The last major bastion of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year-old regime has fallen, as rebels overran the colonel’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli Tuesday, uncovering large caches of weapons—but so far, no sign of the mercurial dictator, who had been expected to hunker down there for a final stand.
"This is Gaddafi's Pentagon," Noman Benotman, a British think-tanker and former Libyan Islamist opposition guerrilla commander, told Reuters. But the comparison doesn’t hold. Unlike the Department of Defense’s headquarters, which is more of an office building than a siege-ready castle, Bab al-Aziziya is part monument, part fortress, and part palace—more akin to a combination of the Kennedys’ Hyannis Port and Israel’s Masada.
Often translated as “the splendid gate,” Bab al-Aziziya was built by King Idris, the man Gaddafi overthrew when he came to power in 1969. During the 1980s, as his erratic sponsorship of terror around the world made him an international pariah, the leader reinforced and expanded the compound, which is located in the outskirts of southern Tripoli—near the zoo—and is estimated to be around 2.3 square miles. But it’s not like the opulent castles that American troops found when they toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Despite Gaddafi’s well-deserved reputation for outlandish dress and antics, U.S. diplomats said in cables obtained by WikiLeaks that he maintained a “low profile” while in the capitol.
“The Bab al-Azizia compound has facilities for banquets and other public events, but it is not lavish in any way compared with the ostentation of the Gulf oil state families or Hariri clan,” a State Department employee wrote. “Gaddafi's wife … hosted a banquet for diplomatic women in the Bab al-Azizia compound on the occasion of the al-Fatah (Revolution) holiday in September that was festive but not extravagant.”
But there is one signature indulgence. Generally known as “the fist crushing a U.S. plane,” the notorious momument depicts just that—an enormous gold fist thrusting upward and crushing a replica American jet. It commemorates the 1986 bombing of Libya by American forces—ordered by President Ronald Reagan after the Libyan sponsored bombing of a Berlin nightclub, which killed two American soldiers and a civilian woman. Oddly, the monument memorializes an incident in which Libya was firmly routed—although Libya did shoot down one American F-111, killing two airmen. Elsewhere on the property, however, there is a more sobering reminder of the incident. Although Gaddafi escaped the bombing after being warned by the Maltese and Italian governments, he said that his 15-month adopted daughter Hanna was killed in the strikes. Gaddafi left the buildings struck by U.S. airstrikes in ruins and renamed them “the House of Resistance;” he later ordered the Pan Am 103 attack as retribution.
Gaddafi himself lives in a Bedouin tent on the grounds. He’s long had an affection for the tent, which he uses to emphasize his Arabness—a holdover from his days as pan-Arabist in the mold of Gamal Abdel Nasser—and occasionally pitches in cities he visits (his attempt to camp in Central Park in 2009 made for a media circus). Elsewhere on the property are a mosque, military barracks, a soccer field, and other administrative structures. The BBC has a handy aerial shot with key locations labeled. By some accounts the compound sits atop an extensive network of underground tunnels. Rebel leaders say there are 20 miles of them, and that they stretch to the Mediterranean, just about 2 miles away, and elsewhere in the city, allowing loyalist soldiers to escape or to move covertly to battle hotspots around Tripoli.
As Gaddafi’s home base, Bab al-Aziziya has been a target for NATO and the rebels for some time. With four-meter-high walls, the site was tough to access from the ground until Tuesday, when rebels breached the perimeter. Airstrikes pounded the compound repeatedly, though, especially in the spring. In May, Libyan officials took foreign reporters on a controlled tour of the compound to show them the damage done by NATO bombs, although veteran foreign correspondent John F. Burns of The New York Times dismissed regime attempts to paint the strikes as retributive and aimed at civilian sites.
As rebels swept through Tripoli over the weekend, however, Bab al-Aziziya remained impenetrable—at first. The opposition believed Gaddafi and his remaining loyalists were preparing for a last stand, and the area was the scene of fierce firefights. But rebels began breaking through the walls Tuesday, cutting down the last resistance and finding curios like a golden rifle inside; exultant rebels clambered over the fist statue.
Questions remain about the future of Libya. Neither Gaddafi nor his heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, is yet in custody, and rebels say there is no sign of them in the compound. But the fall of Bab al-Aziziya represents the final proof that Gaddafi’s fall—prematurely celebrated on Sunday—has indeed come.