With his head shaven in the manner of last year’s World Cup winners, and his designer clothes, Seyf al-Islam Kaddafi at first glance looks like just another celebrity. But when he begins to talk at his luxury-hotel suite in London it soon becomes clear that the young Kaddafi — he was 30 last June — wants to be regarded as a man with a mission.
The question is: What mission?
Critics of his father, Libya’s Colonel Muammar Kaddafi, charge that Seyf al-Islam has been dispatched on a tour of Western capitals to soften the image of one of the most-controversial regimes in the Arab world. Seyf al-Islam — whose name means “The Sword of Islam” — insists that he has no mission except “countering the misinformation campaign of which my country has been a victim over the years.”
Reports in the Arab media claim that Colonel Kaddafi may be preparing Seyf al-Islam as his political heir. This would be in line with a recent trend in the Arab world, which began when Bechar al-Assad succeeded his father as president of Syria two years ago. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is also preparing his son Gamal as a possible successor, while Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein has hinted that his second son Qussay may emerge as his political heir. Ahmad, a son of Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh, for his part, has already began preparing for succession by becoming leader of the ruling party.
In an exclusive interview recently Seyf al-Islam Kaddafi responded to questions from Amir Taheri. Here are excerpts:
Amir Taheri: Could we start with you telling us a little bit about yourself. Where did you study and what is your position now?
Seyf al-Islam Kaddafi: I did part of my schooling in Switzerland before the Swiss authorities, no doubt under pressure from the United States, decided not to renew my visa. I continued in Austria where I studied economics and engineering. I now plan to continue my studies here in London, if possible. I am a private Libyan citizen with no official position. Nevertheless I take a keen interest in all issues that affect my people. It is on that account that, when given an opportunity, I have spoken out on various issues.
Taheri: You seem to be a rather opulent young man. Do you get your resources from the Libyan government or is it your father who pays?
Kaddafi: I have no connection with the Libyan government and there is, thus, no reason why they should pay me. I had initial help from my father. In recent years, however, I have developed business interests that permit me to be independent.
Taheri: Recently you have adopted a high profile, traveling to various European capitals, testifying at a court trial in London where you won a libel case, and talking to the media. There are also reports that you have met a number of Western officials. What are the reasons behind this burst of activity?
Kaddafi: My principal aim is to clear the air and offer a more realistic picture of my country to the Western public. Libya has been demonized for years. In my own case a British daily published an article in which I was accused of having helped distribute counterfeit money in Iran. And yet I was not granted a visa to come to London and defend my honor. It was only recently that the British government decided to lift its visa ban so that I could come to London. As you know, I won the case and the daily apologized and paid compensation. I believe that many of the slanderous charges made against Libya in general and my father in particular could also be refuted on the basis of facts.
Taheri: Let us focus on one charge. A senior former intelligence official from your country has been found guilty of organizing the destruction of the Pan American jetliner which led to the death of 291 people over a decade ago.
Kaddafi: The trial to which you refer was far from fair and proper. I believe that the man who was sentenced to life imprisonment is innocent. This is also the belief of many non-Libyan experts, lawyers, and media people. (Former South African President) Nelson Mandela himself recently went to Scotland to visit the prisoner, and later called for the case to be reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights. Why would Mandela do such a thing if he did not have at least some doubt that the man had been wrongly sentenced? The evidence used at the court was of the flimsiest kind possible and some of the witnesses were clearly working for the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Taheri: And yet the Libyan government agreed to hand over the two suspects…
Kaddafi: We agreed in good faith and on the basis of mediation by Mandela. We wanted the sanctions that had made life difficult for our people to be lifted so that we can come out and offer a true image of our nation.
Taheri: But the Libyan government has offered to pay $2 billion in compensation to the families of the victims. Is that not an implicit admission of guilt?
Kaddafi: The offer to which you refer has not come from the government. It has been made by a number of Libyan businessmen who want an end to sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States. Under the initial deal brokered by Mandela, all sanctions were to be lifted once Libya had handed over the two suspects. That has not happened. The U.N. and the U.S. have reneged on their promises. In any case the offer of compensation is not unconditional. The objective to have the sanctions lifted as quickly as possible so as to avoid further hardship for innocent Libyans. It is also necessary that the U.S. stop including Libya in the list of nations sponsoring international terrorism.
Taheri: Should we believe that Libya was never involved in terrorism?
Kaddafi: We are not talking history. We are talking reality as it exists today. There is not a shred of evidence that Libya is involved in such activities now. In fact, Libya has offered full cooperation in the global war against terrorism. Don’t forget that Libya, too, has been a victim of terrorist groups, some of which had their headquarters here in London along with other terrorist organizations from many different countries.
