Qaddafi's Endgame

There's no telling what his plans are, but some information suggests he may be hiding in the journalist-filled Rixos Hotel

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As Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi nears the end of this second day in hiding, what is he thinking? Not only does no one seem to know Qaddafi's exact location -- his plan remains a mystery as well. It's possible that he has no plan at all, no goal other than to go down slugging. But Qaddafi, for all his bluster, has never really governed like the fiery man of passion and conviction that he often portrays himself to be. His four-decade rule is a model of brutality, corruption, and cruelty, yes, but also of calculating, even brilliant, shrewdness and cunning. (His dramatic show of being a wild-eyed buffoon, though often convincing, seemed more smokescreen than reality.) Few modern leaders knew how to hold power and protect his own interests like Qaddafi. Would he really have snapped and simply given up? Has he seen the end and decided to martyr himself against the NATO and rebel forces? Or is this all part of some last-ditch ploy?

It certainly looks like Qaddafi is bunkering up for one final stand. According to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian head of the World Chess Federation and a friend of Qaddafi's, the Libyan leader today told Ilyumzhinov that he is still in Tripoli. He's almost certainly still in Libya, as U.S. officials believe; the man has few other places he can go and, with rebels controlling all exit points, no way to get there. His forces still control his hometown of Surte and parts of Tripoli, including the area surrounding the Bab al-Aziziya military compound. Rebels have breached the first of its three gates, Al Jazeera Arabic reporters say they have entered Qaddafi's personal home there, and it's likely only a matter of time before rebels control the sprawling compound.

If Qaddafi is in Bab al-Aziziya as some observers believe, what's his plan? The compound has long been rumored to sit atop 20 miles of underground tunnels leading across the city. Nearby and also under the control of loyalist forces is the swanky Rixos Hotel, where a number of Western journalists are being held in a state of de facto captivity by armed guards. The hotel has also served at times as an informal command or communications center, with state-run TV broadcasting from its studio there or members of the Qaddafi family occasionally holing up. In May, while Qaddafi was dodging NATO bombing runs, he managed to sneak into the journalist-filled Rixos to record a video message. Could he be there now, hiding from rebels and NATO? That would help explain why loyalist troops are so fervently keeping the Western journalists locked up in the hotel, unwitting human shields NATO would never dare to endanger.

For its part, after months of trying to kill Qaddafi, NATO has suddenly decided they're no longer interested. "I don't think it really matters," NATO spokesman for the Libya operation Colonel Roland Lavoie told reporters of the Libyan leader's location. "If you know, let me know." That's an odd position for a military mission designed to dislodge Qaddafi, and backed by U.S. President Barack Obama and others who are still calling for Qaddafi. Could this sudden nonchalance be because NATO suspects (or knows?) that Qaddafi is someplace where they can't touch him? If he is in the Rixos, NATO could do little about it, and the Western alliance would likely want to make sure that Libyan rebels don't find out and make a sure-to-be-bloody run on the Westerner-filled hotel.

But even if Qaddafi's not really at the Rixos -- it's just a theory -- NATO has been aggressively bombing Bab al-Aziziya all day. It seems unlikely they would do so if they thought Qaddafi might be there. If a French bomb kills Qaddafi before Libyan rebels can lay their hands on him, it would undermine the entire narrative that NATO has so painstakingly worked to sustain: that Western powers are only providing background assistance in a fundamentally Libyan uprising. Those months of political and military contortions -- securing the proper UN approval, waiting for a Libyan opposition body to request help, keeping boots off the ground, securing support from other Arab states -- could be largely undone if a European fighter jet delivers the war's final blow. It's hard to believe, then, that NATO would be so cavalier about bombing Bab al-Aziziya unless they knew he was absent from the compound; and how could they possibly know he was absent unless they could be sure he was somewhere else?

Wherever in Libya Qaddafi might be, what could he be holding out for? Occasional press reports of peace talks and of floated deals suggest that negotiations between Qaddafi and NATO have been ongoing for some time. Perhaps Qaddafi, whose post-Libya options are severely restricted by an ICC arrest warrant and a lifetime of alienating foreign governments, is hoping for a peace deal that will allow him and his family to survive the revolution. There's not much leverage he has left except for the threat of sustained violence -- loyalist troops could continue terrorizing Tripoli for some time -- and the Western journalists held at the Rixos. Is that enough for Qaddafi to get what he wants? Could he believe it just might work?

As is so often the case with Libya, it's easy to get lost in the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and information-parsing. But it's difficult to believe that Qaddafi would hold on for so long without a plan, just as it's difficult to believe that NATO would so severely bomb the Bab al-Aziziya compound unless they felt certain it wouldn't kill the Libyan leader. What those two pieces of information really mean, only time will tell.