Qaddafi Under Siege

A political psychologist assesses Libya's mercurial leader.


The rambling statements of Muammar al-Qaddafi since the uprising in Libya began on Feb. 17 have led many to characterize the idiosyncratic Libyan leader as a madman, psychotic, out of touch with reality. Among the statements made by Qaddafi that have led observers to question his sanity are his characterization of the rebels as "drug-crazed youth" whose Nescafé the United States plied with hallucinogenic drugs. He also accused al Qaeda of being behind the rebellion, only to then again accuse the United States. In his first media interview on Feb. 28 since the uprising began, with BBC, ABC, and the Sunday Times, when asked about his countrymen rising against him, Qaddafi denied it:

"There are no demonstrations at all in the streets. Did you see the demonstrations? Where? They are supporting us. They are not against us. There is no one against us. Against me for what? Because I am not president. They love me. All my people are with me. They love me all. They will die to protect me, my people."

This led many to conclude that he was denying reality. He also went on a rant blaming al Qaeda:

"It is Qaeda, it is Qaeda, it is Qaeda, not my people. It is Qaeda, Qaeda, Qaeda, yes. They came from outside. It’s al Qaeda. They went into military bases and seized arms and they’re terrorizing the people. The people who had the weapons were the youngsters. They’re starting to lay down their weapons now as the drugs that al Qaeda gave them wear off."

When he was asked in the interview whether he would step down, Qaddafi again denied that he has any authority:

"If they want me to step down, what do I step down from? I’m not a monarch or a king. It’s honorary. It has nothing to with exercising power or authority. In Britain, who has the power? Is it Queen Elizabeth or David Cameron?"

Most recently Qaddafi indicated that the rebellion was the result of a conspiracy by the West to recolonize Libya in order to gain control of its oil.

Characterizations of being psychotic have been leveled at Qaddafi since he took over the reins of Libya in a bloodless coup in 1969 at the age of 27. A Time magazine article from April 1986 quoted U.S. President Ronald Reagan as calling him "the mad dog of the Middle East." But for the most part, during his 42 years at the helm of Libya, he has been crazy like a fox.

While this is not a definitive clinical diagnosis, Qaddafi can best be characterized as having a borderline personality. The "borderline" often swings from intense anger to euphoria. Under his often "normal" facade, he is quite insecure and sensitive to slight. His reality testing is episodically faulty. While most of the time Qaddafi is "above the border" and in touch with reality, when under stress he can dip below it and his perceptions can be distorted and his judgment faulty. And right now, he is under the most stress he has been under since taking over the leadership of Libya. Thus, the quotes elaborated above probably accurately reflect his true beliefs. He does sincerely cling to the idea that his people all love him.

Qaddafi’s strong anti-authority bent and his tendency to identify with the underdog can be traced back to his childhood. He was born in a tent in the desert to a Bedouin family in 1942. When Qaddafi was 10 years old, Gamal Abdel Nasser took over the reins of Egypt at the head of the Free Officers Movement, which made a deep and lasting impression on the young Qaddafi. He initially attended a Muslim school, where he was recognized as being very bright, and was sent to Tripoli to continue his education, but was teased by the children of the cosmopolitan elite for his coarse manners, leaving him with a bitter resentment of the establishment.

In Libya at that time, a military career provided an opportunity for upward mobility, and Qaddafi entered the Libyan military academy in Benghazi in 1961. Nasser and his revolutionary nationalism assumed a heroic stature in the mind of Qaddafi and his fellow students. He first began to think of organizing a military coup against the corrupt regime of King Idris while in military college, and on Sept. 1, 1969, with a small group of junior military officers, formed Libya’s own Free Officers Movement and successfully led a bloodless coup to depose the king.

From the very beginnings of his leadership of the junta known as the Revolutionary Command Council, the deeply anti-establishment Qaddafi actively supported groups that he considered underdogs, who represented themselves as attacking imperialism. He became one of the world’s most notorious supporters of terrorist groups around the world, with no particular benefit to Libya. His support of terrorism was both wide and deep. He sent arms to the Irish Republican Army, provided financial support to the social revolutionary group FARC in Colombia, and to the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. He reportedly provided major financial support to the "Black September" organization responsible for the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He praised the terrorist attack by the Japanese Red Army on the Lod Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, urged Palestinian terrorist groups to carry out attacks on Israel, and offered to provide financial support and training.

Following Nasser’s lead, he attempted to create a pan-Arab nation, merging first with Egypt and Syria, and then later attempting to merge with Tunisia, but his would-be partners were quick to discover that to merge with Libya was to be taken over by Qaddafi, leading to the swift failure of these proposed unions. In Qaddafi’s modest view, he and Libya were at the very center of three overlapping circles: the Arab world, the Muslim world, and the Third World.

Reflecting his deep antipathy to formal authority, Qaddafi not only disclaimed any formal title, but institutionalized this as a governing philosophy in what he called a "popular democracy," later "Islamic socialism." Dismantling parties and institutions, he formed "people’s committees" across the country to establish a direct democracy. This principle was codified in the three slim volumes of his Green Book, the quixotic tome on political philosophy he published in 1976. Then, in 1977, at Qaddafi’s bidding, the General People’s Congress, which was in effect a committee of committees, conferred upon him the honorific title of permanent "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya," (jamahiriya is loosely translated as democracy of the masses or state of the masses, with no formal organizations other than the "people’s committees"). In this democracy of the masses, Qaddafi would have no formal leadership role. This was the basis for Qaddafi’s explanation in his Feb. 28 press conference that he can’t resign because he has no official position.

