC. The Associated Press, CNN, and Fox News use the spelling Moammar Gadhafi, Al-Jazeera uses Muammar al-Qadhafi, the Edinburgh Middle East Report uses Mu’ammar Qaddafi, and the U.S. Department of State uses Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi. In 1986, Gaddafi reportedly responded to a Minnesota school’s letter in English using the spelling Moammar El-Gadhafi. According to Gaddafi’s website, he preferred the spelling Muammar Gadafi, but the domain name gives yet another version: al-Gathafi.

Sources: Perry Stein, U.S. says it can’t seek death penalty against accused Lockerbie bomber, Washington Post, (December 12, 2022).
Yaacov Lozowick, “When Israel Shot Down a Libyan Passenger Plane, but Refused to Take Responsibility,” Haaretz, (
Yiftah Zemer, “I’s been haunting me for 50 years: I shot down the Libyan plane,” Ynet, (September 22, 2023).

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