In his first meeting with a foreign journalist in a decade, Seif al-Islam described his years in captivity — and hinted at a bid for Libya’s presidency.
Ten years ago, near the remote Libyan desert town of Awbari, a band of armed rebels ambushed a small convoy that was fleeing south toward Niger. The gunmen stopped the cars and found a youngish bald man with bandages covering his right hand. They saw a face that had been ubiquitous on Libyan state television: Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the second son of the country’s notorious dictator and one of the rebels’ chief targets.
Until the Libyan uprising began, in February 2011, Seif was widely seen in the West as the country’s best hope for incremental reform. With his clean-cut good looks, rimless glasses and impeccable English, he seemed utterly different from his flamboyant, erratic father. Seif had studied at the London School of Economics and spoke the language of democracy and human rights. He cultivated respected political scientists and lectured young Libyans on civics. Some of his Western friends even spoke of him as Libya’s potential savior.
But when the revolution came, Seif enthusiastically joined the Qaddafi regime’s brutal crackdown. The rebels who triumphed nine months later might easily have rewarded him with a summary execution, as they did his father and other high-ranking officials. Instead, Seif had the good luck to be captured by an independent-minded brigade that guarded him from other rebel factions and flew him to Zintan, their home region in the mountains southwest of the capital. Seif was also wanted by the International Criminal Court, and that made him a valuable hostage. The Zintanis kept him as their prisoner even after Libya held elections in 2012.
In the years that followed, Libya fractured into warring militias. Terrorists ransacked the country’s weapons depots, fueling insurgencies and wars across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Human trafficking thrived, sending waves of migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe. ISIS set up a mini-caliphate on the Libyan coast. Slowly, Libyans began to think differently of Seif al-Islam, who prophesied Libya’s fragmentation in the early days of the 2011 revolt. There were reports that he had been freed by his captors, and even that he was planning to run for president. But no one knew where he was.
On a hot, breezy morning this May, I left my Tripoli hotel and got into the back of a beat-up gray sedan. The driver was a man named Salem, whom I had spoken to but never met. I was more than a little nervous. I had spent two and a half years arranging an interview with Seif and spoke with him repeatedly by phone. But now I wondered about the voice on the other end of the line. No foreign journalist had seen him for a decade. Human Rights Watch told me that there had been no proof of life since 2014. Most people I met in Libya said they didn’t know if Seif was dead or alive.
It was the holy month of Ramadan, and the streets of the capital were almost empty of people and cars. We didn’t encounter any of the checkpoints I had expected as we left the city and headed southwest toward the Nafusah Mountains. After about two hours, we climbed slowly through the rust-brown peaks and reached the plateau of Zintan. On the edge of a village, Salem pulled over and told me and the photographer with me, Jehad Nga, to wait.
Not long after, a white Toyota Land Cruiser pulled up behind us, and a man in an immaculate white tunic emerged. He told us to leave our phones in Salem’s car. The Land Cruiser was armored, with doors so heavy that they sealed off all sound from the world outside. Our driver introduced himself as Mohammed, then drove wordlessly for about 20 minutes, entered a gated compound and pulled up in front of an opulent two-story villa. Mohammed opened the front door, and I stepped through a dim entryway.
“Welcome,” a voice said, and a man stepped forward and extended his hand.
There was no doubt that it was Seif, though his face looked older and he had a long, graying beard. His right thumb and forefinger were missing — a result of shrapnel from an airstrike in 2011, he said. He wore a black gulf-style gown with gold fringes, as if he were already a head of state, and a scarf wrapped elegantly around his head. If nothing else, Seif has inherited his father’s sense of theater. He ushered us to a salon, where we sat on new-looking greenish couches. The room was furnished in an expensive, gaudy style, with thick carpets, crystal chandeliers and magenta curtains. A painting of an alpine lake and mountains hung incongruously on the wall. There was no one else in the house.
After an awkward silence, I asked Seif if he was still a prisoner. He told me he was a free man and was organizing a political return. The rebels who arrested him a decade ago became disenchanted with the revolution, he said, and eventually realized that he could be a powerful ally. Seif smiled as he described his transformation from captive to prince in waiting. “Can you imagine?” he said. “The men who used to be my guards are now my friends.”
Seif has made use of his absence from public life, watching the currents of Middle Eastern politics and quietly reorganizing his father’s political force, the Green Movement. He is coy about whether he is running for president, but he believes that his movement can restore the country’s lost unity. His campaign pitch is the kind that has worked in many countries, including our own: The politicians have brought you nothing but misery. It is time for a return to the past. “They raped the country — it’s on its knees,” he told me. “There’s no money, no security. There’s no life here. Go to the gas station — there’s no diesel. We export oil and gas to Italy — we’re lighting half of Italy — and we have blackouts here. It’s more than a failure. It’s a fiasco.”
Ten years after the euphoria of their revolution, most Libyans would probably agree with Seif’s assessment. In Tripoli, the half-built Grand Hotel, a dark gray colossus of raw cinder blocks and cranes overlooking the ocean, is inhabited only by sea gulls. One of many building projects backed by Seif, it has sat untouched since 2011. Scores of other empty hulks mar the Libyan landscape, their foreign backers unwilling to risk another cent in such a volatile place. Some Libyan warlords have become immensely rich — Libya pumps about a million barrels of oil a day — but many people suffer daily power outages that last for hours and struggle to get enough drinking water. Tripoli and other major cities are riddled with bullet holes, reminders of a war that has lasted on and off for most of a decade.
For the moment, the country is at peace. During the three weeks I spent there, I drove all around western Libya without fear of encountering a front line. There is even a semblance of order, with uniformed police officers in the streets and a vast reduction in kidnappings and assassinations. This is largely the work of stubborn United Nations diplomats, who helped broker a cease-fire between the country’s two main factions in October and then cajoled them into a series of meetings that resulted in a temporary unity government. Elections for a new parliament and president are scheduled to take place in December.
