Moammar Gadhafi: 1942-2011

After two months in hiding, the ex-Libyan leader was killed in an attack outside his hometown of Sirte. CBC News takes a look back at his notorious career, from his 1969 coup to his late attempts at improving his image.

Gadhafi: 1942-2011

11 years ago
Duration 3:06
Moammar Gadhafi rose from junior officer to overthrow a king and become supreme ruler of Libya

Col. Moammar Muhammad al-Gadhafi, who ruled Libya for more than 40 years and had links to a number of international bombings, was killed Oct. 20 in an ambush near his hometown of Sirte, according to Mahmoud Jibril, prime minister of the interim Libyan government.

Gadhafi rose from junior officer to overthrow a king and become supreme ruler of Libya in 1969. He spent two decades dogging the West and then sought rapprochement with the very world powers he had spent so many years bedevilling.

In February 2011, the Arab Spring swept into Libya, and Gadhafi found himself the subject of a rebellion. He was torn from power by a scrappy, six-month uprising that saw a ragtag crew of jeans-clad rebels overcome his tank-equipped army and drive into the capital of Tripoli.

After the NATO-backed rebels took Tripoli, the seat of Gadhafi's power, on Aug. 20, the ex-Libyan leader went into hiding. For the next few months, he was rumoured to have found refuge in various countries, including Algeria and Niger.

He managed to disappear for two months, until his convoy was attacked outside Sirte in an onslaught that killed him.

Politically motivated from an early age

Gadhafi was born into a Bedouin family on June 7, 1942. As a teenager, he was deeply involved in political action, having participated in anti-Israel demonstrations during the Suez Crisis.

His thirst for power began while he was attending military college in Greece, where he started making plans to overthrow the Libyan monarchy, led by King Idris I. On Sept. 1, 1969, while Idris was in Turkey, Gadhafi led a small group of junior military officers in a bloodless coup and overthrew the king, establishing the Libyan Arab Republic and installing himself as leader.

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An admirer of Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara, Gadhafi offered aid for others who shared his anti-imperialist, anti-Western views. With Libya's oil fortunes, he was able to help fund numerous African coups, including those led by Uganda's Idi Amin and Liberia's Charles Taylor.

He was a staunch supporter of Arab nationalism, cementing relationships with Syria and Egypt in 1972 and a merger with Tunisia in 1974. Then, taking his cue from Mao's Little Red Book, Gadhafi published his Green Book in 1975, outlining the tenets of his political ideology, which he termed Islamic socialism.

Links to international bombings

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ghadafi's name came up in connection with a number of international terror incidents. He was a major financial backer of the Black September Movement, which was responsible for the attacks at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and which infamously claimed responsibility for the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing; the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland; and the 1989 bombing of a French aircraft over Niger.

His refusal to allow the extradition to the U.S. and Britain of two Libyan nationals involved in the Lockerbie bombing led to severe economic sanctions for Libya. In 2003, Gadhafi made significant steps to warm up his relationship with the West, agreeing to compensate victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism and allowing UN investigators into his country to examine and dismantle weapons of mass destruction.

Gadhafi made further efforts to improve his image in the West, including welcoming dignitaries such as British prime minister Tony Blair in 2007 and former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. On his first-ever visit to the United States, Gadhafi even made a speech to the UN General Assembly in 2009, although he was widely criticized for his rambling.

Even so, he consistently maintained a strict stance against those he deemed to be "enemies" of his revolution and advocated for their death.

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The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Gadhafi, as well as his son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi and brother-in-law Abdullah Senussi, on June 27. The Libyan leader was accused of orchestrating the killing, wounding, arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of civilians during the first 12 days of the popular uprising against his regime that began in February. He was also accused of trying to cover up the alleged crimes.

Gadhafi was elected chairman of the African Union in 2009 and pledged to work toward what he called a United States of Africa. He also used Libya's vast oil fortunes to send aid to countries torn apart by famine and civil war, including Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Arab Spring comes to Libya

After pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew dictators in those countries in January, many Libyans began to agitate for Gadhafi's ouster. 

Responding to the pro-democracy demonstrations that began on Feb. 18, the embattled leader variously accused them of being the work of Western infiltrators, drug-addled youth and al-Qaeda.

Throughout the rebellion, there were conflicting reports about the status of Gadhafi’s sons, with opposition forces often reporting one thing and Gadhafi loyalists suggesting otherwise. In late August, the National Transitional Council announced that son and one-time heir apparent Saif al-Islam had been captured, but he was later seen fighting in Sirte. According to the NTC, Gadhafi's youngest son, Khamis, who commanded one of Libya's military brigades, was killed outside Tripoli on Aug. 29.

The NTC also alleges that son Mo'tassim was killed by Libyan fighters in Sirte on Oct. 20.

Known for his eccentricity

Over the years, his idiosyncrasies were often what kept him in the headlines. He would live in a Bedouin tent in the desert, and travelled through the Sahara in order to make an official state visit to Egypt. Frequently, he rode around on a camel.

Among other things, Gadhafi became known for the coterie of women who surrounded him. His first wife, Fatiha, bore a son, Muhammad, but she and Gadhafi separated after six months. He married his second wife, Safia, in 1971, and they went on to have seven children together, including a daughter, Aisha. (There are conflicting reports about another daughter, Hana, who may have been killed as an infant during a U.S. bombing of Gadhafi's compound in 1986.) 

Gadhafi also had an entourage of female bodyguards, who had to pledge their virginity and a willingness to sacrifice their lives for the Libyan leader if such circumstances arose. In addition, Gadhafi employed Galyna Kolotnytska, a Ukrainian nurse who never left his side, according to a 2010 WikiLeaks cable.

Gadhafi amassed tremendous wealth from Libya's oilfields. When the United States froze his assets in February as the uprising against him took hold, he had at least $29.7 billion in various U.S. banks.