He was so smooth in his Brioni suits and cashmere zip-up sweaters. His English was fluent, his manner easy. He spoke of civil society and democracy, the subject of his doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics. Through American consultants, he promoted openness at home, counterterrorism abroad, and headed a major charity. He dabbled in art, painting a little himself and displaying the work of others.
He even met secretly with Israelis—journalists, academics, and government officials in Europe, knowing that they would rush to share what he had said with the officials he hoped to impress in Washington.
Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi presented well. But last week, the world saw a different man, a crude version of the cosmetic, well-polished act of a politician. Mimicking his fox-like crazy dad, Muammar Gaddafi's son warned that the family would fight until the last "man, the last woman, the last bullet."
What was suddenly exposed was the ruthless son of a brutal, desperate dictator determined to retain power after 41 years. Saif Gadaffi al-Islam, which in Arabic means "sword of Islam," had been forced to choose between the good of his country and that of his family, clan, and tribe. Inevitably, perhaps, he had chosen the latter.
"Tragically, but fatefully," wrote Professor David Held, Saif's academic adviser during his four years at L.S.E. and the head of a department that had benefited from a £1.5 million ($2.4 million) gift from Saif's Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, his protégé had "made the wrong judgment."
An embarrassed LS.E. announced that the school would "reconsider" its links to Libya "as a matter of urgency," would "stop new activities" under the program, and review what to do with the £300,000 the charity had already bestowed. "The man giving that speech wasn't the Saif I had got to know well over those years," Held explained.
Now a debate has erupted over whether Saif wrote his thesis himself or whether it was ghosted.
Sarah Leah Whitson, the normally tough director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, could also not hide her disappointment in the man who only a year ago had helped her hold an unprecedented press conference in Tripoli to publicize her group's report on Libya's human-rights abuses and prospects for reform.
The son who "might have led Libyans to a peaceful transition, has become an advocate for policies leading to their deaths," she lamented in an essay in the Los Angeles Times.
I, too, had once hoped, all too briefly, that Saif al-Islam might help lead his country to a kinder, more pluralistic future, and in this crisis, to a peaceful transition. Saif had boasted when I first interviewed him in 2006 at his home in Vienna that he had encouraged his father to compensate the 270 victims of the 1988 Libyan-ordered bombing of Pan Am 103. He also took partial credit for his father's decision in December 2003 to abandon his $300 million program to develop a nuclear bomb and other weapons of mass destruction, a "curse" that was isolating his country diplomatically and preventing Libya from getting United Nations sanctions lifted, he told me.
He had been helpful in alleviating the suffering and ultimately securing the freedom of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been imprisoned for eight years and condemned to death in Libya for allegedly infecting 434 children in a Benghazi hospital with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Saif disclosed that they had been tortured and had bravely contradicted his father's claim that the nurses were "bio-terrorists" whom the CIA or Israel's Mossad had paid to spread a unique, deadly strain of the virus they had created to experiment on Libya's children. Through his charity, Saif had financed studies debunking the bio-terror claim and improved the nurses' conditions in prison. He had also gotten me into the jail near Tripoli to interview them and help publicize their plight.
His foundation had promoted freeing political prisoners, greater freedom of expression, and political liberalization. It had helped create two newspapers that occasionally criticized Libya's policies.
The "Saif as savior" mantra, of course, was aggressively promoted by well-paid agents and yes, even paid journalists who should have known better. Consider, for instance, Benjamin R. Barber, whose website describes him as "the internationally renowned political theorist and Distinguished Fellow at the policy center Demos," the author of 17 books, including the bestseller Jihad vs. McWorld (1996), and a regular blogger at the left-leaning Huffington Post. In an extraordinary posting last week, Barber disclosed that he had been a member of the international board of Saif's foundation. He deplored Saif's comments and announced indignantly that he had resigned from the board that week, along with the board's Libyan director. But even that blog failed to acknowledge that he had also received additional unspecified "consulting fees" from Libya in earlier visits through a prestigious Boston-based international consulting group called Monitor.
No single consulting group, diplomats say, has benefited more than Monitor from its connections to Saif al-Islam. Founded by Michael E. Porter, an economics professor at Harvard Business School whom the Financial Times once dubbed the "caliph of competitiveness," Monitor set up shop in Tripoli.
