How a sibling rivalry at the heart of the Gadhafi family split the Libyan regime in its final years — and, to this day, still affects Saif al-Islam Gadhafi’s chances at influencing post-revolution Libya.
Ahead of potential elections in Libya this December, elites and armed leaders across the country’s political spectrum scheme and scramble, in hopes to exploit, circumvent or thwart the U.N.-prescribed contest. Amid already high uncertainty, the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s surviving offspring seem to have a knack for adding to the confusion by making headlines, as though to remind the embattled North African nation that the former regime, toppled 10 years ago, isn’t quite done shaping its fate. On Sept. 5, the government in Tripoli released one of Gadhafi’s sons, Saadi, who flew out of the country after seven and half years spent in a Tripoli prison. Mere weeks earlier, as part of a much-noticed feature, The New York Times Magazine published the first picture in years of Saadi’s older and more important brother, Saif al-Islam.
Since 2017, the international press has often given the impression that Saif could gain a wide following in post-revolution Libya. After a period of captivity in Zintan, southwest of the capital, he has been preparing a high-profile comeback, which his sympathizers predict will substantially alter the country’s political landscape. “Saif puts everyone in agreement,” a supporter once assured Le Figaro, a French daily. According to this narrative, when the 49-year-old emerges onto the political stage, the “Greens” — Libyans who believe that the Gadhafi rule should not have been overthrown in 2011 — will finally mobilize and merge into a unified movement that will then attract an even wider constituency.
Such predictions are hard to reconcile with the not-so-distant past: The 2000s revealed Saif to be a polarizing rather than a unifying persona. Moammar never earnestly clarified his plans for succession — and, had he done so, it’s not certain Saif would have been first in line. Amid political dysfunction, hatred flourished between Saif and his younger brother Mutassim. The autocrat used his sons’ mutual rivalry to buy time and remain alone in power. This spawned a rift among the regime’s most crucial supporters, who couldn’t agree how to govern — or who should govern Libya. Any realistic diagnosis of Saif’s chances in 2021 requires revisiting the fractures that predate the 2011 uprising, the main one being the profound strife at the heart of the Gadhafi family.
When Gadhafi’s seven children reached adulthood in the 1990s, they entered the select circle of elites who enjoyed dominance over Libya’s economic institutions. The self-effacing Mohammed (1970-), Gadhafi’s only child by his first wife Fethiye, oversaw Libya’s telecommunications sector, keeping away from politics. Much less modest and predictable were Mohammed’s half-sister and five half-brothers, all born to Gadhafi’s second wife Safiya. Some of them, such as Mutassim (1974-2011) and Hannibal (1975-), were given leading military functions as well as business privileges. The same would go for Saadi (1973-) after a positive doping test in Italy derailed his career as a professional soccer player in 2003. And, distinct from his siblings, there was Saif al-Islam (1972-), Safiya’s first child, who was also his mother’s favorite. A part-time artist with a degree in urban engineering, Saif was never asked to look after security affairs. He took on humanitarian responsibilities in his mid-20s. Soon, Saif and Mutassim were competing over financial schemes, a contest that later became outright political.
In April 1999, the U.S. and the U.K., seeing that Libya had renounced terrorism, kickstarted a normalization of relations by allowing a temporary lifting of U.N. Security Council sanctions that had been imposed after the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. Gadhafi had to hand over the prime suspect in the case, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, to a Scottish tribunal in the Netherlands.
That year, Gadhafi helped Saif bolster his humanitarian foundation by setting up and funding an array of charities under it. To the world at large, the autocrat tacitly presented the young man as his potential successor — not necessarily out of authentic conviction, but because he judged that Saif would best appeal to Western sensibilities. Gadhafi wanted more than a permanent removal of sanctions — he sought the reintegration of Libya into the international community, including much-needed Western investment in the country’s degraded energy sector and crumbling infrastructure. This reintegration, however, would require more than bilateral conversations about terror reparations and other security concerns that Washington considered its main priority. Gadhafi and his advisers assumed that Western powers would be more open to improving relations if his regime showed signs of transition to a softer, more liberal form of governance. They thus made a show of taking ostensible steps toward pluralism in two domains: the economy and politics. A similar logic applied inside the country, too, where superficial softening in governance helped Gadhafi portray himself as giving voice to the new generation of Libyans.
