A violently shaking cell phone video shows a bloodied, balding man as Kalashnikov rounds soar through the air all around him. “Allahu akbar” his tormentors yell. One can nearly smell the gunpowder and feel the adrenalin of the National Transitional Council fighters.
A bloodied Muammar al-Gaddafi struggles through his last moments on earth. The longest-serving ruler (42 years) in Africa’s post-colonial history was confirmed dead shortly thereafter.
After overthrowing the Sanussi monarchy of King Idris on September 1, 1969, in a bloodless coup, Gaddafi carefully erected a personality cult that enshrined him as leader for life. In his transformation from an ambitious yet supposedly humble colonel in the Libyan armed forces to his confrontation with the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1980s, he became the caricature of a Third World tyrant.
The braided epaulets, hats worthy of a North Korean general and countless pairs of gaudy sunglasses became his trademark look. The “Brotherly Leader” as he often referred to himself projected terror in the West and throughout his beloved Africa. Comedians thought him a North African Liberace fit for endless lampooning and American president Ronald Reagan deemed him a “Mad Dog”.
What all of this helped to do, though, was provide cover for the terror Gaddafi inflicted on the people of Libya for decades inside his hermetically sealed desert police state.
The roots of Gaddafi’s undoing lay not in the fall of either Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Nor was it the slaughter of protesters that ignited the battle for the katiba(army barracks) that kicked off the February 17 revolution.
Now appearing to be in its final formal stage, the demise of Gaddafi may be rooted in an event little-known outside of Libya. According to protesters Asia Times Online spoke with in Benghazi in mid-March, the catalyst for the end of Gaddafi’s rule began 15 years ago with the massacre of over an estimated 1,200 inmates at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison.
The Abu Salim massacre, as it became known, polarized Libyan society and created a fissure in the national psyche as never before. People milling about the exterior of Benghazi’s maqama(courthouse) poured over images of local “martyrs”, those men killed on June 29, 1996, after an uprising begun the previous day caused prison authorities to lose control of parts of the compound.
The official line pedaled by Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the then softer, friendlier face of the Gaddafi regime, which was silent on the incident for many years after it was alleged to have taken place, propagated that the Abu Salim incident was in fact carried out by hardcore jihadis belonging to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which sought to ultimately topple the regime.
Gaddafi’s most prominent, quotable son had become a “reformist” and sought to half-heartedly investigate Abu Salim, according to a Reuters report from September 2009.
Some skeptics doubt the veracity of the Abu Salim claims made by victims’ relatives because even in revolutionary Libya, hard evidence of the massacre is scant at best. When a member of the regime did shed a sliver of light on the incident in a 2003 Human Rights Watch report, it was couched in the fashionable speak of the “war on terror” music-to-the-ears of Western governments: “Among the escapees were men who then fought with Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.” 
With so many top regime figures being killed rather than captured and tried, the truth about Abu Salim may never be known. Revenge, rather than truth and reconciliation, is the order of the day in revolutionary Libya.
The raison d’etre behind the initial unrest may have become a footnote in the history of the very fast-paced Libyan conflict, but it should be remembered that the spark lay in the macabre warrens of Abu Salim on the other side of the Gulf of Sidra.
A small group of feisty lawyers demonstrated for the release of a human-rights lawyer called Fathi Terbel, who had been arrested by the regime. Terbel represented Abu Salim families seeking information on the whereabouts of their sons, brothers and fathers. The lawyers in front of the maqama attracted hundreds of people on February 15. Within days, a regime inept at countering social media had lost control of the country’s second-largest city. Abu Salim occurred at the dawn of the Internet in the West and long before it reached Libya.
The collective open wound, however, ceased to heal. Gaddafi’s response? Shutting off the online connection to all of Cyrenaica. It was the cyber-war that gave the rebels the edge. Soon, a satellite link from the United Arab Emirates turned the cold, dusty hallways of the maqama into a media center for journalists from all over the war – no minders needed.
The regime in Tripoli hit back with dictatorship 1.0 tactics like dramatic, staged press conferences and taking foreign reporters on dog-and-pony show tours as if it was still 1986. Gaddafi rose to power in an era when constructing a tightly controlled mukhabarat (intelligence) state in the Arab world was an entirely realistic system of repressive governance.
The technology that emanated from Silicon Valley to Scandinavia freed the vast human prison that was Libya while concomitantly isolating its calcifying leader. Libya’s first demonstrators were not calling for a parliamentary democracy in mid-February. They wanted answers about the victims of a poorly documented massacre that occurred a decade and a half earlier.
Militarily, it was quite far-fetched that Libya’s sudden out-gunned rebels could overthrow the colonel’s regime. Sweeping early successes that appeared deceptively easy were met with fierce counter-attacks from air, land and sea.
Asia Times Online witnessed the first rebel victory in the oil terminal port of Brega on March 2. Over-excited men fresh from the battle spoke of conquering Tripoli in short order. What stood in their way, aside from their much better equipped opponents, was Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace and where he was captured.
The rebels deftly solicited help from the international community. An awkward coalition soon appeared at the eleventh hour with Benghazi on the edge of a siege. The intervention was framed in terms of globalist humanitarian speak that was immediately transparent.
