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March 2011
» The Spectator – Killer Clowns: For too long, the absurdity of Libya’s rulers obscured their brutality

For 20 years I have seen Colonel Gaddafi every morning. He greets me with a faraway look in his eyes as I step into my study. It is one of those vast propaganda portraits, 5ft by 3ft, beloved by serial kleptocrat dictators. Looking youthful, almost serene, he sports a bouffant hairdo and military uniform with enough gold thread on his epaulettes to embroider a WMD. Behind him is a desert panorama of rolling sand dunes, date palms, camels and a huge pipe with torrents of water gushing out to create fertile agricultural land, along with combine harvesters, a flock of sheep and the sort of Harvest Festival fruit basket most vicars could only ever dream of. All of this above the legend, ‘THE GREAT MAN-RIVER BUILDER’.

The portrait commemorates Gaddafi’s Great Man-Made River Project, one of the largest feats of engineering in the world. I picked it up from a Tripoli hotel in 1991, the year Gaddafi inaugurated a project described by the Financial Times as ‘a monument to vanity’. The hotel manager who gave it to me thought I was bonkers. Like many Libyans who have had to put up with decades of grinding repression under the world’s most psychotic dandy, he probably thought of the Colonel less as Brother Leader or Great Man-River Builder than as Big Bastard, a term I used to hear muttered sotto voce during visits to Tripoli.

Although it is still far too early to digest the lasting consequences of the Arab awakening in north Africa and the Middle East, the outburst of mass political participation may spell an end to the ability of one man to rule — and wreck — his country unchecked. Whatever else the north African revolutions achieve, they have put an end to dynastic succession in Egypt and Libya. In Cairo the protestors have kiboshed Hosni Mubarak’s plans to transfer power to his son Gamal. In Tripoli, it is safe to say the colonel will not be handing the reins to his son and expected heir, the congenital liar Saif al-Islam.

In 2002, I interviewed the gangster dauphin for the Speccie while he was staying at the Royal Suite — where else for the son of a socialist revolutionary? — at Claridge’s. It was part of the rehabilitating Libya tour, during which Gaddafi Jnr expressed a sudden and unexpected passion for democracy. ‘I’m very enthusiastic to see Libya as an oasis of democracy, a society that respects the environment and human rights and so on, and is a model in the region,’ he said without smirking. Democracy was ‘policy number one’.

He was furious when asked about succeeding his father. It was ‘an unthinkable idea, and you shouldn’t even mention it’. Saif was even more furious when Boris Johnson, the then editor, headlined the article ‘Son of Mad Dog’, reducing Saif’s London PR man to a gibbering wreck.

With Saif al-Islam’s exit from the fray, Libyans will be spared the rule of a man who has been living up to his name — Sword of Islam — in recent days. Like the 14th-century Tatar conqueror Tamerlane, another Sword of Islam, he and his minions have proved only too adept at butchering fellow Muslims. The citizens of Benghazi, currently held by the Libyan opposition, are quite right to fear the Gaddafis’ wrath. As The Spectator goes to press, Mad Dog’s troops have retaken Gharyan and Sabratha in the country’s northwest and Brega in the east. Though their days may be numbered, though the world is watching, the Gaddafis’ revenge will be bloody and uncompromising.

It has always suited Gaddafi Snr to be seen internationally as a clown. For much of his 41-year reign, he was the Mussolini to Saddam Hussein’s Hitler, the one a colourful fool, the other evil incarnate, a deception that conveniently hid the Libyan state’s darker side. In truth, no one should be surprised at Saif al-Islam’s threat to ‘fight to the last bullet’ – anyone who dreams of opposing Gaddafi can only be a drug-crazed youth, rat or cockroach. Behind the swaying palm trees of Tripoli’s Green Square, the exquisite Roman ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna and the lucrative oil deals that drove British foreign policy to rehabilitate the regime, Gaddafi’s Libya has always been a brutal police state.

Such was its raison d’être from the outset. On 1 September 1969, the Revolutionary Command Council warned Libyans that any attempt to resist the new order would be ‘crushed ruthlessly and decisively’. That is the path Gaddafi has always taken to deal with dissent, an approach typified by the Abu Salim prison massacre of 1996, in which 1,200 prisoners were killed in cold blood, their bodies reportedly fork-lifted into refrigerated trucks and driven away. Libya denies the atrocity.

