On this day in 2011, Moammar Gadhafi, the longest-serving leader in Africa and the Arab world, is captured and killed by rebel forces near his hometown of Sirte. The eccentric 69-year-old dictator, who came to power in a 1969 coup, headed a government that was accused of numerous human rights violations against its own people and was linked to terrorist attacks, including the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Gadhafi, who was born into a Bedouin family in June 1942, attended the Royal Military Academy in Benghazi as a young man and briefly received additional military training in Great Britain. On September 1, 1969, he led a bloodless coup that overthrew Libya’s pro-Western monarch, King Idris, who was out of the country at the time. Gadhafi emerged as the head of the new revolutionary government, which soon forced the closing of American and British military bases in Libya, took control of much of the nation’s oil industry, and tortured and killed political dissenters. It also made unsuccessful attempts to merge Libya with other Arab nations. Gadhafi began funding terrorist and guerilla groups around the globe, including the Irish Republican Army and the Red Army Faction in West Germany. Additionally, in the mid-1970s, Gadhafi, whose followers referred to him by such titles as “Brother Leader” and “Guide of the Revolution,” published his political philosophy, which combined socialist and Islamic theories. Known as the Green Book, the manifesto became required reading in Libyan schools.
During the 1980s, tensions increased between Gadhafi and the West. Libya was linked the April 1986 bombing of a West Berlin, Germany, nightclub frequented by American military personnel. Two people, including a U.S. soldier, were killed in the attack, while some 155 others were wounded. The United States swiftly retaliated by bombing targets in Libya, including Gadhafi”s compound in Tripoli, the nation”s capital. President Ronald Reagan called Gadhafi “the mad dog of the Middle East.”
On December 22, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103, traveling from London to New York, was blown up over Lockerbie, killing 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground. The U.S. and Britain indicted two Libyans in the attack, but Gadhafi initially refused to turn over the suspects. He also declined to surrender a group of Libyans suspected in the 1989 bombing of a French passenger jet over Niger that killed 170 people. Subsequently, in 1992, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Libya. These sanctions were removed in 2003, after the country formally accepted responsibility for the bombings (but admitted no guilt) and agreed to pay a $2.7 billion settlement to the victims’ families. (Gadhafi’s government had turned over the Lockerbie suspects in 1999; one was eventually acquitted and the other convicted.) Also in 2003, Gadhafi agreed to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction. Diplomatic relations with the West were restored by the following year.
Gadhafi remained a controversial and eccentric figure, who traveled with a contingent of female bodyguards, wore colorful robes and hats or military uniforms covered with medals, and on trips abroad set up a Bedouin-style tent to receive guests.
After more than 40 years in power, Gadhafi saw his regime begin to unravel in February 2011, when anti-government protests broke out in Libya following the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia earlier that year. Gadhafi vowed to crush the revolt and ordered a violent crackdown against the demonstrators. However, by August, rebel forces, with assistance from NATO, had gained control of Tripoli and established a transitional government. Gadhafi went into hiding, but on October 20, 2011, he was captured and shot by rebel forces.