Qaddafi, Mu?ammar

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Muʾammar Qaddafi


Near Surt, Libya

Leader of Libya

"Palestine cannot be restored by negative means, not by classes, nor by donations. It can only be attained by the march of the Arab masses, free of fetters, restrictions and narrow regionalism."

T he leader of the North African nation of Libya since 1970, Muʾammar Qaddafi has long been criticized in the West for supporting terrorist organizations in the Middle East and Europe, as well as for directly ordering terrorist attacks on American targets.

Qaddafi has tried to put into action what he calls the Third Universal Theory, which is a blend of socialist economics, in which the government controls the economy, popular democracy, and Islamic law. He has long opposed the influence of Western nations, including the United States, on less-developed countries.

Born in a tent

Qaddafi was born in 1942—the exact date is not known—in a tent in the desert about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the coastal town of Surt, Libya. His family made a living herding goats and camels. Bedouin (pronounced BED-oo-in) tribesmen, they led a nomadic (wandering) life and strictly followed the rules of Islam (see box on page 210).

Qaddafi's Bedouin origins shaped his adulthood. Although he left his family to attend high school and later to become an army officer, as the leader of Libya he received guests in a camel-skin tent while wearing Bedouin robes. He also enforced the strict moral codes he learned as a child, as well as the democratic decision-making that is characteristic of Bedouin society.

Italy had invaded Libya in 1911, and thousands of Italians moved there over the next few decades, taking the best land for farms. But Italian control was not secure by the beginning of World War II (1939–45), which saw Italian rule swept aside by American and English forces fighting the allied forces of Germany and Italy. Because Libya had not been an independent country before the war, the United Nations oversaw the territory until 1951, trying to decide what form of government should be put in place and who should be the head of state. Finally, at the end of 1951, the country of Libya was organized from three provinces. Muhammad Idris al-Sanusi (1890–1983), a Libyan spiritual and political leader, was put into power as King Idris I.

Words to Know

people who believe that society should be organized around voluntary associations, rather than large government organizations.
the belief that there is no God.
a form of government in which the citizens vote for their representatives.
a person who believes in living by a set of strict moral principles.
Islamic law.
a system in which there is no private property, and business and industry are owned by the workers.

Radio Cairo

The sort of political conflict that took place in Libya was also occurring throughout the Arab world, where England and France had divided the former Ottoman Empire into separate countries after World War I (1914–18). In Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) had a vision of joining these states into a single country that could stand up to their former European masters. Nasser also put socialism (an economic system in which there is no private property; business and industry are owned by the workers) into practice in Egypt. The Egyptian president spread his views through radio broadcasts from Cairo that could easily be heard in nearby countries.

As a high school student, Qaddafi spent hours listening to Nasser's speeches, even memorizing some of them. Qaddafi was so enthusiastic that he organized a group of classmates to put Nasser's ideas into practice in Libya. Qaddafi's closest friends in high school were the same men who became his top assistants after he took power. In addition to supporting Nasser's idea of a unified socialist Arab state, Qaddafi insisted this his friends observe strict Islamic moral codes, such as not drinking alcohol. Qaddafi was eventually thrown out of school for leading students in marches in support of Nasser and criticizing King Idris.

After he was expelled from high school, Qaddafi enrolled in a military college in the Libyan city of Benghazi. There he continued his political activities, organizing a group of friends into the Free Officers Movement. After graduating from military college in 1965, he went to England for further military training. At the time, Libya had close ties to Britain and the United States. But Qaddafi wanted to rid Libya of foreign influences, and for the next three years he worked inside the military to promote the idea of overthrowing King Idris.

Qaddafi vs. Khadafy

English-language publishers translating the name of Libya's leader into English use several spellings. Among them are:

  • Muammar Qaddafi
  • Moammar Khadafy
  • Moammar Gadhafi

The pronunciation in English is mow-AH-mahr gah-DAW-fee, although the "G" sound may also be pronounced as a "K."

Birth of a nation

Idris had allied with Britain during World War II, and after the war Britain helped arrange for him to become the head of Libya. Idris was friendly toward Britain and the United States. He allowed both countries to have military bases on Libyan territory and let them practice bombing runs in the Libyan desert. At the time, Libya was desperately poor, with few economic resources and fewer than two million people. The financial and military aid provided by the United States in exchange for the bases was a major source of income. This changed abruptly in 1959, when high-quality oil was discovered in the Libyan desert. Libya signed agreements with American oil firms to drill and sell the oil in exchange for half the

profits. Suddenly, Libya went from a poor desert nation to one that had a huge income from oil. Like Saudi Arabia, which had undergone a similar transformation twenty years earlier, Libya became a strong ally of the United States, a major oil customer.