To its intense discomfort, the West is suddenly learning that stability in the Middle East isn’t so stable, after all. For years, dictators like the Al Saud family and Mubarak have ruled quite happily in their own interests and those of the West with a catastrophic disregard for their own people. Others, like Assad, Gaddafi and latterly Saddam, after he had helped tie revolutionary Iran down for a decade, have proved as hostile to their own people as the West. Arab governance, once the envy of the world when the Abbasid caliphate headquartered in Baghdad created the most sophisticated civilisation on earth, has shrivelled into an oxymoron.

Now that the veneer of stability has come unstuck, the Arab world faces a period of distinct uncertainty, to the discomfort of global markets. Gaddafi, after 41 years, will leave a country in political ruins and turmoil. Mubarak almost single-handedly destroyed the Egyptian economy during a reign of 29 years and further political turbulence surely awaits. Cracks are appearing in King Abdullah’s Jordan, a stalwart ally of the West. Yemenis understandably want to get shot of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who leads one of the world’s most venal regimes (31 years). In Syria, 22 February marked the 40th anniversary of the Assad family’s hold on power. In Saudi Arabia, land of the odious Al Sauds, 87-year-old King Abdullah has offered a pre-emptive $36 billion bribe — common currency in this part of the world — to buy off dissent.

Western policymakers may discover that it would be better for everyone in the long term if they stopped fretting about their stakes in the region for a minute, and started paying more attention to the interests of ordinary people, rather than the regimes, of north Africa and the Middle East.

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» Gaddafi has chemical weapons and he’s ready to use them

The first that Gaddafi’s poorly armed opposition would know of an impending attack on them from their country’s embattled leader would be the distant ‘crump’ of artillery fire.

Moments later the shells would start to land. For a few seconds there might be relief, laughter even, that the shells had either fallen short or gone over  their heads.

But then the gentle desert breeze would blow the deadly smoke from the exploded munitions towards them and suddenly — too late — those fighting for democracy in Libya would realise Gaddafi hadn’t missed at all.

It could be a sudden choking in their lungs, a searing pain in their eyes, the rapid blistering of their skin.

As they slumped to the ground, blinded, vomiting or coughing up blood, they would die in the desert knowing two things. First, that despite his lies, despite his obfuscation, Gaddafi does still have biological and chemical weapons. Second, that he was now desperate and deranged enough to use them.

For now, a biological or chemical attack by Gaddafi on his own people is still only the stuff of nightmares.

But what is worrying a growing number of Western military and intelligence experts is that it could become a terrifying reality at any moment.

Gaddafi may have promised to give up such weapons in 2003 as part of the deal that brought the rogue state back into the diplomatic fold, but the chilling fact is he still has enough to kill and maim an awful lot of people.

He still has almost ten tonnes of the chemicals needed to make mustard gas, the near-odourless gas that condemned so many to a lingering and excruciatingly painful death in World War I — and which was certainly one of the ingredients in the lethal, toxic cocktail that Saddam Hussein infamously used to kill up to 5,000 people in the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988.

He still has 650 tonnes of materials required to produce a range of deadly chemical weapons. Their effects on the human body are probably known only to those who made them and who now store them at the Rabta Chemical Weapons Production Facility — the largest chemical weapons production facility in the developing world.

Libya’s former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil says Gaddafi still has biological weapons — anthrax perhaps; nerve agents such as sarin; possibly even genetically modified smallpox — and that he isn’t afraid to use them.

Anthrax was first used as a weapon by the Japanese army against prisoners of war in the Thirties. If Gaddafi unleashes this deadly disease on his people, the effects could be catastrophic, killing thousands.

The threat of sarin — a substance so toxic that a drop can kill an adult — is just as worrying.

Known as a ‘nerve-agent’ because it overstimulates the nervous system, exhausting glands and muscles and causing respiratory failure, sarin may be within Gaddafi’s arsenal. In 2004, Libya admitted that stockpiles of sarin have been produced in the country’s Rabta facility.

He also has 1,000 tonnes of ‘yellow cake’ uranium, the first step towards building an atomic bomb.

Libya is thought to be some way from being able to make an atomic bomb — details of its fairly rudimentary nuclear programme were revealed as part of the 2003 deal with Washington, and its relatively small stock of enriched uranium acquired from Pakistan and North Korea were handed to the U.S.

But there’s no shortage of the raw material in this highly unstable region of North Africa. Niger, Libya’s desperately poor neighbour to the south, and reportedly the country of origin for many of Gaddafi’s mercenaries, is one of the top producers of uranium in the world.

The nuclear threat from Libya may be small, but it would be a fool who says it had vanished entirely.

As part of the diplomatic deal in 2003, when Gaddafi handed over Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), he destroyed his long-range missiles and 3,300 aerial mortar shells designed for delivering mustard gas and chemical agents.