Taheri: In what ways is Libya cooperating in the war against terrorism?
Kaddafi: Part of the answer concerns confidential material that cannot be made public at present. But those familiar with the issue at close range know, and I believe appreciate, that Libya is sincere. Don’t forget that this is a global war that must be fought by major powers. The real battlefield in this war is in the political arena. The United States needs to cast a close look at its foreign policy to eliminate areas where it is dragged into conflicts that generate terrorism. Countries like Libya cannot but assume a minor part. And let me insist that we are doing our part. We are involved in humanitarian efforts to alleviate the pain inflicted on the victims of terror in many countries. My charity organization helped finance the rescue of Western hostages held by the Abu-Sayyaf group in the Philippines. We are also involved in the repatriation of the families of the so-called “Arab Afghans” who had gone to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets but who were subsequently drawn into the al Qaeda and Taliban movements.
Taheri: How many families of “Arab Afghans” have been repatriated? Are the wives and children of Osama bin Laden among them?
Kaddafi: I cannot answer that question. To succeed in what is an exceptionally complex task, our work must remain discreet. All that I can say is that we are talking of hundreds of families that means thousands of women and children.
Taheri: Where are these families now?
Kaddafi: Many are still in Afghanistan, in a state of semi-clandestine existence. Some are in the remote tribal regions of Pakistan where the Islamabad authorities have little control. Some have gone into Iran, probably without the knowledge of the Tehran authorities. We are helping those who want to return to their original homeland. But I cannot give any details on that issue.
Taheri: Very well. You mentioned earlier that Libya had been a victim of terrorism. There are reports that a fundamentalist terrorist group is fighting your father’s forces in several parts of Libya…
Kaddafi: These reports are exaggerated. There was some infiltration from the Sudan in the late 1990s. A few Libyans who had fought in Afghanistan also became involved in acts of violence after they returned home. The last incidents date back to 1999. At present we are faced with nothing but a small isolated group of just a few people in the Jabal Akhdhar (Green Mountain) region. For years they had depended on foreign backing, including funds raised in London. My firm belief is that the group in question will be neutralized soon.
Taheri: Let’s change the subject. Is there any truth in reports that your father is grooming you to be his political successor?
Kaddafi: This is a strange question. To start with my father does not have any official position in the Libyan state. He is not a king or a president or a prime minister and thus does not have a job to transfer to anyone. He is the Guide of the Revolution; that means a man of ideas, a philosopher, and a leader who traces the broad philosophical outlines of our national endeavor. And that is something unique to him, something that cannot be transmitted to any heir by an act of will. In any case my father does not believe in hereditary rule. He led a revolution that ended hereditary monarchic rule in Libya. He did not do that only to negate his own fundamental beliefs a few decades later.
Taheri: But the idea of sons succeeding fathers in politics is not new. We already have President Bechar al-Assad in Syria or, in a different context, even George W. Bush in the United States…
Kaddafi: I think the two cases you mentioned have nothing in common. George W. Bush did not inherit his votes from his father and won the presidency in an acceptable, though controversial, election. But let me remind you again that my father does not hold any official post that he could transfer to me. He is just a guide, like the late Ayatollah Khomeini was in Iran…
Taheri: That is not a good example. Khomeini did have an official position within the Iranian government as the ” Faqih al-Wali” (Jurisconsult) and received a salary from the treasury. In other words Khomeini was an employee of the Iranian state. But, if I understand you, Colonel Kaddafi, does not work for the Libyan government…
Kaddafi: That is right. This is one of the points that Mandela was able to hammer into the heads of the Americans and the British during the dispute over Lockerbie. They wanted to implicate the Libyan government and then my father as responsible for the Libyan government. Mandela persuaded them that my father is, in fact, a private citizen whose philosophical ideals guide the Libyan government.
Taheri: Mandela bought that?
Kaddafi: Yes. Mandela is a man of immense goodwill and intelligence.
Taheri: So how do things work in Libya, how are decisions made? How can your father, who has no position whatsoever, pick up the phone and tell any official to do anything?
Kaddafi: In Libya we have a system called the Jamahiriyah for which there is no adequate word in any of the Western languages. It didn’t even exist in Arabic and was coined by my father to denote direct rule by the people. In this system, nobody orders anybody to do anything. Matters are discussed at all levels and decisions are made collectively. Of course, when my father expresses his views on any subject people listen because they have confidence in his wisdom.