But in 1967 another event shook Libya: the so-called Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including Egypt. (The Jewish state of Israel was founded in 1948 on Palestinian Arab lands previously governed by the British.) Libya did not take part in the conflict—its army was small and would not have been much help—but the defeat of Egypt and the other Arab countries raised intense emotions in many people, including Qaddafi.

Coup d'etat

Two years later, on September 1, 1969, a group of about seventy army officers seized control of the Libyan government from the monarchy, whose support had been declining rapidly. It was a peaceful coup d'etat (pronounced coo day-TAH, the takeover of a government) that lasted just two hours. No deaths or injuries were reported. The Free Officers Movement claimed credit for the coup and put twelve of its members in charge of the country, calling them the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). Among those twelve was Qaddafi, then twenty-seven years old. A week after the coup, the RCC promoted Captain Qaddafi to the rank of colonel (the highest Libyan military rank), and appointed him commander in chief of the armed forces.

The RCC insisted that it was ruling Libya as a committee. But Qaddafi's promotion to head of the armed forces and his forceful personality soon created the impression that he was in charge. It was typical of Qaddafi's role in Libya that he was not named head of state or head of government. Nevertheless, he was widely recognized as the man in control of the country.

The Bedouin

The Bedouin (pronounced BED-oo-in) are nomadic (meaning they move from place to place) Arabs who live throughout the Middle East, mostly in desert areas. They are Muslims who usually earn a living by herding camels and goats. They are known for living a simple life and for observing a strict Islamic moral code. Families wander recognized areas with their livestock. Each tribe, consisting of member families, is a group of equals, headed by a sheikh (pronounced sheek).

Qaddafi's vision: The Third Universal Theory

Qaddafi had long dreamed of uniting the Arab people into a single country, just as Nasser of Egypt had. After he seized power, Qaddafi took Nasser's ideas further. In addition to forming one big Arab state, he wanted it to be ruled by Islamic law and socialist economic principles and to have greater social equality. Instead of Western-style democracy, he supported what he called "Popular Congresses," meetings of all citizens who could vote directly on all issues instead of relying on representatives sent to a congress or parliament. He also positioned Libya as the champion of all countries occupied as colonies by European powers, and he approved of terrorism as a way for those countries to achieve independence. Qaddafi called his policies the "Third Universal Theory," which he described in detail in The Green Book, published in three parts starting in 1976.

At the time The Green Book was written, the world was largely divided into two camps: communist countries allied with the Soviet Union (today, Russia and its neighboring countries), and anticommunist countries allied with the United States. (Communism is an economic system that advocates the elimination of private property; under it, goods and the means to produce them are owned by the community as a whole and, in theory, are available through the government to all as needed. It is the opposite of capitalism, the economic system followed by the United States, in which individuals own property.) The conflict between the two sides, which lasted from 1945 to 1990, was known as the Cold War. Qaddafi's plan was to create a third system, a combination of Islamic law, socialism, and direct democracy. Qaddafi hoped his theories would help Arabs resist the influences of former colonial powers such as Britain and France, as well as the United States. The Third Universal Theory placed Libya in opposition to the Western countries, including the United States, but also kept it independent of Soviet influence during the Cold War.

Islamic cultural revolution

Qaddafi's ideas on how society should be organized were rooted in his Bedouin childhood. Bedouin tribal society, which is found throughout the Arab world, lives simply and strictly observes the rules of Islam. Tribes are headed by a sheikh (pronounced sheek), but male members discuss and vote on issues as a group of individuals.

What Year Is It?

To promote Islam in Libya, Muʾammar Qaddafi announced that the country would use the Islamic calendar. But which one?

At first Qaddafi switched from the standard Islamic calendar—which counts the years since the founder of Islam, Muhammad (c. 570–632), moved from Mecca to Medina (in present-day Saudi Arabia) and founded the religion—to a calendar that counts the years since Muhammad's birth. Then Qaddafi switched to a third calendar that counts the years since Muhammad's death. (In Islamic societies, it is customary to recite the phrase "peace be upon him" after the name of the prophet Muhammad. In writing, this is usually expressed by the initials "pbuh." This phrase is implied throughout this book.)

The changes were not observed by everyone in Libya. A Libyan newspaper printed in early 2001 (according to the Christian calendar) published a legal bulletin titled "No. 4 for 1431." The date on the newspaper was 1369. For most of the Muslim world, it was 1421.

Instead of setting up a standard democracy with an elected congress, as in the United States, Qaddafi insisted that Libyans should vote directly on laws and policies through Popular Congresses. At least twice a year, all Libyan adults were required to attend sessions of their local Popular Congress. On one hand, this guaranteed that people would have a voice in government. On the other hand, it meant that political parties had no role in government. This made it difficult to organize challenges to Qaddafi's policies.