As he used Saif to project a sense of political and economic liberalization, the Libyan autocrat was busy consolidating tighter control over the security sector. Gadhafi created a range of ultra-loyal “battalions” that reported directly to him. These kataeb were designed to counterbalance the regular armed forces, which Gadhafi underequipped and marginalized because of previous army-led coup attempts. Here, too, he used his sons. In 2000, Mutassim, a former medical student, was given command of a newly created praetorian unit, the 77th Tank Battalion, headquartered near Bab al-Aziziyah, his father’s sprawling, palace-like compound. Endowed with lavish amounts of advanced equipment, Mutassim expanded his unit into other locales. He had his men conduct exercises with live ammunition, an unusual practice for such a young unit. The 77th Battalion’s fast-growing arsenal, in conjunction with Mutassim’s habit of concealing his unit’s war games from the military police, raised the suspicion of senior figures in the security establishment.
In 2001, Libya’s then-military intelligence chief Khalifa Ahneish reported to Gadhafi that his hot-tempered son Mutassim might be planning a coup. More likely, the 27-year-old lieutenant colonel’s unit was merely encroaching upon Ahneish’s turf. But regardless, Gadhafi took the matter seriously and ordered the 77th disarmed for inspection. Mutassim — who was not with his men — remotely instructed them to stand their ground as he took refuge in Egypt. After a tense standoff, Gadhafi’s own units seized the 77th’s camps by force.
The government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a friend of the elder Gadhafi, had to intervene as a mediator between Mutassim and his dad. As tensions simmered, the young Libyan, stripped of his battalion, remained in quasi exile in Cairo, allowed only to retain his formal military rank. To compensate, Gadhafi put his youngest son Khamis (1983-2011) in charge of a brand new battalion, the 32nd Reinforced Brigade, entrenched at strategic points around the capital, including the nearby town of Tarhuna. Prevented from traveling, Mutassim lived in boredom in Cairo’s hippest districts for several years. Back home, Khamis proved to be militarily competent, disciplined and loyal to his father, and he maintained good relations with all of his siblings. His 32nd Brigade would later become the nation’s preeminent force, attracting attention from foreign states keen to build up Libya’s military capacity, including the U.S. and the U.K. Yet Khamis, who was uninterested in politics, never came close to filling the void that Mutassim’s absence had left in the capital. Neither did Saadi, who had taken on promoting purist Salafism in Libya.
Soon after the U.S. concluded a deal with Tripoli in December 2003, whereby Libya scrapped its tentative program to develop weapons of mass destruction in exchange for its eventual reintegration into the international community, Gadhafi enlarged Saif’s foundation. He helped him launch a comprehensive reform project called Libya al-Ghad (“tomorrow’s Libya”), whose purpose was to promote the country’s modernization in the eyes of both domestic and international audiences. The economic component of this project featured tens of billions of dollars’ worth of construction projects, mostly executed by Turkish and Chinese conglomerates.
The West wished to see Libya open up its markets and privatize its businesses, but Gadhafi tolerated no genuine movement in that direction. He was so loath to decentralize his nation’s wealth that he offered no leeway to Saif in the economic realm, preferring to grant him modest latitude on the political front instead. The most significant of these concessions was allowing Saif to amnesty some of Libya’s Islamists. The thaw started with a handful of small token gifts to a weakened political party, but it later grew to include the rehabilitation of hundreds of hardline militants.
In October 2004, political prisoners accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood went on a hunger strike in the infamous Abu Salim fortress. Tripoli seized on the incident to showcase the regime’s new openness to reform. Gadhafi authorized Saif to undertake talks with Libyan Muslim Brotherhood leaders exiled in England and Switzerland. As a result of the negotiations, a few Muslim Brotherhood-labeled prisoners were released from Abu Salim in September 2005; 84 more were freed the subsequent year. Saif courted the foreign press, using the government’s reconciliation with the Islamists as a means of acquiring greater stature in Libyan politics. In interviews with Western journalists, he also downplayed the substantial resistance his moves were encountering from members of his father’s inner circle.
Among those who opposed reforms was Mutassim, who, since his return from Cairo in 2006, had become embroiled in a fierce rivalry with the now-ascendant Saif. Gadhafi had brought Mutassim back because he did not want his family to appear divided. More parochially, several regime insiders asked for Mutassim’s presence as a check on Saif’s reformist push, which enjoyed the support of a few liberal politicians, such as Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem, Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgam and most personalities associated with the Libya al-Ghad effort.
