Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi's 25 Strangest Moments
Lockerbie, the Great Manmade River, “Isratine,” abolishing Switzerland, all-female bodyguards, and camels in Belgrade: David A. Graham chronicles some of the most extreme, outrageous, and bizarre actions and ideas of Libya’s unpredictable strongman.
Although he might wish it had happened another way, fierce protests in Libya have put Muammar Gaddafi right back where he loves to be: in the international spotlight. Since Gaddafi came to power in 1969, his mix of panache, viciousness, and capricious rule has made him a figure of curiosity—with stunts like trying to pitch a tent in Central Park—and fear, stemming from a series of terrorist acts (a 1981 Newsweek cover story called him “the most dangerous man in the world”). With many analysts predicting an end to Gaddafi’s four-decade reign, here is a look back at its the strangest, zaniest, and most important moments.
1. Gaddafi Proclaims 'Islamic Socialism'
At age 27, as a captain in the army, Gaddafi leads the 1969 coup that overthrows the Libyan monarchy while King Idris is abroad seeking medical treatment. Banning vices like gambling and alcohol, Gaddafi proclaims “Islamic socialism” as the new regime’s philosophy of governance.
2. Prime Minister Gaddafi Becomes ‘Leader and Guide’
In 1972, Gaddafi—who never took the expected promotion to general after the coup, remaining a colonel—relinquishes his title as prime minister. His only title now is “leader and guide of the revolution.”
3. Gaddafi’s Arab Federation Ends in War
Having been inspired by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Gaddafi attempts to emulate him by working toward Arab unity. In 1972, Libya, Egypt, and Syria announce a “Federation of Arab Republics” that foundered after disagreements among the members. Another attempted union, with Tunisia in 1974, also ended up on a sour note. By 1977, Gaddafi had soured on Egypt, and went to war with Libya’s neighbor.
4. Gaddafi Ships Weapons to the IRA
In 1973, British authorities intercept the Claudia, a ship carrying five tons of Libyan weapons destined for the Provisional IRA. Though briefly chastened, he again begins funneling weapons to the IRA after a 1986 American bombing—launched from British bases—kills Gaddafi’s adopted daughter. In 1987, British and French officials stop another vessel, the Eksund, with 120 tons of weapons and ammunition.
5. Gaddafi Regime ‘Disappears’ Shiite Leader Musa al-Sadr
Lebanese Shiite leader Musa al-Sadr and two companions disappear on a trip to Libya in 1978, reportedly after an argument with Gaddafi. Many Lebanese accuse Gaddafi of killing or imprisoning Sadr, while Libya claims that the cleric boarded a plane for Rome. Gaddafi has avoided trips to Lebanon, and in 2003 Libya closed its embassy in response to Lebanese questions about Sadr. Lebanese authorities indicted Gaddafi in the disappearance in 2008.
6. Gaddafi Launches the Great Manmade River
In 1983, Gaddafi initiates work on the Great Manmade River, a network of wells and pipelines for water. Projected to cost more than $20 billion, the project has been crowned the world’s largest irrigation project by the Guinness World Records.
7. Libyan Embassy in London Kills Yvonne Fletcher
In 1984, someone inside the Libyan Embassy in London shoots and kills police officer Yvonne Fletcher, who was policing a demonstration of anti-Gaddafi protesters. Embassy employees claimed diplomatic immunity and left the country, leading to a lengthy break in relations between Britain and Libya. In 1999, the Libyan government assumed responsibility and agreed to pay reparations to Fletcher’s family, although the shooter’s identity has not been determined.
8. Libyan Agents Blow Up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie
In the most notorious of several state-sponsored terrorist acts, Libyan agents blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, in December 1988.
9. Glove-Wearing Gaddafi Insults Arab Leaders in Algiers
Just six months after the Lockerbie bombing, Gaddafi dons a white glove to avoid touching the “blood-stained hands” of fellow Arab leaders at a conference in Algiers in June 1988. Elsewhere at the conference, he pulls a white sheet over his body as a screen while Jordan’s King Hussein speaks; refuses to shake the hand of Moroccan King Hassan II; tans and sips coffee instead of listening to speeches one afternoon; delivers a speech railing against his colleagues as “imperialist lackeys;” and skips a summit dinner without even bothering to offer an excuse.
10. Gaddafi Takes Camels and Horses to Belgrade Summit
Gaddafi arrives at a 1989 non-aligned summit in Belgrade with two horses and six camels in tow. Yugoslavian authorities permit Gaddafi to pitch the Bedouin tent he typically travels with in front of his hotel, and he also grazes his camels there, drinking their fresh milk. His request to ride to the summit itself on one of the horses is apparently declined. After the summit, he donates the camels to the Belgrade Zoo, where some survived into the mid-2000s.
11. Lockerbie Bomber Sentenced to Life in Netherlands Trial
The trial of two Libyans accused in the Lockerbie bombing finally gets under way in 2000. Gaddafi initially refused to extradite the two men, but eventually consents to a trial in the Netherlands. The trial is conducted under Scottish law at a former U.S. military base under a treaty between the Dutch and British governments. In 2001, Abdelbasset al-Megrahi is sentenced to life in prison.
