Things We Thought We Knew About Libya

Combine the fog of war, a government notorious for deception, and reporters desperate for scoops, and you get an environment rife with speculation and contradiction on even the most basic facts.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images; DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS/AFP/Getty Images; WATHEK QUSAI/AFP/Getty Images; ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images; GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Image
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images; DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS/AFP/Getty Images; WATHEK QUSAI/AFP/Getty Images; ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images; GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Image
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images; DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS/AFP/Getty Images; WATHEK QUSAI/AFP/Getty Images; ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images; GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Image

MUAMMAR AL-QADDAFI IS SURROUNDED

or maybe we have no idea where he is.

Remember immediately after the fall of Tripoli when it was reported that the Libyan leader was holed up inside his compound at Bab al-Aziziya on the outskirts of Tripoli? The compound was taken and there was no sign of him. Or when he was likely at his farm near the airport? Also now captured. Or when he was "nearly captured" at a safe house in central Tripoli in Aug. 24? Or when he was at least somewhere in Tripoli? Now, as rebels close in on his hometown of Sirte, rebel leaders continue to say they have "a good idea where he is." (Or perhaps he's actually in the desert town of Bani Walid.)

MUAMMAR AL-QADDAFI IS SURROUNDED

or maybe we have no idea where he is.

Remember immediately after the fall of Tripoli when it was reported that the Libyan leader was holed up inside his compound at Bab al-Aziziya on the outskirts of Tripoli? The compound was taken and there was no sign of him. Or when he was likely at his farm near the airport? Also now captured. Or when he was “nearly captured” at a safe house in central Tripoli in Aug. 24? Or when he was at least somewhere in Tripoli? Now, as rebels close in on his hometown of Sirte, rebel leaders continue to say they have “a good idea where he is.” (Or perhaps he’s actually in the desert town of Bani Walid.)

From now on, claims that Qaddafi is “surrounded” or that his whereabouts are known should be taken with a grain of salt until he’s actually in custody.

SAIF HAS BEEN CAPTURED

or maybe he’s out cruising in his Lexus.

One of the most bizarre reversals of the fall of Tripoli is the fate of Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader’s outspoken son and onetime heir apparent. On Aug. 22, rebels — along with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has indicted Saif for war crimes — said that he had been taken into custody. Of course, late that night he appeared at a hotel where most of the international press corps was staying, boasting that most of the city was still under his father’s control and offering to give tours in his Lexus. The ICC acknowledged that they had never had confirmation that Saif was in custody, and he hasn’t been seen in public since.

KHAMIS IS DEAD, AISHA HAD A BABY, HANA WAS KILLED IN 1986

or maybe Khamis is alive, Aisha’s baby is dead, and Hana is a 25-year-old doctor.

Nothing has been a greater source of confusion in recent days than trying to keep track of which Qaddafis are still alive. Khamis, commander of one of the most feared divisions of his father’s military, has been reported dead in an airstrike on Aug. 5, during a gun battle on Aug. 22, and once again on Aug. 27. Unless the colonel’s fourth son has nine lives, not all of these reports can be true.

After Qaddafi’s daughter, Aisha, crossed into Algeria along with her mother and two brothers on Aug. 29, it was reported that she gave birth to a daughter shortly after entering the country. Nothing unusual about that, except that four months earlier, Aisha reported that her 4-month-old daughter was killed in a NATO airstrike. So either Aisha gave birth to two children in eight months or one of them doesn’t actually exist.

Then again, making up the deaths of fake children is something of a Qaddafi family specialty. Hana al-Qaddafi, Muammar’s adopted daughter who was famously “killed” in a U.S. air raid in 1986 (Lionel Richie even appeared at a tribute concert for her) now appears to have survived the raid and worked as a surgeon at the Tripoli Medical Center.   

THERE WERE NO FOREIGN “BOOTS ON THE GROUND” IN LIBYA

except for CIA operatives and British and French special forces.

The original U.N. resolution authorizing international action to protect civilians in Libya specifically forbids “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory” — which is generally understood to be a provision against deploying ground troops. For the most part, the overthrow of Qaddafi’s government was accomplished by rebel forces with support from NATO air power and on Aug. 22, President Barack Obama boasted that it “was done without putting a single U.S. troop on the ground.”

This was technically true, but it was widely reported that CIA operatives (not technically, troops, it seems) had been on the ground in Libya for months, gathering intelligence for airstrikes and learning more about the rebels. Diplomats also say that Britain, France, and other countries deployed special forces troops to help train and arm the rebels. This might not constitute a “foreign occupation force,” but any discussions of a “Libya model” mode of intervention should acknowledge that it involves more than just air power. 

AROUND 15,000 PEOPLE WERE KILLED IN THE LIBYAN UPRISING

or maybe it was 50,000.

The international intervention in Libya was launched to avert a “Srebrenica on steroids” in Benghazi, the presumed attack by Qaddafi’s troops that White House officials believed could have resulted in 100,000 casualties. Of course, there’s no way now to tell whether that would have come true. And over the course of the war, it has been extremely difficult to ascertain just how many people have actually been killed. In the early weeks of the war, estimates varied widely from 1,000 to 10,000. In early June, the U.N. Human Rights Council mission in Tripoli put the number around 15,000. Then on Aug. 30, anti-Qaddafi military commander Hisham Buhagiar gave the shockingly high number of 50,000. Casualty counts are always a tricky business, but with few international resources dedicated to counting the dead, unlike with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it may be difficult to ever get a solid number.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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