05.01.11

Did Gaddafi Exaggerate NATO Attack?

The strike that killed the dictator’s youngest son came nowhere close to killing Gaddafi, says Fadel Lamen’s Libyan sources, who also cast doubt on whether grandchildren were killed.

The strike that killed the dictator’s youngest son came nowhere close to killing Gaddafi, says Fadel Lamen’s Libyan sources , who also cast doubt on whether grandchildren were killed. Plus, Clive Irving on what the killing reveals about NATO's on-the-ground intelligence—and its view of ending the war in Libya.

Forgive me for being cynical, but I’ve seen this act before. Yes, the NATO strike on the Gaddafi family—both the death of Saif al-Arab Gaddafi (not to be confused with Saif al-Islam, as the Libyan spokesman himself initially was) and the reported near-hit on the dictator himself—is important for the message sent and the chaos sown.

But the details on the Gaddafi hit don’t add up, and they make me—and a half dozen sources I talked with last night, including several in Libya—skeptical about how close we came to hitting the dictator. Or that three grandchildren were actually killed, as Gaddafi’s embattled government claims.

Musa Ibrahim al-Gaddafi, the belligerent leader’s spokesman—and cousin—went straight into propaganda mode after the strike. “Mr. Saif al-Arab was a civilian, a student... He was playing and talking to his father and mother and his nieces and nephews and other visitors when he was attacked and killed.”

Like most of what the spokesmen there say, the regime has so far failed to provide any proof of its claim, except to guide the Western journalists in a tour of a facility bombed by NATO. The lack of clear evidence of any death, except spots of blood, just increases cynicism.

My Tripoli sources confirm an attack on one of the regime’s buildings frequented by another of his sons, Hanibal Gaddafi—but not Gaddafi himself, his wife or the other sons. In fact, one of my sources, acquainted with the family's habits, maintained that the family almost never gets together, especially given the current circumstances, which makes the idea of a NATO strike that somehow hit a nest of Gaddafis (sparing the leader, of course) seem a bit far-fetched.

In fact, several sources in Libya insisted to me that Gaddafi and his wife were nowhere close to the building. Rather than stay with family, or in official and military buildings and installations, Gaddafi, these people tell me, instead stays in civilian areas in apartments and other unsuspected buildings and moves constantly.

And consider that Saif-al-Arab, just 29, wasn’t married, and didn’t have known children of his own, according to my sources. So where did these grandchildren magically appear from?

It’s reminiscent of Gaddafi claims exactly a quarter-century ago that a U.S. attack on his compound spared him, but killed his adopted daughter.

It’s all reminiscent of Gaddafi claims exactly a quarter-century ago that a U.S. attack on his compound spared him, but killed his adopted daughter, Hana. Many then and now dismiss the story as a propaganda stunt. Mohamed Buisier, a Libyan opposition figure, who returned from Libya a few weeks ago, says he believes that Abdulsalam al-Zadma, one of Gaddafi’s right-hand men “went to the children's hospital right after the attack and took a picture of an already dead baby and fabricated the story.” Buisier says he believes, as do many others, that Hana is still alive in Tripoli.

It has been known in the last few months since the Libyan uprising how Gaddafi recycled the dead bodies of the Libyans he killed to claim that NATO killed them. His forces would dig up the graves and collect the bodies just to store them in refrigerators in Tripoli to be used as victims of the “Western crusaders.”

Perhaps today, he’ll offer more concrete proof. But many Libyans familiar with Gaddafi’s behavior worry that, in the quest for propaganda—and blood—he will commit civilian massacres, and then try to pin it on NATO or the Libyan rebels. He telegraphed as much in a long speech on Friday, when he rambled aimlessly: first angry, then helpless, then threatening, then reconciliatory, then defiant. The one thing he kept repeating: Civilian casualties are caused by the West.

Know this: Gaddafi will not hesitate to do whatever it takes to survive. Desperate regimes act desperately; lies and crimes are the last set of tools in the toolbox.

Fadel Lamen is a journalist, writer, and Middle East/North Africa expert and cultural adviser based in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent traveler to the Middle East and has been published in Arabic and English newspapers and magazines. He also has been interviewed by major media outlets in English and Arabic on issues related to the Middle East, Islam, and American foreign policy.