In 1977 Qaddafi officially changed the name of his country to the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. The Arabic word jamahiriya means "state of the masses." The new name implied that Libya was ruled directly by the people without need for a formal government. The idea reminded some people of ideas put forward by anarchists (people who believed that society should be organized around voluntary associations, rather than large government organizations) in the nineteenth century. To others, the new name seemed more symbolic than evidence of a real change.

As the leader of Libya, Qaddafi took steps to introduce Bedouin values and Islamic rules into everyday life. He issued decrees to make Islamic law (called Sharia ) the basis for all laws and to practice a "pure" form of Islam. He banned alcohol, nightclubs, and immodest dress and behavior in public and began to use traditional Islamic punishments, such as cutting off the hand of a convicted thief or whipping people caught eating during the day in the month-long fasting period of Ramadan. Some of Qaddafi's decisions had confusing, even comical results, such as his order that Libya would observe the Islamic calendar (see box).

Qaddafi also set up religious schools to train Islamic teachers to spread his views of how Islam should govern into other countries, as well as to bring Islam into Africa to replace Christianity, which European missionaries had introduced in the nineteenth century. With Libya's oil money, he founded and paid for the Islamic Mission Society to build and repair mosques (Muslim houses of worship) and education centers around the world, from Vienna, Austria, to Bangkok, Thailand. These efforts were often unwelcome in other Muslim countries, which viewed them as attempts to take a hand in their internal affairs.

In the 1990s Qaddafi's views on Islam came into conflict with traditional Islamic religious figures, as well as with fundamentalist (extremely strict) Islamic organizations such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. While the Muslim Brotherhood often used terrorist tactics to spread the influence of Islam, Qaddafi insisted that Islam should be promoted in the open. By the 1990s radical (extremist) Islamists began to launch terrorist attacks against the Libyan government.

Islamic socialism

Although Qaddafi rejected communism because communists supported atheism, or a belief that there is no God, he believed in socialism, the economic system of which communism was an offshoot, just as Egypt's Nasser had. Starting in 1969, his new government took over many privately owned companies, including part of the oil industry, in which American oil companies had a major stake. This greatly increased Libya's income from oil. Qaddafi's takeover of American property upset the United States, which opposed socialism wherever it appeared. To make relations with the United States worse, Qaddafi insisted that American military forces leave all their bases in Libya, including the giant Wheelus Air Force Base.

Qaddafi put some of the state-owned oil income to use in improving the lives of his countrymen. He built roads and schools and provided a wide range of benefits for ordinary citizens. This made Qaddafi widely popular in the country. He was viewed as "the Leader" who took back from foreign powers what rightfully belonged to all Libyans and used it to improve their lives.

Creating a single Arab nation

In 1970 Qaddafi began talks with leaders of Egypt and the Sudan (and later Syria) to create a single Arab country. An agreement was announced in April 1971 for Libya, Egypt, and Syria to create the Federation of Arab Republics. Officially the federation came into existence on January 1, 1972, led by Egypt's President Anwar el-Sadat (1918–1981). But Sadat and Qaddafi soon disagreed on how quickly the countries should merge. In October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a war against Israel (called the Yom Kippur War), but they left out Libya, to Qaddafi's intense irritation. Relations soured to the extent that Libya and Egypt fought a brief war along their border in 1977. The idea of the federation finally broke down completely in 1978, after Sadat negotiated a peace treaty with Israel.

Efforts by Qaddafi to unite with Tunisia, a neighboring Arab state, and with Syria without Egypt, also failed. In the 1980s Qaddafi unsuccessfully tried to form alliances with African states south of the Sahara desert.

Foreign relations and terrorism

Qaddafi had long opposed American and British influence in Libya. His insisting that the United States and its ally Great Britain abandon their bases in Libya combined with the seizure of property of American oil companies (along with most property owned by foreigners) soon made Qaddafi highly unpopular with the government of the United States.

In addition to spending on his countrymen, Qaddafi also used part of Libya's oil money to finance foreign groups fighting what he called "wars of national liberation" against the European powers. Qaddafi's contributions helped buy arms for use in terrorist attacks. Dozens of groups received Libyan aid, including the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was fighting against British rule in Northern Ireland, and a variety of organizations fighting against Israel under the banner of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). After disastrous wars between Arab nations and Israel in 1967 and 1973, terrorism became the principal tactic in the Palestinians' fight to destroy Israel and replace it with a Palestinian nation.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, a variety of Palestinian groups accounted for many terrorist actions in the Middle East and in Europe. Libya was closely associated with these groups through its financial support. Qaddafi also set up training camps for terrorists in the Libyan desert.