Taheri: An original system…
Kaddafi: Yes, and one that might look bizarre to you. But the idea was to disperse power so much among the people that no one could seize it with a single blow. If all Arab state are so vulnerable to the seizure of power by the military it is partly because so much power is concentrated in so few hands. Everywhere in the Arab world, without exception, people are afraid of expressing their views because they have been persuaded that power belongs to the few who rule them. The Libyan system was designed to teach the people that power belongs to them and that, as a result, they must also assume responsibility.
Taheri: In that case why not have a constitution and hold elections?
Kaddafi: That is the logical direction of our political evolution. But don’t forget that transforming a basically medieval and tribal society into a modern democratic one in just three decades is no easy task. We cannot achieve in Libya what older democracies have achieved in centuries. Promulgating a constitution is not a difficult exercise. In fact, all despotic regimes in the Arab world do have constitutions, written by those who intend to, and do, violate them systematically. Holding elections has also become a kind of fashion in the Arab world — largely to please the Americans. But everyone knows that these are fake elections in which people have the right to endorse the rulers, often by the notorious 99.9 percent majorities, but not the right to vote them out. These so-called elections are insults to the Arab people. We in Libya will not accept such an insult. We are honest with ourselves. We realize that moving from tribal monarchy to modern democracy needs more time. We need time to evolve our culture, reform our social habits, and reinterpret our traditions in the spirit of pluralism. We also need a solid middle class without which no democracy is possible. And that, in turn, requires the presence of a large number of educated citizens who can generate enquiry and political debate.
Taheri: It sounds like paradise postponed…
Kaddafi: Not at all. We already have a number of committees working on a new constitution with the help of local and foreign legal experts. We are aiming at a federal system partly inspired by the Swiss model. The country will be divided into 15 autonomous cantons in which decision-making will be as close to the people affected by any policy as possible. Many issues of direct impact on the lives of the citizens could be decided through local referendums. Once again the key idea is that of the Jamahiryiah that provides for the distribution of power among the people at all levels so as to avoid the risk of a small group seizing power either by force or through a single election. We want people’s involvement in decision-making to be part of daily life not an exercise that is organized every few years only.
Taheri: Will the new constitution turn Libya into an Islamic state?
Kaddafi: No. Libya is a Muslim nation devoted to the teachings of the Koran already and shall always remain so. The new constitution, however, will regard the sharia as one of the sources of legislation — not the sole source.
Taheri: When will the new system be introduced?
Kaddafi: As soon as the necessary work is completed. I hope it will be soon.
Taheri: You said 30 years is not long enough to judge the performance of your father’s regime with regard to political evolution in Libya. But, what about your country’s economic performance? Since 1969, when your father seized power, Libya has earned some $250 billion from exporting oil. This is no mean sum for a native population of 1.8 million 30 years ago and around three million now. And yet there are Libyans begging in the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi and accepting menial jobs even in Malta. Your country does not have anything to export except oil and is forced to import everything, including most of its food. What happened? Were did the money go?
Kaddafi: The situation is not as bleak as you suggest. But I admit that our economic performance has been less than satisfactory. Our economy has suffered from too much state intervention inspired by the now outmoded socialist models of the 1960s and 1970s. It is also true that we export only oil. But don’t forget that much of our territory consists of barren desert and where there is fertile land there is little or no rain. So, you cannot expect us to be a big producer of agricultural goods. Libya has embarked on a slow but important process of economic reform that has not received the attention it merits.
Taheri: What are the key features of that reform process?
Kaddafi: The key aim is to develop a robust private sector. Libya now allows foreign investment in many fields and under extremely attractive terms. We have also opened the tourist trade that is creating new job opportunities. Libya has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean and some of the sea’s most beautiful beaches. And yet the number of tourists we attract is minimal compared to, say, Tunisia. The economic reform process also includes a massive privatization effort that will see most state-owned industries transferred to private companies. We know that in an era of global markets Libya cannot remain isolated in its corner and depend on oil revenues that will one day come to an end.
Taheri: Is there any popular support in Libya for your father’s African ambitions? For example, has anyone taken up his suggestion to marry a black African and receive a government reward of $5,000? Will you yourself consider marrying a black African?
Kaddafi: The cash bonus is certainly attractive. But I won’t marry a black African. This is a matter of personal taste. I don’t know how many Libyans have taken up the offer. More seriously, I can assure you that a majority of Libyans support the African policy spelled out by my father because they realize that the cause of Arab unity got us nowhere, except into trouble.
Taheri: Wouldn’t it be wiser to emphasize Libya’s Mediterranean identity? After all, Libya was part of the Greco-Roman world for long before it became a Muslim-Arab nation. As for Africa, the nearest black Africans to Libya’s population centers are some 1,000 miles away while Italy is just across the water. Did you know that the man who bought Plato and freed him from slavery was a businessman from Benghazi?