Many Libyans fear that the peace will not last. Beneath the facade of unity, Libya is still effectively divided in two, with its eastern half largely controlled by the autocratic military commander Khalifa Hifter. Western leaders do not have “even a millimeter of trust” in Hifter, I was told by the president of Libya’s High Council of State, Khalid Mishri. The elections are not likely to heal that rift. They may even steer the country back toward war if they elevate one of its more divisive figures, and Seif may be the most divisive of them all.
Despite Seif’s ghostlike status, his presidential aspirations are being taken very seriously. During the talks that formed Libya’s current government, Seif’s supporters were allowed to participate, and they have so far maneuvered deftly to beat back election rules that would bar him from running. The limited polling data in Libya suggests that large numbers of Libyans — as much as 57 percent in one region — express “confidence” in him. A more traditional homage to Seif’s political viability came two years ago, when a rival is said to have paid $30 million to have him murdered. (It was not the first attempt on his life.)
Seif’s appeal is rooted in nostalgia for his father’s dictatorship, a feeling that is increasingly common in Libya and across the region. Even in neighboring Tunisia, where the Arab Spring uprisings began in late 2010 and had their lone success story, the most popular political party is now a reactionary group whose leader regularly assails Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution as a catastrophe. I had been in Libya only a few days when I walked into a highway rest stop and found myself watching a speech by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from the 1980s, broadcast by the Green Movement’s Cairo-based TV channel. One night at a Ramadan iftar dinner in Tripoli, I asked four Libyans in their early 20s whom they would choose as president. Three named Seif al-Islam. One Libyan lawyer told me that her own informal efforts to gauge public opinion suggest that eight or nine out of every 10 Libyans would vote for Seif.
A victory for Seif would certainly be a symbolic triumph for Arab autocrats, who share his loathing of the Arab Spring. It would also be welcomed at the Kremlin, which has bolstered strongmen across the Middle East and remains an important military player in Libya, with its own soldiers and about 2,000 mercenaries still on the ground. “The Russians think Seif could win,” a European diplomat with long experience in Libya told me. Seif appears to have other foreign backers; he was cagey with me on that front. Libya has been a proxy battleground in recent years for a number of foreign powers, including Egypt, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. But it is hard to know how much influence they might have on an election. For the United States, which led the NATO campaign that helped oust Seif’s father, the revival of the Qaddafi dynasty would be an embarrassment at the very least.
Seif also faces a serious obstacle from abroad: He is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, based on his role in the 2011 crackdown. He was tried in a separate proceeding in Tripoli in 2015, making appearances by video link from a cage in Zintan, and was convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad. (He is entitled to an appeal under Libyan law.) Seif told me he was confident that these legal issues could be negotiated away if a majority of the Libyan people choose him as their leader.
One of Seif ’s political advantages is his name. Another is the peculiar fact that Muammar el-Qaddafi’s son — the same man who promised “rivers of blood” in a 2011 speech — is now seen by many as the presidential candidate with the cleanest hands. All the other political contenders have compromised themselves much more recently, both with self-dealing and with their connections to the gun-toting thugs once hailed as heroes of the revolution.
‘Can you imagine? The men who used to be my guards are now my friends.’
To many Libyans, Seif al-Islam’s return would be a way of closing the door on a lost decade. They are much less clear about what kind of future he would bring. Seif has always been something of an enigma. Because he was assumed to be Qaddafi’s chosen successor, many people inside and outside the country projected their hopes onto him. Seif encouraged this, setting up a media group called Libya Tomorrow for his pet projects. Although he held no official position in the Qaddafi regime, his father hinted at Seif’s importance by deputizing him to mediate high-profile diplomatic disputes, including Libya’s reparations for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 above Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Seif may also have played a role in his father’s decision to dismantle the country’s weapons of mass destruction.
At the London School of Economics, Seif sought out intellectual mentors, who believed he was sincere in his desire for liberal reform. In 2005, he invited Human Rights Watch to visit the site of a prison massacre. Later, he persuaded his father to release political prisoners, and he publicly called for prison reforms and a constitutional system of government. At a dinner near London in 2003, Seif asked to be seated next to a Jewish congressional staff member from the United States whose boss was a leading advocate for Israel. When the staff member asked what Libya needed most, Seif replied, “Democracy.”
Knowing that the Libyan regime claimed to be democratic, the staff member thought he had misheard.
“Libya needs more democracy?” the staff member asked.
“No,” Seif said. “ ‘More democracy’ would imply that we had some.”
At home, however, his democratic ideas were swatted away by the hard-liners around his father. Critics took to calling him Seif al-Ahlam, or “Seif of dreams.” He had a playboy side: a pair of pet white tigers, reports of lavish birthday parties in St. Tropez and Monaco, hunting trips in Europe and New Zealand. He fought for power with his five brothers, especially Mutassim, a military commander. At times, Seif seemed a little lost, torn between East and West and unsure how to fulfill his father’s expectations.
All the same, Seif should have been the perfect person to broker a compromise between his father’s regime and the rebels of 2011. He was personally close to the leading figures in the protest movement and brought two of them into the Qaddafi regime to help push for reform. Even the Islamists who took part in the 2011 movement were indebted to Seif: He helped organize the amnesty that brought their leaders out of jail before the uprising began.
When the first Arab Spring protests broke out in Tunis in late 2010, Seif welcomed them. He had been feeling frustrated and depressed by the slow pace of change in his father’s regime and had retreated to his luxurious home in London, reluctant to return to Libya. When he did fly back to Tripoli, just after the first protests there in February 2011, he was already formulating a conciliatory speech that addressed protesters’ demands and promised radical changes, according to a longtime friend of Seif’s.
In the first days after his return, Seif told me, he was afraid for the country: “I warned everybody, ‘Speed up the housing projects, the economic reforms, because you don’t know what will happen in the future.’ To abort any conspiracy against Libya. I came to Benghazi and said, ‘We have to speed things up.’ Many elements in the government worked hard against me.”