Aid to terrorist groups

Libya has been accused of supporting a wide range of terrorist organizations around the world, about fifty groups altogether. In the Middle East, these groups include the PLO, Hamas, and the Abu Nidal Organization. In Europe, the list includes the IRA and the Red Brigades in Italy. In Asia, it includes Islamic terrorist groups in the Philippines and radicals active in Japan.

In 1976 Libya and Algeria secretly agreed to provide guns and money to help groups in Europe that were seeking

independence from Spain and France. These included the Basques in Spain and Bretons and Corsicans in France.

In the Western hemisphere, Libya has sent money to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (a socialist party that the United States fought secretly in the 1980s) and to other left-wing groups in El Salvador. In 1983 a planeload of Libyan supplies meant for a Colombia guerrilla group called M19 landed in Brazil.

In September 1986 Qaddafi declared in a speech to the Organization of Non-Aligned States that he would "do everything in my power to divide the world into imperialists and freedom-fighters." (An imperialist nation is one that tries to extend its power by conquering or controlling other countries.) Groups that attacked the "imperialists" (first and fore-most the United States, in his view) were entirely justified in their actions. "National liberation," he said, "can only be achieved through armed struggle."

Some analysts believe the wide range of groups supported by Qaddafi reveals his interest in attacking countries he sees as hostile to his government, rather than support for the terrorists he helps bankroll.

State terrorism

Qaddafi has also been accused of taking part directly in terrorist attacks. On April 5, 1986, a Libyan terrorist planted a 5-pound (2.3-kilogram) bomb in the Labelle Disco, a nightclub in West Berlin, Germany, that was popular with American soldiers. The explosion killed two American soldiers and a Turkish woman and injured more than two hundred others, including seventy-two Americans. The bombing was apparently revenge for an attack the month before, in which U.S. planes sank two Libyan patrol boats in the Gulf of Sirte in the Mediterranean. Libya had claimed control of the gulf in 1981, and the United States had been challenging this claim ever since. (Fifteen years later, the United States got proof that agents from Libya's embassy in East Germany were indeed responsible for the Berlin bombing. They were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to twelve to fourteen years in prison.)

Ten days after the nightclub attack, U.S. Air Force jets bombed Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and the city of Benghazi. Their target apparently was Qaddafi himself. Although the Libyan leader escaped unharmed, the attack killed fifteen civilians, including Qaddafi's young adopted daughter.

On December 21, 1988, a bomb exploded on Pan American Flight 103 from London, England, to New York. The explosion killed 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground in the village of Lockerbie, Scotland. After a long investigation, American and British investigators determined that Libyan agents were responsible and demanded that Qaddafi hand over two suspects. Qaddafi refused, and in 1992 the United States and Britain persuaded the United Nations (UN) to ban foreign trade with Libya until the suspects were handed over. This finally happened in April 1999. The two were tried in the Netherlands by Scottish judges; one was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The Pan Am attack was not the only such incident blamed on Libya. The following year, 1989, Libyan agents blew up a French airliner over the African country of Niger, killing 171 people, including 6 Americans. A decade later, France convicted six Libyans in absentia (in their absence) of the crime, including Qaddafi's brother-in-law. Shortly afterward the Libyan government effectively admitted its role by paying $31 million to the relatives of those killed.

The economic sanctions put into place by the United Nations proved costly to Qaddafi. The Pan Am bombing was widely criticized, and Libya became cut off from other countries. Qaddafi's long dream of uniting countries under his Third Universal Theory gained no ground, and Qaddafi lost his role as a leader of national liberation movements. In addition, international oil prices dropped and Libya's oil production fell, meaning much less money was available to finance Qaddafi's schemes at home and abroad. Many observers thought his decision to hand over the Pan Am bombing suspects in 1999 was evidence that he had changed his mind about supporting terrorism, and saw it as his bid to build more normal relations with other countries. But as the twenty-first century began, the UN sanctions against Libya continued.

For More Information


Blundy, David, and Andrew Lycett. Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution. New York: Little, Brown, 1987.

Cooley, John K. Libyan Sandstorm. New York: Hold, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982.

Tanter, Raymond. Rogue Regimes: Terrorism and Proliferation. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.


Borrel, John, and George Church. "Targeting Gaddafi: Reagan Readies Revenge on a 'Mad Dog.'" Time, April 21, 1986, p. 18.

Cooley, John K. "The Libyan Menace." Foreign Policy, Spring 1981, p. 74.

"Gaddafi of Libya: Prophet of Outrage," Life, February 1980, p. 102.

Grogan, David. "A Jackal at Bay." People Weekly, May 5, 1986, p. 42.

"Qaddafi, Muammar al." Current Biography, March 1992, p. 39.

"Survey of Arab Affairs." Jerusalem Letters/Viewpoints, June 1, 1992.

Takeyh, Ray. "The Rogue Who Came in from the Cold." Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2001, p. 62.