Tracking Qaddafi's Most Elusive Son

Khamis Qaddafi, leader of the feared Khamis Brigade, is leaving a trail of death and rumor across Libya

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A rebel fighter looks at burnt bodies at the Khamis military encampment in southern Tripoli / Reuters

In November 2009, the U.S. ambassador to Libya typed up a memo, later released by WikiLeaks, speculating on which of Muammaer Qaddafi's sons would prevail in a succession battle for rule over Libya. The two leading candidates represented the dual public faces of their father's regime: Saif, the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing "reformer" and outsider who spent most of his time in Europe; and Mutassim, the sneering nationalist and regime insider once described as "a bloody man and not terribly bright."

The memo mentioned a third son who, though not in line for succession and one of the family's youngest, was poised to play a powerful background in either regime: Khamis Qaddafi, a 28-year-old military commander whose name has become synonymous with the violence and secrecy of Qaddafi's regime. His eponymous 32nd "Khamis" Brigade is "widely known to be the most well-trained and well-equipped force in the Libyan military," the memo noted, and holds "access to some of the most important military and security elements of the regime."

Since the Libyan uprisings began in February 2011, Khamis's name has been cited -- whispered, often -- in connection with some of the bloodiest incidents of violence against peaceful protesters and armed rebels alike. Since the fall of Tripoli one week ago, scattered and unreliable rebels reports have placed the Khamis Brigade seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once; on the run in one part of town and on the offensive in another.

It would have been easy to dismiss the reports altogether if not for Human Rights Watch's discovery, in a Tripoli suburb, of "the charred skeletal remains of approximately 45 bodies, still smoldering" in a warehouse that appears to belong to the Khamis Brigade. The building adjoins a military compound and had "32nd Brigade" spraypainted on the side. Witnesses described soldiers trapping civilians -- possibly as many as 130 -- inside the building, climbing onto the roof, and staging a mass execution with rifles and hand grenades.

Rumors and bodies, both features of Muammar Qaddafi's Libya for most of his 42 years in power, have long followed in the wake of his son Khamis. On Monday, a few hours after Human Rights Watch released their report, rebel leaders told journalists from Reuters, Sky News, and Al Arabiya that they had killed Khamis. It was the third such rebel-touted report of his death, and as before, no evidence has been provided. The previous two announcements were later retracted as propaganda, perhaps disseminated by regime loyalists to ease Khamis's latest getaway.

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Khamis Qaddafi / Facebook

Information about this shadowy regime figure was sparse and difficult to confirm even before Libya's civil war. Educated on military affairs and strategy in Russia, he has a reputation for seriousness and for avoiding the European parties and tabloid scandals in which his six brothers -- even "serious" Saif and Mutassim -- have at one point or another participated. In the weeks before the Libyan uprisings began, Khamis was reportedly touring the U.S. as an "intern" with AECOM Technology Corporation, an infrastructure development company with business ties in Libya. According to a report in the UK Telegraph, Khamis's internship included visits to U.S. military facilities.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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