Kaddafi: I did not. But there is no doubt that Libya does have a Mediterranean identity. Our culture, our way of life, and our traditions have a great deal in common with those of other Mediterranean peoples, especially the Greeks and the Italians. We also have important economic relations with the Mediterranean nations. Italy buys almost 30 percent of our oil and is our biggest trading partner. We have made significant investments in Italy and other European countries in the past 20 years. We are trying to diversify relations with Spain, France, and, indeed, the whole of the European Union. But the fact is that from the mid-1980s onwards, the Europeans, pressed by Washington, shut all the doors in our face. I was thrown out of my school in Switzerland, although I was just a child at the time. The Africans, on the other hand, welcomed us with open arms. They helped us negotiate the Lockerbie compromise that preserved the dignity of the Libyan state. We cannot forget that.
Taheri: Libya still features on the list of states sponsoring international terrorism as established by Washington…
Kaddafi: Yes. And that is just another sign of American ill will towards Libya. We had very positive relations with the United States until Ronald Reagan became president and initiated cowboy diplomacy. Under President Jimmy Carter, Libya was one of the most attractive places for U.S. investments, especially in the energy sector. Carter’s brother even worked for us as public-relations adviser. Carter was the best president the Americans have had in a long time. Today there is no justification for keeping Libya’s name on the list of sponsors of terrorism.
Taheri: But Libya is engaged in acquiring weapons of mass destruction…
Kaddafi: Where is the evidence? It is not enough to claim that Libya is building an atomic bomb for that to be accepted as gospel truth. Terrorism today does not require sophisticated weapons. A dirty bomb is easy to make and anyone could carry it to the target. Does Libya have any interest in such schemes against the U.S. or, indeed, any other country? The answer is a definite no. Libya wants its relations with the U.S. to be restored to full normalcy and cooperation, as was the case in the past. At one point I even contemplated a year or two of studies at Harvard. But I am not sure they will let me.
Taheri: We may be on the eve of an American military action to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Would you support such a move?
Kaddafi: No one can support such a move that is in direct violation of all international law. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Iraqi leaders have committed many mistakes. And in politics, just as in real life, people end up paying for their mistakes. You cannot expect us to pay for the mistakes of someone else. The Iraqi leaders never asked my father to guide them. So, they cannot expect him to defend their mistakes.
Taheri: Some Arabs say they resent what they regard as Washington’s refusal to intervene in the Middle East conflict to promote a solution. What is your view?
Kaddafi: I think President George W. Bush is right not to be dragged into the conflict. The situation is simply too hot for anyone to make a contribution from the outside. President Clinton spent so much time trying to promote a peaceful settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and failed. In fact, both sides played him for their own purposes. He was so naive. George W. is not naïve, or at least his advisors are not. He knows that neither side really wants peace — at least not now. So, he prefers to wait. And that is wise.
Taheri: Do you approve of the Palestinians suicide bombers?
Kaddafi: It is not a question of approval or disapproval. They have a philosophy behind what they do. They are acting in accordance with the holy Koran and the law of retribution….
Taheri: But the Koran specifically forbids suicide and the killing of innocent civilians even in the context of war. And the law of retribution, which is common to Jews as well, was designed to limit punishment not to give license to individuals to do as they pleased…
Kaddafi: We obviously have different readings of the Koran. There are no civilians in Israel. All Israelis are either in the army or have been or shall one day be soldiers. Most of them came from Poland and Russia to usurp the land of Palestine. So they should not be surprised by the violent reaction of the Palestinians. Let me make it plain that I do not encourage suicide-bombers. I don’t approve of hurting even a fly. All I am saying is that I understand their pain and sympathize with their cause. You cannot dismiss their cause just like that. Even the wife of Tony Blair, the British prime minister, has expressed sympathy for the suicide bombers who act out of desperation.
Taheri: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist?
Kaddafi: Yes. But not as a Zionist state. My father has proposed one state for both the Jews and the Palestinians, like South Africa where black and white have learned to live together. There are many states in which peoples of different faiths and races live together. There is no reason why the Jews and the Palestinians could not do the same.
Taheri: Who are your heroes?
Kaddafi: The only hero I can instantly acknowledge is my father. I am sure that history will recognize his wisdom and his achievements. I can also cite Gandhi. Yes, my father and Gandhi are my true heroes.
— Amir Taheri is author of The Cauldron: The Middle East behind the headlines. He is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.