12. Gaddafi’s Soccer-playing Son, Al-Saadi, Tests Positive for Steroids
One of Gaddafi’s sons, Al-Saadi, encounters an obstacle in his fledgling soccer career when he tests positive for anabolic steroids in 2003 before playing a single match for Perugia, an Italian club. A former administrator and player for the Libyan national team, the younger Gaddafi left the board of top-shelf Italian team Juventus to join Perugia. He had joined the board after Lafico, a Libyan sovereign wealth fund, purchased a 5 percent stake in Juventus.
13. Gaddafi Puffs Cigars on Floor of Tunisia Summit
At a 2004 conference in Tunisia, Gaddafi puffs cigars on the floor of a summit, saying it’s a gesture intended to show his disdain for the other leaders gathered there.
14. Gaddafi Calls Both Israelis and Palestinians ‘Stupid’
Gaddafi tells listeners at a 2005 summit in Algeria that Israelis and Palestinians are stupid.
15. Gaddafi Travels With All-Female Bodyguards
In the late 1990s or early 2000s, Gaddafi begins traveling with an all-female force of bodyguards who wear combat fatigues and, according to some reports, pledge to remain virgins. In 1998, one member of the force—reportedly 200 to 300 strong—took a bullet for her boss. The retinue has been the subject of much media attention.
16. Gaddafi Warns Against Soccer ‘Addiction’
Despite his prior purchase of the Juventus stake and an effort by his son to woo the World Cup to Libya, Gaddafi turns cool on soccer in 2006, warning of the dangers of football addiction: “psychological and nervous sicknesses leading to angina pectois [sic], strokes, diabetics, blood pressure and early senility,” according to The New York Times.
17. Gaddafi Retaliates for Switzerland Arrest of Son by Expelling Swiss Diplomats
A family issue turns into a diplomatic flap in July 2008, when Gaddafi lashes out at Switzerland following his son’s arrest. The colonel’s son, Hannibal, is arrested by Geneva police, for allegedly assaulting a hotel maid. Gaddafi responds by arresting Swiss nationals and expelling Swiss diplomats.
18. Gaddafi Calls for Merger of Israel and Palestine into ‘Isratine’
The day after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Gaddafi pens an editorial in The New York Times reiterating a previously offered recommendation for Israel and Palestine to be merged into a single state, to be called “Isratine.”
19. Gaddafi Insults Arab Leaders in Qatar, Calls Himself ‘Dean of Rulers’
Gaddafi once again spars with fellow Arab leaders at an Arab League meeting in Doha, Qatar, in March 2009. At the conference, he denounces Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah as a “British product and American ally.” He then shouts down an attempt by Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani to calm things, saying, ““I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims, and my international status does not allow me to descend to a lower level.” The tactful Hamad manages to patch up relations, and the two are photographed sitting together on a sofa later that day.
20. In Rome, Gaddafi Meets With 700 Italian Women, Wears Anti-Italy Shirt
Given the fraught relationship between Italy and Libya—Libyans fought a war of liberation against the colonial Italian occupation for years, and Italy eventually agreed to pay restitution to Libya—some leaders might tread carefully. Gaddafi, on the other hand, appears in Rome in July 2009 wearing a picture of a popular Libyan resistance leader executed by Italians in 1931. He also requests a meeting with 700 Italian women in which he would bemoan the status of European women; in a similar stunt, he met 1,000 French women in Paris in 2007.
21. Gaddafi Gives Hero’s Welcome to Freed Lockerbie Bomber
When convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasset al-Megrahi is released from a Scottish prison in August 2009 on “compassionate grounds,” given his advanced cancer, there is widespread anger at the decision. British officials ask Gaddafi to make any welcome-home celebration low-key; Megrahi is met at the airport by a crowd of Libyans waving Libyan and—most gallingly—Scottish flags. Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, explains in a New York Times op-ed that they certainly could have had a larger celebration. The incident becomes a major political scandal in Britain, with allegations that the release was really a ploy to help BP gain a foothold in the Libyan oil industry.
22. Gaddafi Unsuccessfully Bids to Pitch Bedouin Tent in Central Park
Preparing for a visit to the United States to address the United Nations, Gaddafi asks for permission to pitch his Bedouin tent—the same tent he took to Belgrade two decades before—in Central Park. When that request is denied, he tries to get permission to pitch it at a house owned by the Libyan Embassy in Englewood, New Jersey. Gaddafi eventually withdraws that request after widespread opposition.
23. Gaddafi Designs and Unveils ‘the Safest Car Anywhere’
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power, Gaddafi in September rolls out a car he designed. The car is chock-full of safety features, apparently in response to high numbers of fatalities on Libyan roads. A government official calls it “the safest car produced anywhere.”
24. Gaddafi Proposes Abolition of Switzerland
As Libya prepares to take over the presidency of the United Nations General Assembly, Gaddafi reportedly floats a proposal to abolish Switzerland—continued fallout from the flap over his son in 2008. The proposal is said to involve splitting Switzerland between Germany, France and Italy.
25. Gaddafi Vows to Fight Libyan Protesters to the End
As protests roil Libya in 2011, Gaddafi remains defiant, delivering rambling speeches on television, refusing to offer concessions or leave the country, and sending his military to shoot at and drop bombs on protesters in Benghazi and Tripoli.
David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.