Family May 2012

The Despot’s Child

Bad tidings reach Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saadi.
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©2012 Michael Christopher Brown

The night before his father died, as the sun was going down and I was dozing off, Saadi Qaddafi texted me to come to him.

I descended the stairs from my bedroom and walked out into the warm evening air, crossing the yard of the government compound in Niger where we were both staying. Saadi, my former boss, was in his fifth week under house arrest here; I had recently arrived for a visit.

As-salaam alaikum,” I said, walking to the sitting area he had set up under a tree, complete with a table and prayer mats. I slipped off my shoes and padded over a mattress to the chair next to him.

Alaikum salaam,” Saadi replied, smiling. As we sat chatting in the dusk, I tried to answer his questions about what was going on in the outside world, but I had trouble concentrating. I couldn’t stop thinking about how different he was from the self-assured man I had met the year before. Although a turban covered his head and much of his face, his eyes gave him away: he was scared.

Saadi and I were introduced by a friend of mine from Los Angeles who had been hired as his assistant. In early 2010, she recommended me for a position coordinating investment in a free-trade zone he was spearheading. At first it sounded like a normal office job, except that the office was in central Tripoli, the 36-year-old boss was the third of Muammar Qaddafi’s eight children, and the project’s mission was to help bring Libya into the 21st century. Intrigued, I flew to Tripoli.

When fighting broke out in eastern Libya in February 2011, everything changed overnight, including my job. Saadi, whose father had in November given him the title of special-forces commander in Benghazi, asked me to drop my work and help the Libyan government with press outreach. It was a strange new role, in which I found myself doing heady things (setting up interviews with Christiane Amanpour, for example). But as the war spread, I grew increasingly uneasy about my position. There was no way around the fact that I was working for Public Enemy No. 1. I quit, and decided to use my new connections to try to help facilitate peace.

As I traveled back and forth between Libya, Europe, and the United States in the months that followed, I stayed in close touch with Saadi. We had become good friends, and we naively believed that we could help negotiate his father’s departure from power. It wasn’t until August, when Tripoli finally fell, that Saadi recognized that nothing would ever be the same. As the city tipped into chaos, he and an entourage of younger cousins and friends fled, embarking on a journey through the southern Saharan desert that ended in early September with their detention by authorities in Niger. Later that month, Interpol handed down a warrant for his arrest, on charges—which Saadi has vehemently denied—of misappropriating property through force and armed intimidation a few years earlier, while he was head of the Libyan Football Federation.

All of which is how I came, last October, to be visiting Saadi at a dusty, run-down Nigerien compound populated by an assortment of government guards, Qaddafi cousins, servants (who offered me a daily stream of marriage proposals), and the occasional goat. I had traveled here to help Saadi hire a lawyer and, with any luck, to coax him into cooperating with the international community.

But the visit took a sudden turn when, the morning after my twilight chat with Saadi, my phone rang. It was a close friend, a journalist who was in Libya. “Jackie, can you hear me?” She was talking very fast. “They got Saadi’s dad. He was captured in Sirte.” I didn’t believe her at first; every time I’d turned on the television that fall, someone had been prematurely proclaiming the capture of one of the Qaddafis. But she paused, and I knew then that this was different.

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