Whether it was driven by oil interests – France, stemming a potentially overwhelming human migration onto the European Union’s under policed southern tier, Italy – or competing for credibility in the Arab world, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the Libyan war became one of interests rather than ethics.
Legitimacy was lent by a cavalcade of international actors. The United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Arab League all condemned Gaddafi when it was clear he could no longer be useful to their constituents.
It was not long ago that Gaddafi was being praised for giving up his nascent weapons of mass destruction or sidling up to the administration of George W Bush in its disastrous “war on terror”.
The “Mad Dog” of his father’s boss had become a partner in that “war”. Those with impatient recollections viewed the non-suicide bomber terrorism Gaddafi wreaked on the world as a quaint anachronism in light of Mohammed Atta crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
In this thinking, al-Qaeda members were entirely irrational “evildoers” who could never be negotiated with while an advocate of state terror like Gaddafi was a comparatively rational actor who could not only be dealt with but should be dealt with in a borderless, nebulous terror war with no end in sight.
Gaddafi played good cop/bad cop masterfully, stoking conflicts around the world on and off for decades while also promoting himself as a peacemaker to said conflicts with perhaps the Muslim separatist conflict in the southern Philippines a prominent example.
Despite all the imaginative talk of bringing the Libyan leader to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to be tried on the world stage – a theater Gaddafi played in all too well – it was mostly cover for a war designed to kill him.
NATO repeatedly claimed through its engagement that its sole aim was the protection of Libyan civilians, but it became quickly evident that armed humanitarian interventionism had made NATO a belligerent in the conflict.
Asia Times Online witnessed NATO fighter jets pounding Gaddafi loyalist positions on July 28 in a coordinated offensive with National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters replete with American intelligence officers who appeared to be providing real-time battlefield intelligence to their superiors.
The United States had suddenly taken a side in a conflict that had a suicide bomber – normally considered the most abhorrent, incomprehensible form of Islamist terror – as one of its principal martyrs. The curious case of Madhi Ziu is little mentioned in the war.
An employee of the Libyan state oil company purportedly blew himself up using a suicide car bomb to blast open the gates of Benghazi’s katiba, a key tactical success that NTC representatives said led to the fall of Benghazi.
Dubbed the “Hero of Benghazi” and lionized on posters in eastern Libya, the West was now in league with a movement that held up a suicide bomber as someone worth emulating. Those who carried out suicide bombings were usually categorized as either unspeakable monsters or sexually frustrated brainwashed teenagers best liquidated before they could act.
Contrary to the prevailing narrative about the motivations of suicide bombers, one editorial managed to describe Ziu not as a suicide bomber but as a committed man who carried out an “important act of self-martyrdom”. It is all a matter of perspective.
It did not appear to be the type of humanitarianism advocated from the pouty lips of Angelina Jolie. Gaddafi was to die. That objective may have been danced around by NATO spokesmen and various government officials involved in the coalition, but the NTC men in battle were bound by the niceties of such Western legalisms.
Each day as the war ground on, NTC fighters would scream, “We kill Gaddafi!” coupled with the requisite chants of “God is Greatest” while hot automatic rounds shredded the stiflingly hot air. Revenge for the crimes committed at the infamous Tripoli prison was on the docket and the sentence for Africa’s longest-serving dictator was an assured humiliating, very public death.
The quixotic leader published his Green Book (actually a serial in three successive volumes), a sort of Arab-nationalist-socialist take on Chairman Mao Zse Tung’s Little Red Book.
The Green Book espoused a desert egalitarianism with a “tribal ethos” aimed at eschewing both Western capitalism and Soviet communism with his “Third Universal Theory”, according to Libya historian Dirk Vandewalle of Dartmouth University. 
The Green Book came off as a collection of semi-incoherent diatribes as opposed to a well-defined manifesto. One of the themes Gaddafi emphasized was the idea of atomized individual authority in a society heavily imbued with the tribal structure Gaddafi skillfully manipulated for over 40 years.
The only individuals who retained any authority in Libya were Gaddafi and his sons. One if the initial locales wrecked during the fall of Benghazi was a building dedicated to propagating the Green Book. The book and its slogans painted up around the country had come to represent much of what the Libyan people resented about their perpetually unelected leader.
Early on the morning of October 20, amid the ruins of Sirte, a fourth and final installment of the Green Book was written. Gaddafi was killed by jubilant rebels-cum-NTC government forces. The imagery of his last moments (and subsequent) corpse were broadcast to the world via Youtube and pan-Arab satellite television, captured on a mobile phone.
The man who survived coup and assassination attempts and outlived his nemesis Ronald Reagan, could not survive in an era driven by social media backed by mobile technology that the rebel movement so calculatingly exploited.
Gaddafi’s closed society was no more. Nor could Gaddafi outlast the lingering anguish from years of terrorizing the people of Libya. This pain permeating Libyan society stoked the pervasive rage that would finally kill the man who ruled Libya for 42 years.
Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and South and Central Asia and is the editor of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor. He blogs at the-war-diaries.com. Follow Derek on Twiiter @DerekHenryFlood
1. See Human Rights Watch, “Libya: June 1996 Killings at Abu Salim Prison,” 2003, available online at www.hrw.org/legacy/english/docs/2006/06/28/libya13636_txt.htm.
2. Dirk J Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp.97, 102-103.