While Gadhafi père sought to appear equidistant between the two brothers, he developed an ambivalent preference for Mutassim, despite the latter’s volatility and his involvement in yet other power grabs. Underlying each incident was Mutassim’s protest that the regime was exceedingly vulnerable. Reverting to his preexile instincts, he revived his 77th Battalion, increased its ranks and stealthily acquired weapons, including Western-made items.
There were moments when Gadhafi constrained Mutassim by executing his subordinates and shuttering his Camp 77 base. But, barring a few brief exceptions, the leader maintained Mutassim in Tripoli. The Egyptian-backed son had become a vital pillar to the regime’s fragile equilibrium. He received support from Revolutionary Committee leaders (semiformal local authorities), such as Mohammed al-Majdoub, and other conservatives, such as Education Minister Ahmed Ibrahim. What bound these figures to Mutassim was their shared attachment to the status quo and their antipathy toward political Islam. They feared that Saif’s “reforms” might resuscitate the Islamist networks behind a failed yet ambitious insurgency plan in northeastern Libya in the mid-1990s, which had been dismantled only through intense repression.
Over time, the two brothers’ antagonism became the main ideological dilemma facing the Gadhafi regime. Mutassim’s thirst for harsh authoritarianism was self-consistent. The same could not be said of Saif’s advocacy for a softer mode of governance. By making this rhetoric his path to attaining power, Saif seemed oblivious to the contradictory nature of his own status: the liberal son of a despot unwilling to relinquish power. Worse, the Libyan population’s considerable frustration at how the country was run meant that if the system moved away from authoritarianism, as Saif prescribed, there would be no guarantee that he or any member of the Gadhafi family could stay in the Libyan picture.
In any case, Saif’s repetitive pleas for a constitution, democracy and alternation in government started to become troublesome. To reassure the Revolutionary Committees and the rest of the old guard, Gadhafi nationalized Saif’s satellite television channel. He did not take the rest of Libya al-Ghad away from him, however — the Supreme Guide was aware that Saif represented hope for the country’s youth.
By October 2008, Libya al-Ghad had met almost all of Gadhafi’s expectations. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had visited Tripoli in person; a U.S. ambassador to Libya was confirmed; and Libya’s legal liability in U.S. terror cases was erased thanks to the full payment of compensation to the victims. Foreign companies were returning, and some low-level security cooperation with Western powers had begun. With sanctions removed and oil prices on a bullish trend, living conditions improved in Libya. But Saif was caught in his own momentum. Perhaps because he spoke English well and had studied in Europe, earning a (disputed) doctorate degree from the London School of Economics, he enjoyed fawning attention by the Western media, which often portrayed him as the heir apparent. But in the power corridors of Tripoli, the story was different. Gadhafi never designated Saif as his successor, nor did he ever fully empower him to act as an official representative of the government. He did, however, appoint Mutassim to the position of national security adviser.
The rising tension between the two brothers was seldom appreciated by foreign observers; indirect clues would occasionally leak to the outside world. Within the space of a few months, both men received a personal audience with Rice in Washington. In late 2008, weeks before the President George W. Bush left office, Saif met briefly with Rice — on the condition, though, that he meet with human rights organizations first. Once Barack Obama entered the White House, it was Mutassim’s turn to be welcomed in Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton posed with him for a public appearance and lingered only briefly on human rights and the need for political reforms, letting the intelligence community emphasize counterterrorism cooperation. Mutassim, whose specialty was hard security, felt emboldened by the deferential reception.
Meanwhile, Saif — despite his proclaimed “retirement” from politics in 2008 — continued some of his activities under the increasingly distracted eye of his aging and decadent father. Libya al-Ghad became subjected to the growing influence of Turkey and Qatar, both of which had longstanding ties to the noted Libyan Islamist and dissident Ali al-Sallabi, based in Doha. In 2008, Sallabi worked with Saif to persuade Tripoli to free 90 members of a militant jihadist organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), from Abu Salim. Unsurprisingly, this move to rehabilitate hardline Islamists angered Mutassim and his conservative supporters.
Saif could pursue his outreach to Islamists thanks to the backing of Abdullah al-Senussi, then head of Libya’s military intelligence. Al-Senussi, who was also Gadhafi’s brother-in-law and right-hand man, was renowned for his ruthlessness against all dissidents. By the mid-2000s, however, al-Senussi no longer considered Libya’s Islamists an existential threat. He reckoned that these still-mortal enemies, after years in his dungeons, had become manageable.
There were other reasons why al-Senussi, a member of the powerful tribe of the Megarha, protected Saif’s work. Not only was he interested in the embezzlement opportunities afforded by Libya al-Ghad, but he also sought to help restore the honor of his tribe by securing the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Megrahi, from a Scottish prison. In August 2009, Saif delivered the ailing al-Megrahi’s release, thanks to Qatari help. But al-Senussi’s ability to use Saif for his own interests triggered the resentment of Gadhafi’s tribe, the Qadhadhfa.
Under the influence of Qatar, Saif doubled down on negotiations that resulted in the release of hundreds more LIFG members in 2010, including leader Abd al-Hakim Belhaj. Doha’s diplomatically ingenious (and financially munificent) activism painted a halo of success around Saif. But the young, soft-spoken “un-Gadhafi,” as The New York Times dubbed him, did not have a clear plan. Dozens more LIFG members would be freed even after the first armed insurgency erupted in the eastern city of al-Bayda on Feb. 15, 2011.
The contradiction between Mutassim and Saif contributed to the regime’s disjointed response to the 2011 revolt. It came to a head on the evening of Feb. 20, 2011, just before Saif gave a much-anticipated address to the nation on television. His midnight speech could have put Libya on the path to reconciliation. But Mutassim, backed by his father, pushed Saif to be inflexible, defiant and belligerent — and Saif complied. After a few conciliatory remarks, his monologue segued into a crescendo of threats. By vowing to “fight to the last man, woman and bullet,” he let Libyans and foreign states know that all of his reform work in the previous decade was null and void. Saif had irreversibly aligned himself with Mutassim’s worldview.
Upon Tripoli’s fall in August 2011, Gadhafi and Mutassim went to Sirte, a coastal city 280 miles to the east, while Saif, alone with a few bodyguards, hid in Bani Walid, another loyalist holdout located inland, closer to the capital. On the same day that Safiya, Mohammed, Hannibal and their sister Aisha (1976-) fled to Algeria, a NATO airstrike killed Khamis in Tarhouna, where he was still fighting the rebellion. At summer’s end, shortly after Saadi entered Niger, Saif and Mutassim crossed paths for the last time in Bani Walid where Mutassim had come to meet with the city’s leaders. Noticing his elder brother’s unsolicited attendance, Mutassim blamed him for enabling the very actors, Libyan and foreign, now destroying the regime. The following month, NATO-backed rebels killed Mutassim and his father as they tried to exit a besieged Sirte. Before that, Saif had managed to leave Bani Walid for the Libyan Sahara. Zintan’s rebels captured him near Awbari in November 2011.
Gadhafi evaded the challenges of leadership succession till the end. Throughout the 2000s, he merely balanced the ambitions of his sons, often playing one against the other. And in the regime’s final stages, the late Mutassim was arguably the more likely heir.
The victims and opponents of the Gadhafi regime have not forgotten that the onetime progressive sided with his father and Mutassim at the outbreak of the civil war.
Now, 10 years on, the conventional wisdom is that popular frustration with the chaos of post-2011 Libya will be enough to inspire a groundswell of support for Saif, the dead dictator’s most preeminent surviving son. This implies that Libyan citizens’ nostalgia about the former regime, or mere optimism about Saif’s ability to learn and grow, will provide a bedrock of enthusiasm for his return to national politics. That assumption is unrealistic: The victims and opponents of the Gadhafi regime have not forgotten that the onetime progressive sided with his father and Mutassim at the outbreak of the civil war. As for the regime’s supporters, many were alienated by Saif’s actions in the 2000s. Some of the tribal elders, Revolutionary Committee leaders and security chiefs of the pre-2011 era still matter today. In the same way that they needed Mutassim in the late 2000s, they now need a similarly tough Green leader capable of commanding an armed coalition and corralling the tribal and security chiefs. This was never Saif’s strong suit. Plus, a chunk of the loyalists remember that Saif paved the way for the anti-Gadhafists and opportunists who ultimately overthrew the regime in 2011.
Some of the still-active Greens might be tempted to use Saif as a figurehead to project the illusion of cohesion — a trick that could also be adopted by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the commander based in eastern-Libya, or even his rivals in the western city of Misrata. But this would be, at best, a shallow and ephemeral position for Saif to occupy. In sum, few faction leaders in today’s Libya have forgotten what Saif’s inconsistency can cost them.
If, despite being wanted by the International Criminal Court, Saif manages to reenter his country’s political arena, he will find it difficult to come across as a credible standard-bearer for any specific set of values. Strive as he might for relevance, it is likely to remain beyond his reach.