The Gaddafis’ Great Escape

His wife and kids have fled Libya for Algeria—so where’s the boss? Babak Dehghanpisheh on the hunt for Gaddafi, his likely hiding spots, and why the rebels are spreading false rumors.

08.30.11 11:41 AM ET

The great escape begins. Early Monday morning, a good portion of Muammar Gaddafi’s clan scrambled over the border into Algeria from a remote border post in southwest Libya. The group included his wife, Safia; two of his sons, Muhammad and Hannibal; and his daughter Aisha, along with their spouses and children.

It was only a matter of time. The Gaddafi clan, known for their over-the-top lifestyle both inside and outside Libya, couldn’t have survived a harsh life on the run. After all, it was Hannibal who hired Beyoncé to perform at a 2010 New Year’s Eve bash on the Caribbean island of St. Bart’s. The reaction from the rebel leadership was swift. “We will demand that Algerian authorities hand them over to Libya to be tried before Libyan courts,” said Ahmed Jibril, an aide to National Transitional Council head Mustafa Abdel Jalil.

The fact that Algeria gave the group asylum raises a pointed question: could Gaddafi himself have crossed into the country? The Egyptian news agency MENA, citing rebel fighters, reported that six armored Mercedes sedans crossed over into Algeria over the weekend as well. Algerian officials denied that report and any suggestion that Gaddafi was in their country, no doubt realizing the seriousness of the charge. Giving the Gaddafi family shelter is a political land mine, but giving Gaddafi himself refuge would be a violation of international law because of the outstanding warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

If Gaddafi is still in Libya, there are some logical places where he could have fled. One of the top choices would be Sirte, his hometown, which is still not under rebel control. It’s worth noting that after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein fled to a small farm near Tikrit, his hometown, where he was eventually flushed out of a hole in the ground. Another likely choice would be Sabha, a town deep in the southern Libyan desert that is also a regime stronghold.

Gaddafi is the biggest catch, but many rebels are eagerly hunting a number of his sons who also participated in the recent violent crackdown. Top on the wanted list is Saif al-Islam, the brash son who was widely seen as the power behind the throne. The rebels reported his capture the first day they rolled into Tripoli last week, only to get snubbed when Saif rolled up in a convoy in front of the Rixos hotel and gave an interview to CNN’s Matthew Chance. He’s the last member of the family to have been seen in public and, like his dad, is facing an arrest warrant from the ICC for crimes against humanity. The much-loathed Khamis, the head of an elite military brigade accused of some of the most brutal acts in the six-month uprising, is also a top outlaw. Rebels reported that they had killed Khamis in battle on Monday, but similar claims have previously been proved false. Also high on the list is Mutassim, the regime’s national-security adviser and a player who dated a Dutch Playboy model.

Both rebel officials and grunts, whether coordinated or not, are throwing out plenty of disinformation about the family’s whereabouts. The report of Saif al-Islam’s capture last week was one example, and Mutassim’s death has been confirmed by various rebel sources at least half a dozen times in the past week with no proof to back it up. Still, those reports could bring demoralized regime loyalists into the fold to help with the hunt. And the $1.3 million reward the NTC is offering for Gaddafi’s capture could persuade some of the regime’s inner circle to flip also. Meanwhile, the great escape continues.