On Feb. 20, 2011, the Libyan state media announced that Seif would deliver a televised speech. Some Libyans I know thought this was the protest movement’s moment of victory. They expected Seif to announce that his father was stepping down and that he would inaugurate a new era of milder autocracy and neoliberal reforms.
Instead, they turned on their TVs to see Seif slouching at a table with a vast green-and-white world map behind him, the African continent rising from his head like a tower of smoke. He wore a dark suit and tie, and he looked deeply uncomfortable, his chin pressed to his chest. He began by describing the uprisings across the Arab world as a “storm of democracy” that he had expected. But he went on to characterize the protests in Libya, which began only three days earlier with a demonstration in the eastern city of Benghazi, as the work of drug addicts and criminals. He accused Libyans abroad of exploiting the events and fomenting violence. He warned that Libya was unlike Egypt and Tunisia: Because of its tribal roots, it could easily break apart into mini-states and emirates. He predicted civil war, broken borders, mass migration, a sanctuary for terrorist groups.
“All of Libya will be destroyed,” he said. “We will need 40 years to reach an agreement on how to run the country, because today, everyone will want to be president, or emir, and everyone will want to run the country.”
Seif’s apocalyptic speech instantly became one of the uprising’s turning points. It changed his reputation forever. I was in Benghazi just after he delivered it, and the Libyan rebels I knew described the speech as the dropping of a mask: This at last was Seif’s true self. Many believed he was speaking for the regime, issuing a credible threat to wage war. Some of Seif’s old contacts in the West distanced themselves or speculated that he had a gun to his head. Others who had taken money from his foundations paid a price, including the director of the London School of Economics, who resigned in early March that year.
The speech reads a little differently today. Long at odds with the hard-liners, Seif was in no position to be threatening war. Perhaps he understood better than most the nature of the Qaddafi regime, its brittleness and brutality. When I met him in May, Seif told me he delivered the speech not long after visiting his father, and I suspect that was the key to his political turnabout. He remained very proud of it and said that much of what he predicted has come true.
For Seif, the responsibility for Libya’s destruction ultimately lies with the administration of President Barack Obama, not with his father. He may be right. When the Libyan uprising began, the Americans faced the same question they would later confront with Syria: Should you destroy a state if you are not willing to shoulder the burden of rebuilding it? In Syria, the answer would be no. The decision to support the NATO military campaign in Libya was made under enormous pressures, with human rights advocates warning (with contested evidence) of an imminent massacre. The NATO airstrikes in 2011 left parts of Libya in ruins, and the next year the United States essentially abandoned the country after jihadists murdered Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi. During his last year in office, Obama declared that his greatest mistake as president was allowing Libya to fall apart.
There is still disagreement about Obama’s initial decision to get involved. After the NATO bombs started falling, there were efforts to broker a cease-fire, but the rebels insisted that no truce was possible until Qaddafi stepped down. He did not, and Seif was unwilling to betray him.
“They had the whole world with them,” Seif said of the rebels. They had no need to compromise. I sensed some bitterness in his voice when I asked about old colleagues like Mahmoud Jibril, whom Seif recruited as a reformist in 2007 and who later became prime minister in the 2011 rebel council. Seif spoke vaguely about hypocrisy and said the Pan-Arab media had so thoroughly demonized the Qaddafi regime that there was no way for the two sides to talk. The rebels, Seif told me, were bent on destroying the state, and without a state, a tribal society like Libya is lost. “What happened in Libya was not a revolution,” he said. “You can call it a civil war, or days of evil. It’s not a revolution.”
Seif described the spring and summer of 2011 as a surreal parade of crises. Early on, he would visit his father almost every day in a tent on the grounds of his sprawling, high-walled compound, known as Bab al-Aziziya. He met occasionally with members of the international press corps, who were holed up in a Tripoli hotel. Seif says he also fielded phone calls from foreign leaders, who most likely saw him as a conduit to his father. One frequent caller, he told me, was the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “First he was with us and against the Western intervention,” Seif said. “Then he started convincing me to leave the country.” Seif said Erdogan described the uprisings as a foreign plot that had been laid long in advance. Seif’s own view was that the 2011 war arose from a confluence of long-simmering internal tensions and opportunistic foreign players, including President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. “It was many things happening at the same time,” Seif said. “A perfect storm.”
When the rebels closed in on Tripoli in August 2011, Seif told me, he fought briefly at Bab al-Aziziya. He is also said to have made a final appearance to encourage loyalists and hand out weapons in Abu Salim, a Tripoli slum. He then fled to Bani Walid, a regime stronghold to the southeast. He stayed there until mid-October, when a NATO airstrike killed 22 of his followers and left him with a wounded right hand, he said. He fled first to the city of Surt, then to a desert valley, his injured hand growing worse all the time. He got in touch with Abdullah el-Senussi, his father’s intelligence chief, and the two agreed to meet in the lawless southern triangle where Libya borders Algeria and Niger. Seif was on his way there when the Zintan rebels captured him. A few humiliating images trickled into the press: Seif sitting in an armchair surrounded by victorious gunmen, his hand wrapped in white bandages. Seif inside a Soviet-built transport plane, being flown back to Zintan by his captors. And then he disappeared.
The Libyan rebels I knew described the speech as the dropping of a mask: This at last was Seif’s true self.
During the early years of his captivity, Seif told me, he had almost no contact with the outside world. He lived during some of this time in a kind of cave, a basement room cut out of the desert earth below a house in Zintan. There were no windows, and much of the time he did not know if it was day or night. He was utterly alone. He knew he might die at any time, and he became more religious. Then one day in early 2014, he had a visit that changed everything. Two members of the Zintan brigade burst into his tiny room. They were angry and overwrought and wanted to talk.
The two men had participated in the rebellion against Qaddafi, but now the revolutionary unity had collapsed. One of them had a son who was shot in the head during a gun battle with a rival militia from Misurata, a city on the Mediterranean coast. They were bitter, and not just over their personal losses. Hunched over in Seif’s room — there was barely enough space for the three of them — the men cursed the revolution, saying that it had all been a mistake, that Seif and his father were right all along.
