Harvard for Tyrants

How Muammar al-Qaddafi taught a generation of bad guys.

HO/AFP/Getty Images
HO/AFP/Getty Images

Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi is well known now for the abuses he has inflicted on his own people during more than four decades of brutal rule in Libya, but few remember the vast campaign of carnage and terrorism he orchestrated across West Africa and Europe when he was at the height of his powers.

Nor are his more recent alliance with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and his long-standing relationship with Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua — both of whom are busy trampling their constitutions and moving toward dictatorship — well understood. And the fact that all three governments support the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a terrorist group that produces more than half of the world’s cocaine and two-thirds of the cocaine entering the United States, is usually ignored.

Ortega and Chávez are among the handful of leaders to publicly defend the Libyan leader’s attacks on his own people and urge him to hang on for one last revolutionary battle. In 2004, Qaddafi awarded Chávez the al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, created by the Libyan dictator. Chávez, who in turn bestowed Venezuela’s highest civilian honor on Qaddafi in 2009 while comparing him to South American liberator Simón Bolívar, has now offered publicly to mediate the Libyan conflict. Thus far, only Qaddafi has reportedly accepted the offer.

The ties that bind Qaddafi to some of the world’s most repressive regimes and armed movements began in the 1980s, when he was regarded as one of the premier terrorist threats in the world. Flush with oil money, Qaddafi orchestrated a training campaign for those who became the most brutal warlords in much of Africa, a legacy that has left the region crippled and unstable today.

Qaddafi’s World Revolutionary Center (WRC) near Benghazi became, as scholar Stephen Ellis noted in his classic 2001 book The Mask of Anarchy, the "Harvard and Yale of a whole generation of African revolutionaries," many of them the continent’s most notorious tyrants. There, recruits from different countries were hosted in camps in the desert and given training in weapons and intelligence techniques, with some doses of ideological training based on Qaddafi’s Green Book. Courses lasted from a few weeks to more than a year, depending on the level of specialization and rank one had.

In addition to the African contingents, Qaddafi’s cadres trained the Sandinistas from Nicaragua, along with other Latin American revolutionary movements, and in the process developed an enduring relationship with Ortega. Later Qaddafi developed a close and ongoing relationship with the FARC, becoming acquainted with its leaders in meetings of revolutionary groups regularly hosted in Libya.

At the WRC in the 1980s and 1990s, a select group of the students, drawn from the broader group of attendees, formed a fraternity of despots who provided mutual support in their bloody and ruthless campaigns for power and wealth. That durable network still wields considerable influence today through its alumni still in power, including Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso and Idriss Déby of Chad.

The one thing that held these disparate thugs together was their broad anti-American agenda, which led Qaddafi to support other dictators. Qaddafi’s closest ally in the region was murderous Robert Mugabe, who although he is not a WRC alumnus, has been propped up by direct Libyan donations and subsidized oil shipments, primarily hundreds of millions of dollars in oil shipments. Relations between the two countries have been more strained in recent days when Zimbabwe could not repay its Libyan debt.

Qaddafi seems to have made out well in his investments. After he intervened militarily in the Central African Republic in 2001, the president he protected, Ange-Félix Patassé, signed a deal giving Libya a 99-year lease to exploit all of that country’s natural resources, including uranium, copper, diamonds, and oil. In Zimbabwe, Qaddafi acquired at least 20 luxurious properties after riding to Mugabe’s rescue; he also got a stake in some of the few still-viable state enterprises.

But West Africa bore the brunt of Qaddafi’s early ambitions. Liberia, the U.S. stronghold in West Africa in the Cold War, was of particular interest to Qaddafi, especially after President Ronald Reagan ordered a bombing attack in 1986 against Libya that killed one of his daughters.

To help exact his revenge, Qaddafi recruited Liberia’s Charles Taylor, a war criminal now standing trial for crimes against humanity, including the abduction of children for combat, systematic rape, and mass murder. Another Qaddafi recruit, Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), would be standing trial in the same court for similar crimes had he not died of natural causes.

