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.
“There are pictures,” she said. “Go to your computer.” I looked across the compound toward Saadi, who was sitting in his usual spot, speaking casually into his phone, the sun beating down on him. I walked upstairs slowly, not wanting to seem upset, and opened my laptop.
I gasped. A beaten and bloody Muammar Qaddafi lay sprawled across the screen, his lips parted, his eyes vacant. I sat there, frozen in disbelief, until the thought of Saadi, outside with his iPhone, snapped me back. I hurried downstairs and across the grounds to where Saadi was sitting. I didn’t want to tell him that his father had died, but I had to make sure he didn’t see these pictures.