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The Pretender

A clandestine meeting and the fate of Qaddafi’s favorite son.

Many characters made appearances during my efforts earlier this year to persuade the international community that the freedom fighters of Libya needed the world’s help. There was the rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council (NTC), who I met for the first time in early March at an outpost of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—a once-pretty colonial house west of Benghazi’s city center—and who could have dismissed me as one of those well-meaning, impractical adventurers that wars produce in great number, but who instead responded to my suggestion that a rebel delegation come to France to meet Nicolas Sarkozy by saying: “I agree. Get in touch with your president if you can. And tell him that Qaddafi no longer has the right to represent his people. The sole legitimate government, the one that should be recognized by the United Nations, is here.”

There was Sarkozy himself, who I reached over a poor telephone connection from Benghazi later that same day, and who, when I asked if he would personally receive rebel leaders, did not say, “You’ve got to be kidding!” or “I don’t know, maybe; let’s explore it when you get back to Paris,” but instead calmly replied, “Of course.”

There was Mahmoud Jibril, whose charisma and capability enabled him to later become prime minister of Libya, and who I saw emerge deeply disappointed from a meeting in mid-March in Paris with Hillary Clinton—sure that his plea on behalf of the civilians of Benghazi had fallen through, that the secretary of state had understood nothing.

There was the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who was more intelligent and articulate than I had expected, but who nevertheless, over whiskey after whiskey at the Hotel Raphael in Paris, offered arguments that I found extremely unpersuasive as to why Israel should keep its distance from the anti-Qaddafi forces.

Yet of all the characters connected to the Libyan war, it was one I never managed to meet who was perhaps the most intriguing: Saif Qaddafi, the favorite son, the disciple, his father’s Lin Biao, his companion in arms, his crown prince—but also a supposed reformer. From a novelistic view, he was the great enigma of the whole business. And, in many ways, he still is.

IT HAPPENED AS IT would have in a John le Carré novel. It was Friday, April 22, and I was having dinner at La Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. It was late. I was alone at the little table at the back of the dining room near the fireplace, the one Yves Montand had favored. No sooner had the waiter taken my order than he came back to tell me that I had a phone call. Who knew I was here? Who could be calling me here, at this hour? At the other end of the line was a voice I didn’t recognize; his English was fairly good: “My name doesn’t matter. I’m in Monaco and would like to see you. Talk to you. About Libya. Can you come?” I told him there was no way I would come to Monaco just like that, but, if he wanted to come here, why not? “Fine,” the voice replied. “I’m on my way.” And 45 minutes later, sure enough, there he was. Stocky, heavy set. Encumbered by his own big build. Bushy black eyebrows. Like a movie villain. Sorry—that’s how he looked.

We went up to the apartment of the Rouxes, the owners of La Colombe, to talk privately. But I asked my old friend François, who has been with me through countless episodes over the past 30 years, to join me in the meeting. I don’t know who this guy is, I told François. I don’t know what he wants or what he has to tell me. But I don’t want what I say to him to get twisted around later.

After checking that my visitor didn’t have a recorder in his pockets, I asked him for his name, which he reluctantly wrote on a pad that François had put down in front of us. From there, the conversation unfolded approximately as follows:

“I haven’t offered you anything to drink,” I began.

“That’s OK, of course. You’re busy. Me too. Let’s get to the point.”

He had an unusual voice, sometimes hesitant, at other times peremptory, as if he was unsure about which persona to use.

“I spoke with Saif—”

I jumped. “When?”

“Today, before calling you.”

“OK. And?”

“He says that too much blood has been spilled; too many innocent people have died in this fratricidal conflict.”

“What fratricidal conflict?” I asked. “You have, on one side, a population that doesn’t want to die and, on the other, the Qaddafis, who are using heavy weapons and—”

“It’s not ‘the Qaddafis,’ plural. The father and the sons are different. I’m going to tell you a story that I witnessed with my own eyes. A year ago, in a nightclub in a European capital, a friend said to Saif, ‘Your father is crazy.’” The enigmatic visitor repeated it, twirling his index finger around his right temple to signify someone who’s off his rocker. “‘Crazy,’ he said, just like that. ‘Your father is completely crazy.’ And do you know how Saif reacted? If someone had said that about one of his brothers or his sister—” This time, he imitated someone pulling a revolver from his pocket and taking aim. “Saif didn’t do a thing, didn’t say a thing. As if it hadn’t surprised him at all. He just laughed.”