But, despite this being hailed at the time as ‘the real non-proliferation success story of the new millennium’ by President Bush’s assistant, American Secretary of State Paula DeSutter, the destruction and verification process has been slow, tortuous and incomplete.

Gaddafi still has an unknown number of lethal Scud-B missiles and a huge arsenal of conventional artillery that could be adapted relatively easily for use with chemical and biological agents.

But could Britain, the United States and their Western allies really stand by and let Gaddafi bomb his own people with mustard gas or anthrax as it once stood by and let Saddam Hussein launch his genocidal gas attack on the Kurds? I don’t believe so for a moment.

All the military intelligence I’ve picked up indicates that at the first sign of a biological or chemical attack against the Libyans, Western forces will move swiftly and decisively to bring Gaddafi’s regime to an end.

Gaddafi is a desperate and probably deranged man, who has publicly pledged that he will not leave the country or stand down, but would prefer to die ‘a martyr’s death’. The problem is he has the terrifying capability of being able to impose not a martyr’s death, but a cruel, lingering and excruciatingly painful death on thousands of others, too.

Justin Marozzi is the author of South From Barbary: Along The Slave Routes Of The Libyan Sahara

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When King Abdullah first started work on this political memoir two years ago, he can hardly have imagined how different the Middle East would look by the time of its publication. Change in this region, which prizes stability above all else, mostly occurs at a glacial pace, if it happens at all. Yet the region has been turned upside down so quickly, with the popular revolutions that began in Tunisia and Egypt, that one can reasonably wonder what other surprises may lie in store before this review is published. Change is no longer a political slogan voiced by a distant American president. It’s real. It’s happening now. Tunis and Cairo have proved to be only the start. Stability, all of a sudden, doesn’t look so stable.

If any family in the world can be said to represent stability, it is the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan. King Abdullah is a 43rd-generation direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. In the sixth century, his ancestor Qusai was the first ruler of Mecca. In the past few days, however, cracks have started appearing. On 8 February, a group of 36 tribal leaders, the traditional cornerstone of the monarchy, warned that, ‘Jordan will sooner or later be the target of an uprising similar to the ones in Tunisia and Egypt due to suppression of freedoms and looting of public funds.’ The virtually unprecedented criticism also broke an important taboo by linking Queen Rania to corruption. Crowds have taken to the streets. The king has sacked his government.

The title of this engrossing book refers to the pressing need, as King Abdullah sees it, for Israelis and the Palestinians to make peace. Substitute ‘reform’ for ‘peace’ and it would be even more timely. As toxic as the Israel-Palestine question undoubtedly is for the region, the West is starting to discover that a policy of supporting dictatorships while preaching democracy carries dangers of its own.

This is a book that avowedly mixes the personal with the political. Cyclical conflicts in the Middle East have taken their toll on the Hashemite family. In 1951, the present king’s great-grandfather, King Abdullah I, was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman belonging to the militant group, Jihad Muqaddas. According to t his account, there were 18 documented assassination attempts — all unsuccessful — against Abdullah II’s father, the late King Hussein, between the time of his accession to the throne at 18 and his 30th birthday.

Educated in Jordan, England and America, Abdullah represents a thoughtful, moderate blend of East and West. His role model, above all, is his father, who took serial risks for peace. He describes how, as a captain in the Jordanian army, following a punishing but defining stint at Sandhurst, he once accompanied King Hussein on a secret mission into Israel to discuss a peace proposal, entering the country on a 33-foot fishing boat under cover of night. A former director of Jordanian Special Forces, he takes particular relish in describing the hunt for Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al- Qa’eda leader who in 2005 perpetrated ‘Jordan’s 9/11’, in which three suicide attackers killed 60 in Amman.

Today, Abdullah continues the diplomatic push for peace, acutely aware of how prospects for a lasting two-state solution are receding with every new settlement Israel erects and every new terrorist attack. ‘One of the best weapons against violent extremists is to undercut their rallying cries,’ he writes. The best hope yet, as Abdullah argues, remains the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 — encompassing a full Israeli withdrawal to June 1967 boundaries, a just solution to the refugee question and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, in return for peace with all Arab states. He sums up the stark choice facing Tel Aviv as ‘Fortress Israel or a Fifty-Seven State Solution’.

It now looks as if Israel may yet find itself with even fewer friends in the Middle East, ruing the failure to strike the sort of peace deal advocated by Abdullah and his late father. As for Abdullah’s own future in a newly uncertain political climate, a line jumps out. He writes how he and his four brothers say they are like five fingers on a hand. ‘If you are well-meaning, we extend the hand of friendship; but when outsiders try to harm the family, we band together and become a fist.’

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