Listening to them, Seif told me, he sensed that something was shifting. The revolution was eating its children. Eventually, Libyans would become so disgusted that they would look back on the Qaddafi era with nostalgia. And that, in turn, might give him a chance to reclaim everything he had lost.
Seif’s instincts were right: Libya was on the verge of a momentous transition. The period of hope that followed the revolution lasted through the summer of 2012, when the country held elections that were viewed as more or less free and fair. But later that year, the assassinations and kidnappings grew more frequent. The rebels turned on one another. The jihadists who killed Stevens also terrorized the residents of Benghazi. In 2013, factional leaders from the city of Misurata — who considered themselves guardians of the revolution — helped force through a legal measure that effectively drove their rivals out of the government. By the middle of the following year, when the Zintan rebels visited Seif in his cave, the country was drifting into civil war. Soon there were two rival governments, then three. Beneath the formal political groupings was a mosaic of hundreds of armed factions, with ever-shifting allegiances and feuds.
This remains true today. Libya’s local militias are the country’s most powerful military force and retain an unspoken veto power. While I was in Tripoli in May, a group of militias briefly took over a downtown hotel that is home to some top government officials, in a dispute over control of the Intelligence Ministry. That was followed by a tense meeting that might easily have led to renewed fighting. The government’s relative powerlessness is a source of continuing embarrassment to many Libyan public figures. Most officials avoid even using the word militia, because the armed groups prefer to be known as kataib, or brigades. “Theoretically, the militias are under the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense,” I was told by Khalid Mishri. “But in fact, they are not.”
Among Libyan political figures, one has stood out for his assertive attitude toward the militias, and he is also among Seif’s chief potential rivals for the presidency. He is Fathi Bashagha, a 58-year-old former fighter pilot who served as interior minister for the Tripoli-based government from 2018 until last year. Bashagha is widely considered a competent, honest figure, and he won admirers during trips to Washington and European capitals in 2019 to ask for help in starving the most dangerous militia leaders of funding. He led an effort to build a new police force, part of an initiative to create truly national institutions. This year, when word got out that Bashagha lost his bid to become prime minister in the new transitional government, some militias set off fireworks in celebration.
I met Bashagha one night in May at a hotel in Misurata, his hometown. He is a tall man with close-cut gray hair and an air of earnest sobriety. When I asked about his effort to disarm the militias, he said it remained one of his top priorities. He described a categorization scheme: Those in the green category could be hired into government security bodies, the orange category required retraining and the red category are criminals who must be arrested. He has clearly recited this mantra many times. He was already in campaign mode when I met him, and he has since traveled to Europe to drum up support for his presidential run.
But Bashagha’s own conduct — in office and out — has made clear how difficult it is to escape the militia cycle. He is politically indebted to Misurata’s powerful armed groups, and while he may be willing to confront Tripoli’s militias, few think he would do the same in his own city. Last year, the prime minister of the Tripoli-based government, Fayez al-Sarraj, suspended Bashagha from his duties, citing the violent response to street protests. Bashagha, who was out of Libya at the time, arrived back in the capital and was greeted by a large convoy of Misuratan militia fighters. The message was received, and the prime minister promptly rehired him. This kind of behavior has made Bashagha deeply unpopular among Libyans in other cities who have long resented Misurata’s strong-arm tactics.
Seif’s other great rival is the man who already rules over much of eastern Libya, Khalifa Hifter. Hifter is a 77-year-old military veteran with a broad chest and a jowly face who took part in the 1969 coup that brought Muammar el-Qaddafi to power. Later, Hifter broke with Qaddafi and with the help of the C.I.A. made his way to the United States, where he lived for two decades in Northern Virginia. Hifter returned in 2011 and fought in the revolution. In 2014, he started what he called Operation Dignity, presenting himself as a patriot who could cleanse Libya of its militias. He began in the east, focusing on radical Islamist groups that had become powerful there. But his ambitions were larger, and he soon came into conflict with the elected government in Tripoli and the militias that supported it. Hifter began receiving weapons and support from a cast of foreign backers who were drawn to his uncompromising approach: Egypt, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. He succeeded in restoring order in the east, albeit a brutal and autocratic one.
In the spring of 2019, Hifter made a decision that would inflict terrible suffering on Libya’s people, staining his own reputation and ultimately bolstering Seif al-Islam’s bid to return to power. His Libyan Arab Armed Forces rolled west across the desert, seizing oil fields and air bases and paying off rivals. Hifter and his backers appear to have assumed that his military superiority — he had tanks, fighter jets and advanced drones in his armory — would allow him to seize the capital quickly and impose his authority on the entire country, the prelude to an election that would (once rivals like Seif were out of the way) ratify his rule. As it turned out, he vastly underestimated the strength and tenacity of Libya’s western militias. He also forgot that in urban warfare, defenders always have the advantage.
I met one of the men who crushed Hifter’s dream. He is Yousef bin Lamin, a burly 50-year-old militia veteran who has a roundish bald head, thickly muscled forearms and a bushy beard. Bin Lamin told me he didn’t believe that Hifter would risk an assault on the capital, until his phone began buzzing with alerts: Hifter’s army was heading north toward Tripoli. Bin Lamin called his men, and before long they were speeding westward from Misurata in a convoy of pickup trucks. When they got to the southern Tripoli suburb of Ain Zara, Hifter’s forces had only just arrived. Thousands of militiamen were converging on Tripoli to help protect the city. No one seemed to know who was in charge, and none of them were familiar with the area. Bin Lamin told me he found himself standing a few yards from a fighter he didn’t recognize.
“Who are you with?” he called out.
The fighter looked at him, and each man realized he was facing the enemy. The other fighter lifted his gun and aimed it at bin Lamin, but as he did, he stepped backward and stumbled, knocking his rifle off balance. “When he fired the bullet, it didn’t kill me,” bin Lamin said. “It just hit my leg.” His fellow Misuratans quickly opened fire, killing the fighter.