“That may be,” I said, my guard up. “But it was Saif who has said, and maybe done, the most awful things. Remember February 20? The speech in which he threatened to drown Benghazi in rivers of blood?”

The man pushed his chair back noisily, as if I had said the one thing he could not listen to and he was determined to go. But I was wrong. He began to reenact a conversation that he had had with Saif. “That’s exactly what I told him! ‘Your speech is shit.’ That’s the word I used: shit. Shit. ‘You’re covered in shit.’ I said it to his face.” Then, he added: “Because I’m not with the regime. You have to understand that I’m for democracy, human rights, a good life. So I can’t side with this regime that spills blood. It’s just that I think you can’t be rigid about it, or else it’s the people who will pay.”


“So, Saif has a proposal, and I feel that it’s my duty to bring it to you.”

“To me?”

“Yeah, to you. Because you have access, he knows it, to Sarkozy and the NTC.”

“Let’s say I do. What is this proposal?”

“His father gives up power, for good. And he won’t come back.” He repeated that several times, with the gesture of someone pushing something frantically away: “And he won’t come back.” He took a slow, deep breath, as if his movements had worn him out. “And, with his father gone, Saif is ready to open real talks, substantial talks, without restrictions.” My visitor was relieved; he had said it. He waited for my reaction.

“OK. I see. I must say that I still don’t understand why Saif sent you to me.”

The man shrugged, as if to say: That’s a secondary question; let’s not dwell on it.

“But there is something that you should tell him straight off from me,” I said. “No one in the NTC will negotiate anything with anybody unless there is agreement on one point—that not only Qaddafi goes but also his sons, including Saif.”

My interlocutor assumed the frustrated expression of a good-faith negotiator who has encountered a tough customer.

“Saif won’t leave.”

“Then there’s nothing to discuss. Because he doesn’t have any choice. Either he leaves today, while there’s still time and the international community may be willing to offer him safe-conduct. Or he ends up like the Ceauşescus or—”

With a long face he finished my thought: “—or like Saddam Hussein.”

“Right. Like a hunted animal backed into a corner. Is that what he wants?”

“No, but he won’t leave his country.”

“He will leave his country,” I replied. “He’ll have to. I don’t know the man, but—”

“He knows you. He told me about you.”

“Well, I’m sure he still has enough sense to know that, when you’ve done what he’s done, when you have those crimes on your conscience, you can’t just go back and start over. Never.”

“No, he does not know that. It’s common sense, but he doesn’t get it.”

This guy and his approach intrigued me. I decided to probe a little: “Your Saif had plans. He wanted to modernize Libya, to bring it into the circle of respectable nations.”

“He was sincere. You can’t imagine what he did to restore his country’s image.”

“Sincere or not, it’s over—that’s what I’m trying to tell you. And even if, by some inconceivable twist of history, he succeeded in putting down the rebellion, what would he do then? Spend the rest of his life in a pariah country? Live his life barred from visiting the great capitals, hunted by international tribunals, cursed?”

“He would prefer that to leaving his country.”

“How old is he?”

The man counted to himself.


“He would prefer to end his days holed up in Tripoli like Al Bashir in Khartoum? If he is the man you said he is, if his ambition was to be the great reformer, the modernist, that doesn’t make any sense.”

The man was pensive. Then, spreading his hands fatalistically, he said, “He has no other choice.”

“But he does. He still has a few days, maybe a few weeks, to come to grips with the fact that the game is over and to negotiate his departure to one of the few remaining countries that hasn’t signed an extradition treaty with The Hague.”

“He couldn’t ask for a safe-conduct for himself alone. Saif isn’t like that. He has six brothers. A sister.”

“Fine. Let’s say he gets a safe-conduct for himself and his family. Where is the problem then?”

“The problem is that the international community has no credibility.”

“When it makes a commitment, the commitment is kept,” I said. “And it’s in everyone’s interest for this war to end.”

“Wrong! Look here!”

He had shouted. He stood up like a madman, nearly knocking over his chair. He pointed at the television, at the soccer game that François had been watching, with the sound turned down, since the meeting began. Crawling along the bottom of the screen was the “breaking news” that Hosni Mubarak’s detention in Egypt had been extended by 15 days in a prison hospital, to which he was now being transferred.

