The last time Benjamin Barber saw Saif Qaddafi, in early December, they spent a cheerless evening together in London. Barber, a political scientist and board member of Saif’s Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, was in town for a board meeting that was supposed to have taken place in Tripoli but, a week before, had been moved to England. Over an Italian dinner in Mayfair, he asked Saif why.
“I don’t feel comfortable in Tripoli,” the 38-year-old son of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi said. “I have too many enemies there right now.” Saif was in a desperate mood. For years he had pushed his way into his father’s chaotic political orbit, urging him to support reform in Libya. Muammar had obliged in the past—but recently he hadn’t. Allies of Saif’s had been arrested and businesses of his shut down. He had decamped and wasn’t sure he wanted to return. “He felt he was not welcome,” Barber says. “He’d been struggling for a long time.”
Barber urged him to push on. Libya was a vastly different country than it had been only a decade earlier, he assured him, thanks largely to Saif. It was a speech Saif had heard many times. He’d long worked with Barber and other academics, executives, consultants, and lobbyists to plot Libya’s future. They’d encouraged Saif, too, and had become partners in a campaign to revive his country and his family name, while he in turn worked with them to make Libya a supposed model of peaceful liberalization in the Arab world. He was what the region badly needed, his foreign boosters said. Saif sometimes agreed.
Two months after that dinner, with Libya in revolt, Muammar asked his favorite son to return home, which he did. Then, seemingly overnight, Saif became a new man: not the deliverer his supporters had hoped but someone indistinguishable from his father.
The second eldest of Muammar’s seven sons, Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Qaddafi was born in 1972, three years after his father took power in a military coup at 27. Little is known about Saif’s upbringing except for the brutal events surrounding it. When Saif was a child, Muammar went from a standard-issue strongman to the self-described Brother Leader of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah. It was a system he described as a perfect democracy but which others called a murderous autocracy (with televised executions). In 1986, following a terrorist attack in a German disco frequented by U.S. servicemen, Ronald Reagan ordered air strikes that killed, in the Qaddafis’ version, Saif’s younger sister. The U.N. imposed crippling sanctions on the country after Libyan agents were charged with aiding in the Pan Am 103 bombing, and by the end of the nineties, Libya was in shambles. According to a former State Department official, Muammar “knew he could not win this war” and began secret talks with the Clinton administration on compensating families of the Pan Am victims.
As Muammar entered his sixties, he began considering which of his sons might succeed him. His choices were underwhelming. Saif’s elder half-brother, Mohammed, who ran the state telecom company, was uninterested in the mantle. Younger brother Al-Saadi was known for a failed professional-soccer career and little else, while Hannibal, the next in line, lacked certain statesmanlike qualities, as became clear when he was arrested in a Swiss hotel for beating two domestic servants. Khamis and Saif al-Arab were too young. Muatessem, an army officer five years Saif’s junior, had moved to Egypt after falling out of favor.
Saif, by contrast, had qualities his father admired: his own. Like Muammar, who quoted Rousseau and Madison to visiting diplomats, Saif was charming and well read. Like Muammar, he was confident. “He was absolutely sure what he believed was right,” says Jack Richards, an American businessman and early adviser of Saif’s. Most important, Saif developed ideas about Libya at an early age, including the realization that his father’s rule hadn’t been flawless. It was implicit in everything Muammar did that Saif was not only the favorite son but the son who understood him the best, because he understood not the tyrant but the democrat,” Barber says. At the same time, there was a “profound Freudian tension.”
Saif showed, of all things, an affinity for America, the country Muammar had made his name maligning. After studying architecture and engineering in Tripoli, he earned degrees in Vienna and at the London School of Economics, and he became enamored of American political history and culture (His favorite movie, reportedly, is Saw). Says LSE professor David Held, who informally advised Saif, “He used to say that Arabs should have nothing to fear from American democracy promotion.”
His anti-authoritarian inclinations were so strong that Saif bristled—or made a show of bristling—at the mention of inheriting power. “The phrase heir apparent was abhorrent to Saif. But I think he secretly always harbored the hope he’d lead the country,” Richards says. Muammar, who held no official title and who spoke idealistically of a future Libya without a Qaddafi in power, seemed to admire his son’s stance, even if he wanted Saif to succeed him.