Qaddafi Was Captured Alive—Who Killed Him?

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Libya's rebels, the U.S., and NATO may all hold responsibility for the death -- perhaps by execution -- of a man they'd pledged to bring to trial

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The body of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is displayed at a house in Misrata / Reuters

A few hours after the first photos emerged showing former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's lifeless body, a YouTube user named "freemisrata" posted a video appearing to show one of Qaddafi's last living minutes. The New York Times noted of the video, which was quickly broadcast on CNN and Al Jazeera English, "The man's injuries and clothing match those of the man said to be Colonel Qaddafi who appeared to be dead in video that emerged online earlier on Thursday." The man, who bears an incredible resemblance to Qaddafi, appears bloody and terrified but still well enough to walk. He is surrounded by a tight crowd of screaming, angry, armed young men. Immediately after the camera cuts away, a burst of gunfire can be heard off-screen, although as the Times notes it may have been celebratory. The video, which is graphic and disturbing, is below.

At first, members of the new Libyan government had said that Qaddafi had been seized after a firefight, but they changed their story after this video's emergence. "They captured him alive and while he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him," a senior member of Libya's transitional government told Reuters. The rebel fighters who captured Qaddafi found him hiding in a large concrete drainage pipe beneath a highway in the town of Sirte, photos of which are here.

How did Qaddafi end up hiding in a concrete pipe? The space is clearly too small and too unguarded to be a long-term hideaway like Saddam Hussein's desert spiderhole. News reports have claimed that the rebels initially found Qaddafi while he was traveling in a convoy. Late today, after hours of refusing to comment on the Libyan's death, U.S. officials started suggesting they might have played a very direct role. "US officials tell NBC News a US Predator drone fired a hellfire missile at convoy carrying Khadafy, who was then captured by rebels," NBC News' Ann Curry reported on Twitter. A NATO spokesperson acknowledged they had fired on a convoy.

If the U.S. and/or NATO had fired on Qaddafi convoy, this would certainly explain why rebels might find their former leader bloodied and crawling off of a road into a concrete drain pipe. It would also suggest that, even if the U.S./NATO attack wasn't trying to kill Qaddafi (though how you bomb someone's car in a way that isn't also trying to kill him is a mystery), it played a direct role in the demise he met soon after.

What did happen to Qaddafi after the video above cut away? No one can seem to say for sure. Libyan interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril admitted late on Thursday that Qaddafi had been found alive but insisted he had been killed accidentally. "There was cross-fire and he was shot while they were carrying him to a truck," Jibril said. It's of course possible that this is accurate, but it's difficult to imagine what crossfire there might have been. The above video showed dozens of rebels crowded around Qaddafi and no pro-Qaddafi troops in sight. How, exactly, do two bullets of "crossfire" happen to wiz their way through such a dense crowd and just happen to strike Qaddafi in the head and chest?

Jibril told NPR, "Nobody can tell if the shot was from the rebel fighters or from his own security guard." By his own security guard? At least they're not claiming suicide.

Revolutions are messy at best, especially when they're led by an irregular and informally organized force of civilians who have picked up Kalashnikovs and titled themselves revolutionaries. It's not exactly a surprise that a group of angry young men would choose not to respect the rule of law at a moment of eye-to-eye contact with -- and absolute power over -- the brutal dictator who had so relentlessly ruined their country, their lives, and their families' lives. It would not have been difficult to predict, in other words, that despite the interim government's many assurances of a peaceful and orderly civilian trial for Qaddafi, that in the end the angry young men with guns -- who, after all, have led this movement from the beginning -- would win out.

Still, the rule of law matters, and not just within Libya. The U.S. and European mission in Libya was premised on international law form the beginning: a resolution from the United Nations Security Council, the UN doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect," as close as Libya could possibly get to offering NATO a popular rejection of Qaddafi and a stated invitation for outside intervention. And though NATO's mission clearly and rapidly expanded beyond the spirit of the UN-approved "no-fly zone," at least it remained within the letter of the resolution and within the framework of an internationally approved and Libyan-approved action. U.S. and European leaders also cited, as a premise of their intervention, the International Criminal Court warrants out for the arrest and trial of Qaddafi, son Saif, and intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi. Both NATO and Libya's rebel leaders pledged to bring Qaddafi before a courtroom of some kind, whether in Libya or in The Hague. But the men on the ground don't appear to have given this much mind.

For all the meticulous legality and diplomatic decorum of this war's start, its end was as dirty as they come: the former leader of a nation hauled off the back of a truck and shot by an angry mob that was appointed by no one and accountable to nothing. It's an inauspicious start for what the interim Libyan leadership also said was the same moment that formal political transition began.

Late on Thursday, another video emerged, this one showing son Muatassim Qaddafi apparently alive in rebel custody. Muatassim, like father Muammar, was later killed.

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

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