“Look what’s happening to Mubarak,” he said, his voice trembling with indignation. “He had the assurances of the United States, of the world. Plus those of the Egyptian army. Tonight, he’s sleeping in prison.”

“That is true.”

“And he didn’t even have blood on his hands. He agreed to give up power without shedding blood.”

I interrupted him: “Not quite: three hundred fifty-two people killed.”

He looked at me blankly, as if he hadn’t known.

“OK,” he said. “But there’s no comparison with Saif, who has a lot—a lot—of blood on his hands.”

“I’ll say.”

He thought. Tried to catch François’s eye, which remained glued to the screen. He returned his gaze to me.

“Are you willing to meet with Saif to tell him what you’ve just told me?”


“In Tripoli.”

I laughed. “I’d rather not. Can he get out of Libya?”

The reply came in a blustering tone: “Of course! He goes where he wants.”

“How about Malta?”

He frowned. “Maybe not Malta. He could get kidnapped.”

“OK. Where, then?”


“Fine. But I need it to be clear that I’ll agree to see him only on two conditions—maybe three.”

Acting as if he were going to write down my conditions, he casually picked up the sheet of paper on which his name was written. He tore it in two and put the piece with his name on it in his jacket pocket. (Expecting this, I had memorized his name.) On the other piece, he made it seem as if he were taking notes.

“The first condition, of course, is that the French president and the NTC agree that I should meet with him.”

He wrote, nodding, as if to say that this was of minor importance.

“Two more points: that you make it crystal clear to him that we’re all wasting our time if he does not understand that, for the French and for the Libyans, his departure is a prerequisite. And that he understands—and this is me speaking here—the precondition to these preconditions, which is that, unless the shelling of Misrata stops tomorrow morning, I won’t even tell my friends about the conversation you and I are having right now. Not unless Tripoli observes a cease-fire with respect to Misrata.”

The man looked as if he was having second thoughts and had decided not to write this down. “Look,” he said, “when you make a deal, you have to be flexible. Both parties have their opening positions, and then both give a little.”

“I’m not making a deal. And I’m not flexible.”

“Then I have another idea. Do you want to hear it?”

At this point, he was beginning to annoy me. I felt as if I were participating in a dialogue of the deaf. I was curt. “Go on.”

“Qaddafi leaves. Free elections are organized under the auspices of the U.N. and the Arab League. And Saif leaves, with a U.N. visa, but after the elections. Is that better? Is that more acceptable?”

I repeated that it didn’t make any sense and that the person for whom he was acting as emissary had to understand that.

He protested loudly that he wasn’t anybody’s emissary but had come solely to take a chance for the people of Libya. That his presence indicated his belief that I was, like him, a reasonable person, open to dialogue.

I responded that there was nothing left to say, indeed, that what we had said didn’t amount to much, and that I wouldn’t act on it as long as the shells continued to fall on Misrata.

He gave a fatalistic shrug, like an honest broker who has tried everything—absolutely everything!—before concluding that the bad faith of the two parties (but mostly me, no doubt) made progress impossible. Might as well give up. He left.

From a quick Internet search, I learned that he was a major international trafficker, blacklisted by the U.S. intelligence services and implicated in several cases of evasion of the oil embargo on Saddam Hussein. I also discovered that he was close to Saif and very close to Saif’s senior aide Mohamed Ismail, who had previously traveled to London to advance a proposal similar to the one I had just heard.

I went home to bed feeling that the meeting had not been serious. There was no need, I thought, to bother the French president or the NTC with a report.

I NEVER HEARD from this man again. And I never did meet Saif Al Islam. But I continued to wonder about Saif, and I read what he wrote. I even went to London to question one of his former mistresses and some of those who had known him in his other life as the party animal and playboy that he was. From what I saw and heard, from the scraps that I gathered and put together, there emerged two main conclusions.

First, Saif was, of course, the pitiless warrior who promised to drown his people in “rivers of blood.” But, before that, or maybe at the same time, there was the other Saif, the hedonist. The happy-go-lucky guy. The skiing companion of G. in Zermatt and the yachting companion of P. in the Caribbean. The longdistance swimmer. The friend of the rich and beautiful. The confidant of the chic and powerful. The former student at the London School of Economics who had been promised the successes, honors, and charmed life of those who excelled in Britain’s elite universities. A ballet of women danced around him, including a London model as pretty as one of Paul Morand’s characters. She affected an air of innocence that had bewitched people at Saif’s celebrations in Tripoli—I’m not even sure he had to pay her to attend.