Sankoh, an illiterate corporal, formed the RUF under Taylor’s auspices and together they pioneered their signature atrocity in the 1990s — the amputation of the arms and legs of men, women, and children as part of a scorched-earth campaign designed to take over the region’s rich diamond fields. Their atrocities were backed by Qaddafi, who routinely met with Taylor and his closest associates to review the progress of the conflicts and supply weapons. Qaddafi continued sending arms to Taylor even as the latter was being forced from office in 2003.

Another alumnus of the center was Laurent Kabila, whose brutal forces swept to power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1997 when the dictatorial regime of Mobutu Sese Seko imploded. Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine/Cuban revolutionary, had tried to work with Kabila’s troops in the 1960s only to give up in despair because of Kabila’s incompetent leadership and the massive corruption he enabled. Relations with Kabila’s son Joseph, the current DRC president, are not as close.

Compaoré, the current president of Burkina Faso, is another illustrious WRC graduate. In 1987, troops loyal to Compaoré, who was then a captain and minister of the presidency, assassinated his best friend, President Thomas Sankara, to pave the way for Compaoré to take power. As president of the tiny, impoverished, landlocked country, Compaoré sent troops and resources to back Taylor’s insurgency in Liberia and the RUF in Sierra Leone. A 2002 United Nations investigation found that Compaoré played a significant role in arming the RUF and Taylor in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Compaoré has remained a staunch Qaddafi ally through the years.

In Latin America, Qaddafi had been supporting the Sandinistas and Ortega since 1979, and Ortega has still not forgotten the favor. Last week Ortega called Qaddafi his "brother" and this week conveyed his support, promising that "Nicaragua, my government the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and our people are with you in these battles."

The Libyan relationship with Chávez and the FARC dates at least to 2000. A series of email exchanges among FARC commander Raúl Reyes, Qaddafi, and Ortega show how deep that relationship remained in the recent past. The FARC, founded in 1964 and operating primarily in Colombia, is the Western Hemisphere’s oldest guerrilla movement. Since Chávez took office he has given the FARC extensive political support and called for the group to be removed from the U.S. and EU terrorism lists. Ortega has long-standing ties to the FARC as well as to Qaddafi and Chávez.

After Reyes was killed in 2008, his computer hard drives were captured by the Colombian police. They contain a trove of correspondence, including a Sept. 4, 2000, letter from the FARC high command to "Comrade Colonel Gaddafi, Great Leader of the World Mathaba." The missive thanked Qaddafi for recently hosting senior FARC commanders in Libya. The FARC went on to request "a loan of $100 million, repayable in five years. . . . One of our primary needs is the purchase of surface-to-air missiles to repel and shoot down the combat aircraft." The aircraft in question were supplied to the Colombian military by the United States.

Reyes wrote a Feb. 22, 2003, letter marked "Hand Delivery" to Ortega, asking for an update on the status of the FARCs earlier request for missiles, stressing the urgency of the petition. "Dear Comrade Daniel," Reyes wrote, "The Libyans said they would answer us but we have not yet received any information. . . . while we were in Libya they explained to us that the political responsibility for Libya’s policies in the region were in the hands of Daniel Ortega. For that reason, we are approaching you, in hopes of obtaining an answer." It is unclear whether the weapons were ever delivered.

Chávez pulled out all the stops during Qaddafi’s visit to Venezuela in 2009. "What Símon Bolívar is to the Venezuelan people, Qaddafi is to the Libyan people," Chávez said while awarding the Libyan leader the "Order of the Liberator" medal, along with a replica of Bolívar’s sword. Qaddafi in turn praised Chávez for "having driven out the colonialists," just as he had driven out those in Libya. "We share the same destiny, the same battle in the same trench against a common enemy, and we will conquer," Qaddafi said.

It seems that Chávez, Ortega, Mugabe, Compaoré, and the rest of Qaddafi’s shrinking club of despots desperately hope that the colonel was not right. The support of Chávez and Ortega for Qaddafi has been politically costly and proved to be an embarrassment to many of Latin America’s erstwhile revolutionaries who now share a vision of a democratic future. The aging dictators club will likely be one member short soon, and the survivors — and their citizens — will be left to ponder if there is a shared destiny. 

Douglas Farah is a senior visiting fellow at the National Defense University's Center for Complex Operations. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.