On the same day, local people woke up to the fact that Hifter had turned Tripoli and its suburbs into a new war zone. A local farmer and businessman in Ain Zara named Omar Abu Obaid was at home when he heard the roaring sound of large vehicles nearby. He walked out to the road and saw a long column of armored trucks and tanks moving north. He had heard rumors that Hifter might launch an attack, but he didn’t believe them.
“We brought the kids in from out back and closed the shops,” Abu Obaid told me. He thought Hifter’s army would continue to Tripoli, but soon he began seeing soldiers commandeering houses and building fortifications. The war was at his doorstep. He and his older brother, Abdel Moala, had spent years building their houses and planting a grove of palm trees. Their mother and other siblings lived next door, and the family owned a nearby bakery and a construction-supply shop. The brothers sent their families to safety in Tripoli but stayed to protect their homes. After about two weeks, Hifter’s soldiers forced them to leave. They started turning houses into military bases and slaughtering local farm animals for food. The battle for Tripoli had stalled in the southern suburbs, and it ground on until June 5, 2020, when Hifter finally abandoned his attempt and his army retreated southward.
When Omar and Abdel Moala returned to their homes, they found a wasteland. A vast area was reduced to little more than toppled walls and rubble. Omar’s palm trees were mostly gone; the few that remained were shredded or blackened by fire. Their houses and shops were destroyed, littered with shell casings and scrawled with graffiti praising Hifter and Qaddafi. The fields beyond were studded with mines; a number of local children have been killed by them in the past year.
Abdel Moala, staring at the ruins of his life, was so overcome with grief that he had a stroke. He collapsed to the ground and woke up to discover that his whole right side was paralyzed. When I met him in May, nearly a year later, he sat in a wheelchair outside the remains of his home, dressed in a dark track suit, his leg shaking uncontrollably. He is a lanky man with a long, handsome face, but when he tried to describe what happened on the day of his return, he broke into dry, heaving sobs and could not speak. Omar explained that he had taken Abdel Moala to a private clinic, which demanded money they could not pay. At a public hospital, the doctors said they were unable to help.
I asked Abdel Moala if Libyans could forgive one another after so many civil wars. He shook his head vehemently.
“How can I forgive people who hurt my father, paralyzed my brother, stole my property?” Omar said. “Our prophet says you should forgive when you can. I cannot.”
One of the rallying cries of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings was fasaad, or corruption. The flagrant economic unfairness of the dictatorships, with their tiny coteries of fabulous wealth and large areas of grinding poverty, helped bring them down. So it was a little unexpected when, during my time with him, Seif began making the same case. In the last decade, Libya has spent untold billions of dollars “without building a single project, not even two bricks,” he told me. He said the money had gone to profiteers who “are financing and supporting little militias, to keep this game going on and on.”
This may turn out to be an effective campaign theme for Seif. One poll suggested that corruption is among the top concerns for Libyans, outranking terrorism, unemployment and failed leadership. Libya’s new military leaders, who were mostly poor until 2011, have enriched themselves in the same way Muammar el-Qaddafi and his family did: by siphoning Libya’s oil money. But unlike the Qaddafis, who distributed Libya’s oil proceeds as they pleased, the new elite gets its cut largely via fraud, embezzlement and smuggling. The schemes are infinitely various, but to succeed they must get past an unassuming man who sits alone in a beautiful marble-paneled office in Tripoli. His name is Sadik el-Kaber, and he is the governor of Libya’s central bank, which has been the paymaster to all sides in Libya’s civil war ever since it began. Kaber may well be the most powerful man in Libya, though his name is little known to outsiders.
Kaber is a kind of anti-Qaddafi, and Seif could learn some lessons from him. Where the Qaddafis reveled in flamboyance — Muammar’s freakish military costumes, his retinue of all-female guards, Seif and his pet tigers — Kaber has chosen bureaucratic invisibility. He sits at a desk at the far end of a lovely Art Deco-style office built by the Italian colonial administration a century ago. The room is so long that it took several awkward seconds for me to cross it and greet him, my shoes tapping on the marble floor. He is a slim, balding man with a beaky nose and a cautious manner, and he wore a rumpled brown blazer and a blue tie. After we sat down, he gave me a mini-lecture about Libya’s economy, speaking in a soft but authoritative voice.
Kaber’s power has stemmed from the bank’s control over Libya’s oil revenue. He also oversees the payment of the country’s militias, which despite their fratricidal wars and disrespect for the law have been on the state’s payroll since 2011. Libya now has the highest proportion of state employees in the world, Kaber told me. The problem started under Qaddafi, who destroyed the private sector and then bought social peace by doling out endless government jobs, many of them no-shows. The state now spends so heavily on subsidies that gasoline is cheaper than water, which has made large-scale smuggling unstoppable. At times, the central bank’s eastern branch, in Benghazi, was using ersatz Libyan dinars printed in Russia. “We made a decision not to accept those dinars, but then they were accepted at commercial banks,” Kaber told me. His position, he said wearily, is “absolutely unique.”
One of the great mysteries around Kaber is how he has kept his job. No other major political figure has survived the decade since 2011. He has made plenty of enemies, but someone has always intervened to protect him. Libyans will tell you this is no mystery: Kaber has played his cards masterfully, handing out favors and selectively closing his eyes. He has the power to increase or minimize the gap between Libya’s official and black-market exchange rates, which has at times been very large. By granting certain people access to the official rate, he can, in effect, make Libya’s nouveaux riches even richer. The bank has most likely presided over fake import schemes with fabricated letters of credit, according to Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization based in London. On some occasions, Kaber acknowledged, large stores of cash have simply disappeared. Even the head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation last year accused Kaber of squandering billions of dollars of oil money and allocating credits to “fat cats.”