He was Saif the show-off. And, until recently, he had choices—which was the second thing I learned about him. After the start of the Libyan revolution, a throng of women, bankers, friends, party companions, and confederates in corruption had mobilized in London, Davos, New York, Paris, Milan, and Montevideo to save Saif, to rescue him from the bad movie in which he seemed to be mired and to bring him back among those with whom he truly belonged. The leaders of the coalition also got into this game and, whether overestimating his political and military weight in the loyalist camp (and thus the shock that his defection would cause) or assessing it at its true value, opened all escape routes—from Cameron to Sarkozy, as well as some members of the NTC. Nearly everyone was ready, if he would break with his father, to grant him safe-conduct and give him back his other life, recollections of which could be coaxed, with promises of anonymity, from the Monaco jet set and the princes of finance in New York and Paris who, until recently, had thought that he was one of them. One word from Saif, one sign, and he could have escaped from the terrible fate that was now gathering him in.

Yet he didn’t grab the line that the system threw out to him. Instead, he seemed to throw it back, doubling down on his reputation as an unforgivable murderer. There was, perhaps, one exception: the April evening on which he sent me an emissary. But his actions immediately afterward canceled out that step. He burned his bridges, one after the other, charged toward the point of no return, which one normally reaches only when forced, and created, in so doing, the situation in which he finds himself today: a wanted man.

The question, of course, is why? What can be going on in the head of someone who makes a choice like that?

There is the hypothesis of blindness: Perhaps he was convinced, like his father, that things would work out eventually, that the coalition would get tired and the regime would regain its rightful place in the community of nations. But surely he was too smart to have believed that. Too well-informed not to know, from the outset, as I said to his emissary, that the game was over and that even if, by some turn of fortune, the adversaries came together and agreed to allow the Qaddafis to hold on to some of their power, it would be a symbolic power at the head of a rump state boycotted by the world.

There is the hypothesis of suicide: a real, albeit, shadowy will to die that would find, in the fall of the regime, a fitting stage. But this is too romantic. Too Wagnerian. And certainly not consistent with that image of him, not long before the collapse of his father’s government, telling a TV camera that everything was fine, better than fine, and the proof was that he had just come back from a long swim at the beach in Tripoli.

There is the hypothesis of pride: A brief but brilliant life is worth more than mere survival, however long. Better, once one has been the son of a king and dreamed of being king, to die on one’s feet than to live sprawled in an armchair like King Farouk, or worse like the son of King Farouk, turning over one’s bitterness and failure. But that’s not believable either. It doesn’t sync with the pleasure-seeking, profiteering, unprincipled cynicism of Saif. Everyone who knew him said he would have at least tolerated the role of prince-in-exile, passing the rest of his days in Monte Carlo or St. Moritz.

There is the Drieu hypothesis: Drieu La Rochelle understood as early as 1943 that he had chosen the wrong side and that Hitler would lose. He knew that he could, if he wanted to, go over to the other side at any time. (Hadn’t André Malraux offered, in the summer of 1944, to welcome Drieu, under an assumed name, into the Alsace-Lorraine brigade and thus allow him to redeem himself?) But Drieu found it more suitable, more in keeping with his self-image, to follow his mistake to the end and to pay for it, a dandy who turns his own death into his supreme political achievement. Yet that doesn’t hold water either, because it takes a little greatness (a dark greatness, but a greatness just the same) to think that way. And I have difficulty crediting Saif with any sort of greatness. One must resist the temptation to elevate a criminal who is probably very ordinary.

No. You can turn the problem any way you want. There is only one plausible explanation for Saif’s decision to close the escape hatch that was open to him. Think of the son of Idi Amin. Of Uday and Qusay, the sons of Saddam, who followed him in his barbarous folly and preceded him to a horrible death. “Chuckie” Taylor, the son of the butcher of Liberia, raised in the United States and rich, with other prospects in life, who answered his father’s call to help him lead the cruelest of the death squads. All of these people had one thing in common: None wanted to confront, provoke, or stand up to his father, which may be the most difficult thing there is to do. Even when that father is a murderer and a bloody fool like Qaddafi.

Bernard-Henri Levy is the author of La Guerre Sans L’Aimer, from which this article is adapted. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.