How to Catch Qaddafi

Why hunting down the madman of Tripoli is so difficult -- and how it might just be accomplished.


History has a strange way of repeating itself, often more quickly than anticipated. Within hours of invading Panama in 1989, U.S. forces had decimated the Panamanian Defense Forces and were greeted as liberators by the long-suffering Panamanian people. Yet the failure to immediately capture Gen. Manuel Noriega, the thuggish, pock-marked Panamanian strongman, dominated perceptions of Operation Just Cause. At the first post-invasion news conference in Washington, reporters asked: "Could we really consider Just Cause successful as long as we did not have Noriega in custody?"

More than a decade later, coalition forces overwhelmed the Iraqi Army and seized Baghdad after a lightning three-week campaign in spring 2003. But the ostensible target of the invasion, dictator Saddam Hussein, disappeared. Despite the initial euphoria of liberation, ordinary Iraqis were plagued by a sense of growing unease and disbelief as graffiti praising Saddam began to emerge in Iraq’s so-called Sunni Triangle, bearing messages such as "Saddam is still our leader" and "Saddam the hero will be back." While Noriega was apprehended within two weeks and the feared guerrilla campaign never developed, Saddam evaded coalition forces for eight months, during which time the Sunni insurgency that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly devastated Iraq coalesced.

Today, Libya’s fate may similarly hinge on the apprehension of a deposed dictator. For even as forces loyal to the Western-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) storm Tripoli and attempt to consolidate control, the shadow of missing strongman Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi looms large over the country’s future. The head of the NTC’s provisional government, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said Wednesday, Aug. 24,"The matter won’t come to an end except when he’s captured dead or alive" and "we fear mayhem and destruction from him because these are his values, upbringing, and practices." Or as a homemaker in Tripoli told the Wall Street Journal, "A part of me will always fear that he might come back, and until I see him in jail or hanging, that fear will remain."

In other words, capturing Qaddafi is critical to avoiding prolonged civil strife and achieving a strategically acceptable outcome in Libya. Recognizing this fact, the NTC announced a bounty of 2 million Libyan dinars — approximately $1.35 million — to anyone who captures the ousted leader and offered amnesty for past crimes to any member of the strongman’s inner circle who either captures or kills him.

Given that deploying SEAL Team 6 is not an option, as Barack Obama’s administration and Congress are united in their commitment to avoid the deployment of U.S. forces to Libya, what is the most likely way to capture Qaddafi? In my book Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden, I recount the history of 11 previous strategic manhunts, examining which factors lead to success or failure in apprehending the targeted individual. I focus on six variables: the level of technology employed (both relative and absolute), troop strength, terrain, human intelligence, indigenous forces, and bilateral assistance.

I found four surprising conclusions. First, although U.S. forces almost always enjoy an edge in technology over their quarry, this advantage is never decisive. Second, troop strength is less important than the presence of reliable indigenous forces. Third, although terrain can influence individual campaigns, there is no single terrain type that predicts success or failure. Finally, more important than physical terrain is human terrain, or the ability to obtain intelligence tips from local populations or support from neighboring states to assist in the strategic manhunt.

Applied to Libya, these lessons suggest several courses of action necessary to apprehending Qaddafi.

First, Western support to the NTC forces will likely not be the decisive factor in the hunt. Although British Defense Secretary Liam Fox acknowledged Thursday that NATO was providing intelligence and reconnaissance assets to the rebels "to help them track down Colonel Qaddafi and other remnants of the regime," neither Saddam nor Osama bin Laden was located by drones, nor were their voices (nor that of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) ever captured via signals intercept. Although Fox refused to comment on a report in the Daily Telegraph that British special forces on the ground were involved in the hunt for Qaddafi, he confirmed there were "absolutely no plans" to commit British ground forces to Libya in the future. Some international force will likely be needed to help stabilize a post-conflict Libya, but such forces would likely be more effective training NTC forces that possess the requisite language skills and cultural expertise critical to obtaining the intelligence that will eventually lead to Qaddafi, much as U.S. Special Forces trained and U.S. intelligence agents assisted the Bolivian Rangers that hunted and killed Che Guevara.

Second, although there are significant variations in the terrain over which the search for Qaddafi could be conducted, geography will likely not be the decisive variable. Qaddafi could make himself a needle in a stack of needles by hiding somewhere among Tripoli’s 2 million citizens, a strategy that worked for warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu yet failed for Noriega in Panama City. Or Qaddafi could retreat into the sparsely populated southern deserts of Libya. But similarly desolate — albeit mountainous — terrain was not the decisive factor in hunting Geronimo (a success) or Pancho Villa (a failure) over almost the exact geography in northern Mexico.

Instead, what is critical is the human terrain in which Qaddafi will attempt to hide. Because Qaddafi, like Noriega and Saddam, spent much of his 42-year rule oppressing his own people, large areas of Libya are not viable as safe havens. Yet if he made it through the miles of tunnels reported to be under his Bab al-Aziziya compound to areas controlled by tribal loyalists, such as Sirte, or to the southern desert or even to the Abu Salim slums in southern Tripoli, he may be able to find a population willing to shelter him. History shows that if an individual is perceived as a hero or a "Robin Hood" (i.e. Villa in Mexico, Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua, Aidid in Somalia, or bin Laden in Afghanistan), protection offered by the local population can thwart almost any number of satellites and elite troops.

Thus, even as it consolidates control over Tripoli, the NTC should seek to cut off Qaddafi’s possible avenues of escape to these areas, much as U.S. forces cut off Noriega’s possible escape routes during the initial hours of Just Cause. The NTC is wisely encouraging regime members to betray Qaddafi before he is able to ensconce himself among those with stronger tribal loyalties, such as his own Qaddafa tribe. Noriega, Saddam, and Zarqawi were all eventually betrayed by somebody within their support network (though Noriega successfully arrived at the Vatican Embassy just before U.S. commandos could reach him).

Finally, if Qaddafi is able to reach sanctuary, financial incentives or excessive firepower will be unlikely to induce loyal tribesmen to surrender him. Excluding the obvious outlier of the 13-year search for bin Laden, successful manhunts on average last 18 months. Assuming it could take that long to find Qaddafi, the NTC must work quickly toward building a new state structure capable of incorporating these tribal groups and be patient as they seek to isolate him and his family and render them strategically obsolete.

Regardless of Qaddafi’s fate — whether he ends up like Benito Mussolini, strung up by his own people, or like Slobodan Milosevic, tried before the International Criminal Court — the NTC and its international supporters face a daunting challenge in trying to rebuild Libya. Capturing the deposed strongman quickly would facilitate this effort by closing the book on his 42-year dictatorship. But if he remains at large, he will continue to be a rallying point of resistance for elements of Libyan society who feel excluded from the country’s new political order, even if he is not able to retain operational control over any budding opposition forces. This would make an already difficult task harder and threaten to overwhelm a potential victory in Libya.

Benjamin Runkle, PhD, has served as in the Defense Department, as a Director on the National Security Council, and as a Professional Staff Member on the House Armed Services Committee.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola