Capturing the Qaddafis
The new Libya has a chance to wipe the slate clean -- or descend into regional bickering.
The two most dynamic members of the late Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's inner circle were captured over the weekend: Saif al-Islam, his Western-educated son and one-time successor, and Abdullah al-Senussi, his brother-in-law and spymaster. These two men were the powers behind the throne. Saif was known for his seemingly genuine admiration of Western constitutionalism and technological progress. Senussi understood that Libya couldn't survive isolated from the West, but also grasped that introducing Western technology and the discourse of human rights would complicate his continued efforts to repress the Libyan people.
The two most dynamic members of the late Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s inner circle were captured over the weekend: Saif al-Islam, his Western-educated son and one-time successor, and Abdullah al-Senussi, his brother-in-law and spymaster. These two men were the powers behind the throne. Saif was known for his seemingly genuine admiration of Western constitutionalism and technological progress. Senussi understood that Libya couldn’t survive isolated from the West, but also grasped that introducing Western technology and the discourse of human rights would complicate his continued efforts to repress the Libyan people.
Both men were profoundly aware of the challenges the 21st century presented to the continued rule of the Qaddafi clan and urged a controlled opening to the West to save the "family business" — an effort that eventually backfired. Most outside observers assume that Senussi, as a security thug from the desert, was a reactionary figure who fought against Saif’s progressive détente with the West after 2003 and his economic privatization inside Libya. I came to meet Senussi while working in Libya in 2008 and discovered, to my great surprise, that, although he bordered on being illiterate — even in Arabic — he grasped the urgency of attracting foreign direct investment as much as any of the so-called Libyan reformers with doctoral degrees.
Senussi embodied the paranoid yet shrewd center of the regime. In the 1980s, when he ran the internal security apparatus, he was the second most powerful man in Libya; later on, after heading the military intelligence in the 1990s, he had a brief falling out with the colonel but remained a close advisor and his most trusted "fixer" in times of crisis. When we met, he expressed his regret that he had not invested more resources in having his son learn English. (Impressed with my spoken Levantine Arabic, he had me followed after our meetings. Word got back to me through the leaky Libyan security apparatus that he assumed I was not a real management consultant but actually a Lebanese spy investigating the kidnapping of Musa al-Sadr in 1978. As a New Yorker without a drop of Arab blood who had struggled for over a decade to learn Arabic, I was quite flattered.)
Senussi had a greater understanding than Saif that, in opening Libya to the West, the Qaddafi regime was playing with fire. He counselled the colonel to avoid placing too much trust in Western-educated technocrats and he kept his tribesmen from the Southern Megarha tribe in key positions of the security services. By contrast, Saif failed to see the dangers to his father’s regime implicit in advocating for a free press and inviting groups like Human Rights Watch to conduct investigations.
Without the chaotic one step-forward, two steps-backward economic liberalization these two men facilitated, Libya would have remained an international pariah state, but it also would have remained isolated from the regime-destabilizing effects of the Internet and the Libyan diaspora. In hermetically closed states, such as the Libya of the 1990s or today’s North Korea, a popular revolution is next to impossible. Only after a perestroika and a glasnost can a totalitarian regime be challenged from within. Efforts to restrain popular discontent, such as Senussi’s massacre of more than 1,000 prisoners at Abu Salim Prison in 1996, usually collapse once the people can communicate with the outside world.
What Saif failed to understand at the onset of the uprising was that the new discourse he imported from the West made his father’s and Senussi’s style of repression impossible. On Feb. 21, Saif went on Libyan state TV in an attempt to prevent the week-old protests in eastern Libya from consolidating and migrating to the more populous areas of western Libya. Rather than using this epic opportunity to address the Libyan nation and promise to lobby his father to stop the violence against peaceful protesters, he parroted his father’s scaremongering tactics and boasted of the effectiveness of Senussi’s security services. However, the very reforms he had advocated over the last decade made it harder for Senussi’s minions to crack down on the new generation of Libyan youth. Less than 10 minutes after the completion of Saif’s speech, it had already sparked new localized rebellions in Tripoli, Zintan, and Misrata that were essentially separate from the uprisings which had already liberated Benghazi. In the span of an hour, Saif had gone from being the darling of the educated middle classes in Libya to eclipsing Senussi as the second most-loathed member of the regime’s inner circle.
The details of Senussi’s capture on Nov. 20 are still sketchy, but he appears to have been apprehended at his sister’s house north of his hometown of Sabha. Along with Saif’s capture on Nov. 19 outside the southwestern Libya town of Awbari by Zintani militiamen operating more than 500 miles away from their home base, it reveals the power and profoundly national reach of the spontaneous local organizations and militias that grew up under NATO’s protective umbrella. The Zintanis have stated that they are willing to turn Saif over to the National Transitional Council (NTC) only if a credible justice ministry is set up and it is promised that he will stand trial in Libya — and not be turned over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, where he is wanted for war crimes.
Saif’s treatment is likely to set a precedent for what to do with Senussi. If the two men do indeed remain in Libya, their trials will be fraught with the potential to either unite or further divide the country. In the worst-case scenario, the trials could turn into a political circus, whereby different regional and class factions could use the public spectacle to advocate for their competing visions for Libya. Many militiamen and the youth feel that all officials connected to the previous regime should be purged. To them, technocrats associated with Saif’s reform projects are equivalent to Senussi’s murderous henchmen.
The spirit of vindictiveness, which is increasingly cropping up in Libyan public life, could turn the public trials of Saif and Senussi into an opportunity to discredit men like former NTC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, who had been aligned with Saif when he ran the Economic Development Board (although there is no evidence of any gross personal corruption on his part). If the most vindictive militiamen have their way, even the two men who saved Libya’s revolution diplomatically in its early days — Jibril and Abdulrahman Shalgam, Libya’s envoy to the United Nations — will not be immune from retribution for their complicity in Qaddafi’s regime.
In the best-case scenario, Libyans of all stripes would agree to avoid the circus aspects of the Saddam Hussein trial. But this scenario can come about only if the NTC’s selection of a cabinet — constitutionally required by Tuesday, Nov. 22 — jumpstarts the successful vesting of power into national institutions. Saif and Senussi might then give detailed testimony revealing how billions of dinars of the Libyan patrimony have been squirreled away by crony privatizations and corrupt bureaucrats. Saif might do so in an attempt to prove his innocence and his genuine desire to reform his father’s regime; Senussi out of spite for the former regime officials who abandoned him. Alternately, they might proclaim their innocence against all the charges, à la Slobodan Milosovic, and fight in court to the end.
In either case, a successful trial could aid in the setting up of a truth and reconciliation-type commission that would allow former Qaddafi regime officials who do not have blood on their hands or were not guilty of gross corruption to be rehabilitated into the new national life. Given how Qaddafi and the Libyan state controlled every aspect of economic and public life in Libya during 42 years of dictatorship, almost all Libyans were complicit in one way or another with the regime. Over the last decade especially, many of the most talented and educated Libyans — like Jibril — participated in Saif’s reform project in one capacity or another, because they saw it as the only way to make a positive difference.
A year ago, Saif al-Islam was a powerful, if flawed, symbol for the aspirations of the educated middle classes in Libya, while Senussi epitomized the shrewd, brutal, and tribal side of the Qaddafi regime. Although many Western commentators prefer The Hague, trying them in Libya under ICC supervision would be even more effective by demonstrating that the NTC can mete out its own justice and stay true to its people’s demands rather than merely doing the West’s bidding. In this way, Saif and Senussi could be the perfect symbolic figures to galvanize national reconciliation and the creation of a strong and independent Libyan government and judiciary.
The ultimate trajectory of the Libyan revolution remains very much in doubt. Libya could devolve into various warlord-dominated regions, where the nominal Libyan government only controls certain coastal cities like Benghazi and Tobruk. Alternatively, a democratic (or at least proto-democratic) system could begin to put down roots, as it has in Tunisia. Given the great human and natural resources in Libya, its absence of sectarian tensions, and the genuine hope engendered by its revolution, I remain cautiously optimistic. The capture of Saif and Senussi is a great victory for the revolutionary cause, but it also marks a fork in the road. The Western world should use its influence sparingly and must not attempt to strong-arm the NTC over how the trials should be handled. Ultimately, that must be worked out behind closed doors between Zintani militiamen and the new Libyan cabinet, as it is Libyans who must live with the results.
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.