Kaber moved his family to Britain years ago. He later moved them to Turkey, perhaps a better refuge now that some are calling for him to face a reckoning. There is no doubt that he is a shrewd man.
When I asked about accusations of embezzlement, Kaber told me that he had done nothing improper and that the bank had taken measures to combat money laundering and fraud. Yes, billions of dollars had gone missing. But when it came to the false paperwork that enabled those crimes, “the job of the bank director is with documents,” Kaber told me. “The people at the border have the authority to verify them.” One man could not be held responsible for the country’s failures. The interview came to an end soon after. He smiled politely before walking me back down his long office to say goodbye.
During our talks, Seif returned again and again to the idea that Libya has not had a state since 2011. The various governments that have claimed power since then, he said, have really just been gunmen in suits. “It’s not in their interest to have a strong government,” he said. “That’s why they are afraid of the elections.” He went on: “They are against the idea of a president. They are against the idea of a state, a government that has legitimacy derived from the people.” The corollary could not have been clearer: Seif seems to believe that only he can represent the state for all Libyans.
This dynastic presumption is pretty brazen, not least because Muammar el-Qaddafi prided himself on having transcended the idea of a state. He vaunted his Libya as a jamahiriya, a portmanteau of the Arabic words for “masses” and “republic.” Qaddafi’s most lasting crime may have been his destruction of the country’s civic institutions. His erratic decrees left Libyans in a constant state of fear for their lives and property. His revolutionary committees were bands of zealots who intimidated ordinary Libyans and could arrange to have them jailed at will. In 2011, there was a constant confusion around the word “revolutionary,” because the rebels and the loyalists both identified themselves that way. Often, their tactics were the same. In a sense, what happened in Libya after 2011 was not so much a revolution against Qaddafi as a replication of his methods on a local level. “Libya did not divide,” Ghassan Salamé, a Lebanese diplomat and former United Nations envoy to Libya, told me. “It imploded.”
Over the past year, Libyans have been riveted by an atrocity that seemed to recapitulate all the worst aspects of the Qaddafi era. It took place in Tarhuna, a farming town about an hour’s drive southeast of the capital. After the ruling militia — run by the notorious Kani brothers — was forced out in June last year, residents began finding human remains near an olive grove at the edge of town. Excavating teams uncovered the bodies of 120 people, but other mass graves were soon discovered and more than 350 families have reported missing relatives. The victims included women and children, some of them shot as many as 16 times. As their stories emerged, a window opened onto a bizarre reign of terror that lasted for almost eight years. No one did anything to stop the Kanis, because they made themselves so useful to everyone in Libya’s political class, allying first with Tripoli’s political bosses and then with Hifter. Their reign turned Tarhuna into a police state with echoes of the Qaddafis’ own: Six brothers put their stamp on everything and terrorized their people, all in the name of revolution.
The most poignant witness I found to what happened was a 9-year-old boy, Moad al-Falus. He is a little stocky, with a sweet face and enormous brown eyes that seem frozen wide open, as if he were still facing something he couldn’t forget. I met him in the living room of his family home, where he sat with his hands folded in his lap, speaking in a high, quiet voice. On a Friday night in the spring of last year, he told me, the family was at home watching television when someone knocked on the door. Four or five gunmen came inside and said they needed to take all the males in the family for questioning. They allowed Moad’s father to drive his four sons in his own car, which reassured them. But when they reached the main road, the gunmen stopped and moved the boys into their car.
The gunmen drove the boys to a house and then told them to get out and stand facing a wall, Moad said. His three brothers were standing right next to him: Abdel Rahman, 16; Abdel Malik, 15; and Mohammed, 10. “We heard the sound of shooting,” Moad went on, in his quiet voice. “I saw my brothers falling down in front of me.” As Moad stared in horror at his brothers’ bodies, the boss — a man with a shaved head — said he was leaving Moad alive “as a warning to those who don’t obey us.” They kept him in a jail cell for two weeks before releasing him on a street corner in town. He soon discovered that his father — who owned a money-transfer shop that the Kanis coveted — had also been murdered. The four bodies were among the first to be found by forensic experts when the mass graves in Tarhuna were unearthed this year.
The bald man who murdered Moad’s brothers is Abdel Rahim al-Kani, the most feared member of the clan. He appears to have shared Qaddafi’s gruesome sense of theater. His men would let victims know they were going to be killed with a signature phrase that became well known in Tarhuna: “You’re going to meet the Old Man.” The Kanis, a poor family who began their climb to power by championing the revolution in 2011, kept lions as pets, parading them around town in their pickup trucks. They built a secret prison where they forced inmates into metal boxes so small that they had to fold their limbs to get inside. A former prisoner, a haunted-looking young man named Ali Abu Zwayda, showed me the metal platters the jailers would pile with hot coals and then put on top of the boxes. The heat inside became almost unbearable. “It was terrifying in there,” Zwayda said. “One day was like a year.”
Before I left Moad al-Falus and his family, I saw him standing by a wall where the names of his three dead brothers were written in large letters. Moad had painted them. “He was writing their names everywhere when he came back,” his mother told me. Even with the Kanis gone, she said, she fears for her remaining children. “We don’t feel safe as long as the militias still have weapons. The criminals are still free.”
Let me make a confession: I was lured to Libya by a kind of fairy tale. Seif had lost everything, had seen members of his family murdered, had spent years in a solitary prison. There was no doubt he had suffered, and I was told by a contact who knows him well that he had changed, matured, gained a new sense of humility. He might even have grown worthy of the kingly role he was born to. I knew this was unlikely, but the possibility captivated me, perhaps because I spent so long reporting on the Arab Spring uprisings and their sad aftermath. I was desperate for someone to break the cycle of those years, to find a way out of the trap of tyranny and religious zealotry. I used to lie in bed imagining speeches that might have bridged the gap and averted a massacre in Cairo, or war in Damascus. I couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea that people don’t really change, that they cannot rise above the forces that made them.
During my time in Libya, I began to understand that these feelings were all too common. For many Libyans, Seif had become a kind of collective national fantasy, a dream of rescue. His mystery was a balm to them. They wanted to believe that he had changed and learned. After so many years of disappointment, they were desperate for a savior. “I think people hope for a redemption story,” I was told by one Libyan lawyer. “That he will emerge changed.” The same sad fantasy hovers over the career of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s ruler, who succeeded his father amid hopeful talk about his reformist ideas and who went on to wage a civil war that has left half a million of his fellow citizens dead. Many other dictators have captured their people’s imaginations in this way: If the ruler becomes inseparable from the state, you have no choice but to dream that he can change.
I think Seif knows this. He seems to understand that his absence is the key to his renewed popularity. He is so keen on maintaining an aura of mystery that when I met him in Zintan, he was reluctant even to let us photograph him. He agreed to pose for profile shots, but he kept turning away from the camera and insisted on covering part of his face with a scarf. The photographer, Nga, tried without success to persuade him that a frontal portrait would make him look more confident. I found Seif’s attitude so puzzling that I asked him to explain. He told me he wanted the pictures to convey the impression that “this is the man, but it’s not clear. He’s not clear. Like a spirit. He’s not sick; he’s strong. But he’s not clear.”
I asked him to elaborate.
“I’ve been away from the Libyan people for 10 years,” he said. “You need to come back slowly, slowly. Like a striptease.” He laughed. “You need to play with their minds a little.”
There was something conspiratorial in the way Seif spoke those cynical words. He seemed to have felt that he could trust me, that I would be a willing partner in the seduction of his fellow Libyans. But behind the smoke and mirrors, Seif is the same callow figure he was a decade ago. His long years in the wilderness have taught him nothing. He still talks about democracy and says it’s important for Libya to have a free and fair election. He is right that the revolution has brought disaster to Libya, that the country is in some ways worse off than it was under his father. But he seems to have gained no understanding of what his fellow Libyans have been through. He doesn’t even seem to care. When I asked whether he sympathized at all with the feelings that led protesters to call for change in 2011, his answers were categorical: They were evil people, terrorists, devils. I asked for his take on the other Arab uprisings. “The foolish Arabs destroyed their countries,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.
He went on, to my amazement, to say he had no real criticisms of his father’s 40-year rule. Maybe some of the socialist policies of the 1980s had gone too far, he said, but his father recognized this and modified them. I asked about the Green Book, the Mao-style pamphlet that Qaddafi forced on Libyans from childhood on, with its weird mash-up of quasi-socialist theories and banalities (“women are females and men are males”). Wasn’t some of that a bit crazy?
“It was not crazy,” Seif said. “It talked about things everybody is now recognizing.” All kinds of ideas that have grown popular in the West — public referendums, employee stock-ownership plans, the dangers of boxing and wrestling — had their origins in the wisdom of the Green Book, Seif said. Later, I asked Seif about his own reading habits. He cited an American writer named Robert Greene. I had to look him up. Greene, it turns out, is the author of best-selling advice books that are popular with hip-hop stars on how to get ahead and get laid.
Seif seemed not to see the contradiction between his two selves. Listening to him, I was reminded of a libel suit he filed against The Sunday Telegraph in the 1990s. He wrote a personal statement to the court to rebut the paper’s accusation that he was dishonest or corrupt. He was in his late 20s and just emerging as a public figure, and he described himself as an ordinary young man — albeit one with unusual privileges — with no position in the Libyan regime. He had broken no laws by bringing his two white tigers to Vienna, where he was studying for his M.B.A. — not knowingly anyway, because someone else had made the arrangements.
“When I arrived in Vienna, I discussed my tigers with the mayor of the city and the head of the Schönbrunn Zoo,” Seif wrote in the statement. “They both said they would be delighted to have my tigers, which are very rare, in Vienna, and we therefore arranged for them to be transported.” Seif noted that the Austrian authorities had threatened not to extend his residence permit. “Fortunately, the Libyan government treated this insult to me very seriously and threatened to deny Austrians visas to enter Libya if the decision was not revoked. The Austrian government changed their mind very quickly, and I was allowed to stay. A similar incident occurred in Switzerland in 1997 when the Swiss government refused to extend my visa and the Libyan government threatened sanctions.”
The writer of those lines is almost comically blind to his inherited privileges. When I asked Seif about his childhood, he interspersed his private memories with political milestones. He remembers his mother waking him up in the middle of the night to take him to a bomb shelter when he was 14. It was 1986, and American bombs were falling near Bab al-Aziziya and other Libyan targets in retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin disco 10 days earlier. At 15, he traveled to Bulgaria, where he met the president and held his first news conference. Two years later, he went to Iraq and talked politics with Saddam Hussein. “I would read reports, books, secret papers,” he said.
Seif told me he began thinking about playing a political role “early, very early.” His father assigned him to mediate some of Libya’s conflicts with the West, including the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 people. Seif told me the proudest moment of his pre-2011 political career was brokering the release in 2009 of the only man convicted in the bombing, a Libyan intelligence officer named Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. I asked him why, and he told me it was because he had promised Megrahi that he would bring him home. Seif told me he didn’t know the full truth about the Lockerbie bombing, which has been shadowed by many competing claims and gaps in the evidentiary trail. (Seif helped negotiate a multibillion-dollar settlement to victims’ families but repeatedly suggested that Libya was being falsely blamed.) But he told me a cryptic story that made me wonder. He said his father had stopped riding his horse after the humiliation of the American bombing of Tripoli in 1986 and resumed riding it after the Lockerbie bombing. Whether he was complicit or not, the murder of 270 people had somehow restored Qaddafi’s composure.
Seif grew up watching his father praise a dictatorship as the world’s only perfect democracy, and I think he must have learned early on that Libya’s conflicts with the West required the mastery of a double language. He wanted his American and European friends to like him, and he saw quickly that adopting certain Western talking points would make his own reign smoother and easier than his father’s. One of these was the language of democracy and human rights. Seif seems to have been genuinely interested in these ideas, but also to have seen them as gifts to the people, to be handed out in small doses. Those who made premature demands were to be slapped down. He had the right to inflict those slaps because of a principle so deep and unquestioned that he never had to articulate it: He was a Qaddafi.
