Muammar Gaddafi: The Kitsch Dictator

Tim Marshall, foreign affairs editor

By any measure Colonel Gaddafi ranks among the world's worst and most brutal 21st century dictators.

His crimes were matched by many, and surpassed by some, notably Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong Il. 

However, he became a global figure not only for his brutality, but also because of his flamboyance and erratic behaviour.

A dictator who surrounded himself with female bodyguards, entertained in a tent, and wore fascist kitsch costumes was always going to attract attention.

When you add on support for terrorism, foreign wars, and the invention of a new political system you had an 'evil dictator' made for mass media.

There was nothing in Muammar Gaddafi's childhood pointing to any of this.

He was born in 1942 in the desert south of Sirte. He joined the army in the 1960s as a admirer of Egypt's Gamal Nasser and a fellow supporter of Arab nationalism.

In 1969 he led the coup which overthrew King Idris. The takeover was bloodless, but a 42-year reign of terror began almost immediately.


All opposition was banned, with people suspected of being counter-revolutionaries rounded up and killed.

During the 1970s Gaddafi laid out his political philosophy and invented a system called 'Jamahiriya' which loosely translates as 'The state of the masses'.

Thousands of 'People's Committees' were formed which supposedly devolved power from the centre to the people.

However, all the while the Gaddafi clan took absolute power, enriched themselves, and oversaw mass killing both in Libya and abroad.

In 1972 the Colonel formed the 'Islamic Legion' comprised of mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. 

Under his direction it went on to commit atrocities in Chad.

His agents murdered political opponents abroad while at home the senior ranks of the army were sometimes 'purged' to ensure no-one became powerful enough to challenge him.

The Colonel supported and funded many terrorist groups around the world, including the IRA, the PLO, and Peru's 'Shining Path' movement.


In 1984, his agents fired on a demonstration outside the Libyan People's Bureau in London, killing WPC Yvonne Fletcher.

In 1986, after a terrorist bomb killed two US servicemen at a disco in Berlin, President Reagan ordered the airstrikes against Tripoli and Benghazi.

Two years later the Libyan regime oversaw the bombing of Pan AM flight 103 above Scotland and in 1989 it is alleged it undertook the bombing of a UTA flight over Niger.

The killings, disappearances and torture of opponents continued into the 1990s.

In 1996, 1,200 prisoners at the Abu Salim jail in Tripoli were massacred.

In the same year it is alleged that his forces opened fire on a football crowd who were booing the name of one of his sons.

The pattern of violence continued in this century even as diplomatically Libya was 'brought in from the cold' when Gaddafi agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction after seeing the fate of Saddam Hussein.

This year, he reacted to the anti-regime demonstrations with his usual brutality.

He may have gambled that having cooperated with the outside world on oil, terror, and WMD, there would be no intervention. 

If so, he lost.