It was not long after he received a secret warning from the Italian government in April 1986 and narrowly escaped being blown to bits by American bombers that Muammar Gaddafi declared his intention to become Emperor of Africa. What followed as the increasingly erratic Gaddafi pursued his megalomaniacal dream was one of the most obscene and violent episodes in recent African history.
Drawing recruits from his terrorism camps, Gaddafi trained, armed and dispatched thugs like Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh to take power in West African countries, initiating the brutal slaughter of innocents in Liberia and Sierra Leone, says David M. Crane, the founding prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. “This was a long-term criminal conspiracy,” says Crane, who is now a professor at Syracuse University, and “[Gaddafi] was the center point.”
For those who don’t remember, here’s a quick summary of the atrocities that took place in the war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. In pursuit of diamonds, timber and gold, Sankoh, backed by Taylor, backed by Gaddafi, invaded Sierra Leone and instituted a campaign of terror, cutting off the arms and other body parts of civilians to frighten the country into compliance. Rape was a widespread weapon of war, and according to reporting by one human rights organization, Sankoh’s troops played a game where they would bet on the sex of a baby being carried by a pregnant captive, then cut the fetus out of the woman to determine its gender.
Sankoh died in custody after the war ended; Taylor is currently being tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Gaddafi is named in Taylor’s indictment, and Taylor has testified to Gaddafi’s involvement. Crane says he found evidence that when Sankoh invaded Sierra Leone, “Libyan special forces were there helping train and assist them tactically and there were Libyan arms in that invasion: he had been involved from the get go.”
Tuesday afternoon, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement suggesting Gaddafi might be called to task for the current bloodshed in Libya, which has reportedly included unprovoked and lethal assaults by foreign African mercenaries against innocent protesters. “The members of the Security Council stressed the importance of accountability,” the statement said, “They underscored the need to hold to account those responsible for attacks, including by forces under their control, on civilians.”
Anyone holding Gaddafi to account will have a long ledger to work from. It was Gaddafi, after all, who ordered the attack on the West Berlin disco that killed two U.S. servicemen and prompted the 1986 U.S. bombing known as operation El Dorado Canyon. Gaddafi was behind the bombing of Pan Am 103, which killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. And until he gave them up after the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, Gaddafi was pursuing nuclear and chemical weapons.
What would it mean for U.S. interests if Gaddafi were to be put on trial for any of the atrocities he’s been responsible for over his four decades in power? On the surface, Gaddafi’s fall should not pose the kind of threat to U.S. strategic interests that a disorderly transition in Egypt or Bahrain might. Egypt’s relationship with Israel and its military cooperation with Washington are as important to the U.S. as the presence in Bahrain of the Navy’s 5th fleet. But Gaddafi’s sponsorship of the brutality in West Africa shows how Libya’s vast oil wealth can allow it to project instability well beyond its borders in ways that can also threaten the U.S.
Another thug could replace Gaddafi. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Monday, “Would you imagine to have an Islamic Arab Emirate at the borders of Europe? This would be a very serious threat.” U.S. officials are unconvinced the threat is as bad as Frattini says, and they note that Gaddafi himself has been peddling the danger. “We’ve heard [Gaddafi] say that there are caliphates being formed in Libya,” says a senior administration official. “There are very valid concerns about Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, but the fact that a bunch of people have taken territory in the east [of Libya] does not a caliphate make.”
The greater danger may be of Gaddafi staying. “In the recent past [he] has been better behaved,” says a senior administration official, “But go back 20 years or so and he was a significant sponsor of terrorist acts who had a nuclear program. So a major concern is does the regime retrench in ways that affect our interests in the region? Even before this happened he was complaining that his gesture in giving up nukes had not been reciprocated with the kind of love he expected. If he somehow survives this he’ll have no interest in improving relations with the west.”