One morning in May, I drove with a Libyan friend named Tahir to an area just outside Tripoli called Yarmouk. Down the road from a bombed-out military base, we pulled over and walked onto an overgrown compound that once served as a makeshift prison for the Qaddafi regime. Not far from the road was a long warehouse made of corrugated metal, long since burned to the color of dried blood. We stepped inside and saw the old graffiti on the walls, scrawled by rebels: We vow to pursue those who killed you. Your blood will not be wasted.
Ten years ago, just as Seif al-Islam was arming Qaddafi loyalists and preparing to flee the capital, an order went out to the officers in charge of the Yarmouk prison. The guards started by throwing grenades into the shed, which held some 150 men. They then sprayed them repeatedly with gunfire. Only about 20 men managed to escape, some protected by the falling bodies of their comrades. When I got to the shed, three days later, a thin trail of smoke still rose from it. Inside, there were dozens of skulls and ribs and femurs, burned to a dull, grayish white. Outside, the stench of rotting flesh was overpowering. Dead bodies lay here and there, some in heaps, many with their hands cuffed behind their backs. They had been shot by Qaddafi’s retreating soldiers.
One person who had been held in that shed was Tahir, now a tall, athletic 34-year-old with a macabre sense of humor. He got out before the massacre took place. But he remembers the men who were packed into that shed with him.
“That corner was guys from Zawiyah; I joined them,” Tahir said, pointing a finger at an empty spot on the floor. “Here, it was mixed from the city, Tripoli basically. Up against the wall were the people from Zlitan. There were a lot of them.”
There had been men of all ages and professions: doctors, engineers, teachers, religious scholars. Many weren’t even rebels, just ordinary Libyans picked up in random sweeps during the regime’s final months. Still, the young guards, who were often drunk or stoned, tortured them regularly. They forced them to drink urine. They beat them and electrocuted them. They put them in a tiny box inside a van for days, at the height of the Libyan summer. “It was a free sauna,” Tahir said with a grim smile.
The Yarmouk massacre seemed immensely important at the time, a landmark among the Qaddafi regime’s many crimes. The survivors and their relatives formed an association and spoke of building a memorial. Tahir and others became the nucleus of a paramilitary brigade that hunted down the Yarmouk prison guards and imprisoned them, hoping for a legitimate government to put them on trial and deliver some kind of justice. Then Libya collapsed again, and Yarmouk was covered up by newer massacres. The marks of more recent wars are visible even from the Yarmouk prison shed, which sits near one of the front lines in the battle for Tripoli.
‘We want a statue that says, “This must not happen again.” ’
Libya’s decade of civil war has even overshadowed the most resonant atrocity in its modern history: the murder of as many as 1,200 prisoners at the Abu Salim prison in 1996. The Qaddafi regime appears to have used the same techniques at Abu Salim as it did in Yarmouk; the guards threw grenades down into a walled courtyard full of prisoners, then opened fire on them. The regime tried to hide what it had done. The bodies were initially buried and then — at least according to court testimony from prison employees and former inmates — unearthed, ground up with gravel, placed in bags and dumped at sea. For years afterward, relatives of the murdered inmates continued to come to the prison with food and gifts, and the guards continued to accept them.
The Abu Salim massacre got the world’s attention and even played a role in igniting the 2011 revolution. It was a demonstration in Benghazi by relatives of the murdered men that set off the protests. After the regime fell later that year, the rebels rounded up dozens of people who were believed to have taken part in the massacre, promising to deliver justice. But as Libya sank again into war, Abu Salim was neglected. Their trial didn’t get underway until 2018, and then the court gradually released the defendants on technicalities. To this day, not a single person has been convicted in Libya’s most infamous mass killing. Aladdin al-Raqeeq, whose brother was among those murdered, told me that the victims’ families have spent years trying to erect a memorial outside the prison. “We want a statue that says, ‘This must not happen again,’” he told me.
In a strange twist of fate, Seif al-Islam may be the person who has done the most for the Abu Salim victims. He invited Human Rights Watch to Libya in 2005, and he appears to have persuaded his father to acknowledge the regime’s culpability. The authorities offered to pay about 200,000 Libyan dinars — about $160,000 — to families of the victims, if they gave up any claims against the state, according to an attorney for some of them. Most of the families refused the money.
Yet when I brought up Abu Salim in my talk with Seif, he told me confidently that most Libyans now believe that the regime was too lenient and ought to have killed all the prisoners in Abu Salim. “Go to Benghazi,” he said. “Ask anyone. They will tell you, ‘They didn’t finish the job.’” It is true that some Libyans say these things, especially in what might be called the Qaddafist base. It is not a popular view.
I asked Seif if he endorsed the belief that massacring 1,200 people was a good idea or if he was merely repeating it. He told me he believed there was “excessive use of force” at Abu Salim. But he has clearly mastered the Trumpian tactic of dog-whistling to his most bloody-minded followers. He breezily and knowingly repeated the false claim that the Abu Salim victims were all Islamist terrorists, saying, “People have seen what they have done in the past 10 years.”
I couldn’t help wondering if, given the chance, Seif would have any qualms about giving an order to throw grenades into a prison cell. So many Libyans seem to exist beyond the pale of his sympathy. During our last talk, I asked if it felt strange for him to seek shelter in the homes of Qaddafi supporters after he fled Tripoli in 2011 and was on the run. These people, after all, were used to getting rare glimpses of him, yet suddenly he was approaching them as a supplicant. Had that experience changed his perspective?
Seif seemed baffled by the question. “We’re like fish, and the Libyan people are like a sea for us,” he said. “Without them, we die. That’s where we get support. We hide here. We fight here. We get support from there. The Libyan people are our ocean.”