Was Harvard aware of Porter's association with and compensation from Libya thru Monitor? Porter won't say. In an email, he told me that his personal association with Libya ended in early 2007 when "nothing got done." A Harvard Business School spokesman said Wednesday that Porter was still a Monitor stockholder who got "occasional assignments" from them. While the school barred professors from spending more than 20 percent of their time on outside activities, it did not require them to disclose the level of their outside compensation. Harvard itself might soon be reviewing its disclosure requirements, he added.
When I visited Libya in 2006, a Monitor team was working on several projects for the government. One was a 22-page proposal for "Expanding the Dialogue around the Ideas of Muammar Gaddafi." The centerpiece of this potentially lucrative venture, initially disclosed in 2009 by a Libyan opposition group that published the proposal, was a $1.75 million book project—"Muammar Gaddafi, the man and his ideas"—based on a series of chats between Col. Gaddafi (and son Saif) with some 50-80 luminaries—thinkers, policy advisers to presidents, scholars, and journalists, several of whom Monitor had already paid to come talk with the Gaddafis.
In July 2007, the proposal said, Monitor gave the Libyans a 134-page "executive summary" outlining a possible structure for the book that was written by two senior Monitor executives. The final manuscript was to be reviewed by a trusted Monitor "sub-contractor"—none other than bestselling author Benjamin Barber.
Monitor declined to discuss how much Barber was paid, what work he did, or any specifics about its consulting in Libya. Asserting that its business there ended in 2008 and was aimed at "helping the Libyan people work towards an improved economy and more open governmental institutions," a Monitor statement added that it was "deeply distressed and saddened" by the "tragic events" unfolding in Libya.
In retrospect, none of us should have been surprised by Saif's sudden transformation last week. He had long been designated as the kinder, gentler face of his father's ugly regime. Yes, he had helped the Bulgarian nurses, but only after they had been tortured mercilessly during their first few years in jail. Yes, he had pushed for greater openness and debate in Libya, but at least twice renounced politics in convenient fits of pique. Yes, he may have pressed his father to compensate the families of Pan Am 103 victims. But he also played a major role in securing the 2009 release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the bombing, who was ostensibly dying of cancer but is still alive. It was Saif who accompanied Megrahi home to Libya on a private jet and boasted in an interview after their return, as the Guardian reported, that the release had been linked to lucrative business deals.
No, he did not abuse his wife or his staff as his younger brother Hannibal did in London and Switzerland, causing an ugly diplomatic standoff between Geneva and Tripoli. Nor did he run the telecommunications ministry into the ground as did older brother Mohamed. Unlike younger brother Sa'adi, he did not live in Munich, where a WikiLeaks cable described him as a "ne'er-do-well" who "pursues ill-defined business interests and spends much time partying." Saif had his own set of companies, known as the OneNineGroup, plus an income stream from the country's oil business. He did not have to connive, as Sa'adi did, to get a 5 percent commission from a Japanese company that was seeking to invest in an oil refinery in Za'awia, an overture that prompted a sharp letter of protest in 2006 from Japan's then ambassador, western diplomats said. Nor did he pay Mariah Carey $1 million to sing four songs at a bash at St. Barts, as did brother Muatassim, his father's "national security adviser," or run a special forces group infamous for its brutality, as does younger brother Khamis, as a WikiLeaks cable reports.
Because he was suave and his charity did good deeds—like sending tons of relief supplies to Haiti after the earthquake—some American diplomats argued that younger Libyans saw Saif as "the right person to run the country."
But the Libyans I interviewed described him as the only son without a loyal militia, and therefore, the least likely of Gaddafi's eight sons and one daughter to inherit his father's mantle.
There is now something clarifying about this new Saif, a man who calmly defends the slaughter of his fellow Libyans in the name of preventing anarchy and saving Libya from "terrorists." Most of the public relations teams, academics, and journalists who once praised his virtues have now vanished, along with his ultra-modern, pro-democracy veneer. The sham has been exposed. That, one hopes, may help remind the people fighting to liberate their country from the Gaddafi family's kleptocracy of what is at stake in their effort to create a new Libya.