After the revolution, Libya nationalized some 70 percent of the oil companies operating in Libya, including British Petroleum and Continental Oil, and joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with a resultant large increase of oil revenues for Libya. Using Libya’s petroleum wealth, Qaddafi not only bankrolled terrorists, but almost indiscriminately funded rogue leaders around the world, including Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Empire, Haile Mengistu of Ethiopia, and Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

In reviewing Qaddafi’s career, two things stand out. A consistent theme is his identification with the underdog, standing up against authority. And while he eschews the titles of power, he has, in fact, been quite ruthless in eliminating any threats to his own power. It has been estimated that some 10 to 20 percent of the Libyan population works for the people’s committees, identifying threats to his power, dissidents, and regime critics, and eliminating them, forming a network of secret informers rivaling that of Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin, and the East German Stasi. So sensitive to plots is his regime that even to engage in a discussion with a foreigner is a crime punishable by three years in prison. The fear of dissidents includes those living abroad, who have sought the sanctuary of exile, and he has dispatched assassination teams abroad to silence outspoken anti-Libyan dissidents, for example shooting at 10 anti-Qaddafi protesters in Britain in 1984. And his reach extended to the United States: In 1980, he attempted to assassinate a Libyan graduate student at the University of Colorado, seriously wounding him, and killed a Libyan exile just before his U.S. citizenship ceremony in 1990. Amnesty International once estimated that Libya carried out at least 25 assassinations abroad in the 1980s.

In Qaddafi’s constellation of enemies, the United States was to occupy a special role. To have the courage to stand up to the world’s only superpower would surely magnify his stature. And stand up he did. Reagan recalled in his diaries that Qaddafi mounted an assassination plot against him in November 1981. In early 1986, when Qaddafi declared the Gulf of Sidra as Libya’s territory, which extended some 200 miles beyond the coast, and threatened attacks against anyone who dared to cross "the line of death," the U.S. Navy carried out a longstanding planned exercise that indeed crossed the line. Qaddafi sent two sorties of jets against the American fleet, which were promptly shot down. Qaddafi then thanked the United States for making him "a hero to the Third World."

Later that year, Libyan agents bombed the La Belle disco in West Berlin, a favorite hangout for the U.S. military, killing three and wounding 229. Intercepts revealed this was a Libyan plot, providing Reagan the long-sought "smoking gun" to fulfill his inaugural commitment to make attacking terrorism his No. 1 priority. The United States mounted a bombing raid against Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in reprisal. Qaddafi claimed his adopted daughter was killed in the raid. Now, Qaddafi was fully engaged with his arch enemy. A year later, a Japanese Red Army terrorist, hired by Qaddafi, was apprehended at a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike with three pipe bombs discovered in his car. According to a February 1989 article in the New York Times, he intended to set them off in a Navy recruiting station in New York City on the first anniversary of the U.S. bombing raid on Tripoli. In 1988, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 occurred over Lockerbie, Scotland, a flight filled with American students returning home after study abroad, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground. Meticulous forensic examination traced the bomb back to Libya, leading to U.N. economic and political sanctions in 1992, which bit deeply, leading to Libya’s economic and political isolation. The Libyan associate minister of justice, who recently defected, has confirmed that it was Qaddafi himself who gave the orders.

In 2003, the U.N. Security Council made the lifting of the sanctions contingent on Libya’s accepting responsibility for the actions of its officials and payment of up to $2.7 billion in compensation for the victims of the 1988 attack. Libya watchers believe that his son and designated successor Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who has a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and was considered more worldly than his father, persuaded the colonel to agree to the compensation and abandon Libya’s weapons of mass destruction program. (The question of whether the Ph.D. dissertation was ghostwritten and partially plagiarized is now under investigation.) This decision led to the lifting of the sanctions, ending Libya’s diplomatic isolation. It represented a rare example of Qaddafi being able to exercise wisdom in pursuit of Libya’s international position. But it did not exhaust his fondness for the United States as adversary. In 2009, Qaddafi found common cause with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to propose a South Atlantic Treaty Organization to counter NATO.

The recent violence against unarmed civilians has disaffected many within Qaddafi’s diplomatic corps and the military. What began as a small stream has now become a virtual river of resignations and defections, perhaps attempting to dissociate themselves from a regime accused by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of "serious transgressions of international human rights and humanitarian law." Several senior military officers are now leading the rebel forces, and the former ambassador to India, Ali Assawi, has now become the foreign minister for the new rebel shadow government, the Libyan National Council, which is headed by Qaddafi’s former justice minister.

Throughout his life and career, Qaddafi has lived out his core psychological value, that of the outsider standing up against superior authority, the Muslim warrior courageously confronting insurmountable odds. A man does not mellow with age, especially a highly narcissistic leader consumed by dreams of glory. Indeed, as a man grows older, he becomes more like himself. But as the stress has mounted, Qaddafi seems increasingly to have lost touch with reality. Having dedicated his life to Libya, his creation, he finds it inconceivable that his people are not all grateful to him, and when he says his people all love him, he believes it. And therefore, anyone contesting his authority must be responding to foreign agents from the United States or al Qaeda. When he says he will fight to the "last drop of his blood," he means it. Qaddafi will not commit suicide nor slink away to a lush exile.

When he speaks of "my country," he means it literally. Qaddafi is Libya and a Libya without him at the helm is unimaginable to him. In an article in the Economist magazine from February 2011, he is quoted as having declared that "I was the one who created Libya, and I will be the one to destroy it." The West should take this statement very seriously. Qaddafi is indeed prepared to go down in flames, and the question is how many of his supporters are prepared to fight to "the last drop of blood."

Jerrold M. Post is professor of psychiatry, political psychology, and international affairs and director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. Before assuming his position at GWU, he had a 21-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he was the founding director of the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. He is the author of Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World.