Moammar Gadhafi, the quixotic Libyan dictator who for four decades wielded an iron grip over an oil-rich country largely sealed off from the rest of the world, was said to have been killed Thursday by leaders of the rebel movement. Gadhafi was found hiding in a storm drain in his hometown of Surt, which had in recent weeks become one of the last remaining strongholds of the pro-Gadhafi forces, a bloody postscript to a protracted battle for control of the country.
Or, as Iyad El-Baghadadi, a Dubai-based blogger who has been chronicling the Libyan campaign, wrote in a Twitter post after word of Gadhafi’s death spread, “Gadhafi called his people rats and he ended up captured in a sewer.”
Libyan opposition blogger tweeting under the handle of @Libya_United posted to YouTube Thursday afternoon dramatic first-hand video that seemed to show the capture of Gadhafi before he was killed. The video shows Gadhafi resting, bloody, in the back of a truck, as a chaotic melee of Libyan fighters wielding guns and celebrants take shape around him. The video seems to support the account of some observers, such as Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy magazine, who have suggested that Gadhafi may have been “summarily executed” rather than killed in battle. An image circulating online, for example, seems to show Gadhafi’s bloodied corpse with, as one blogger put it, “the bullet in his head.”
Arabic news channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya also broadcast graphic footage of what seemed to be Gadhafi’s bloody corpse being removed from his hideout in Surt. There were also gruesome still photographs of Gadhafi’s dead body circulating online, but it was unclear whether the photos and the video were from the same source and if they were authentic. Longer versions of the video obtained by Reuters seem to show rebel fighters celebrating around Gadhafi’s body.
The Libyan interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, a Western-educated technocrat who has led the rebel movement for much of the campaign, confirmed in a statement on Thursday that Gadhafi had been killed. A spokesman for the rebels in the United Kingdom, Guma El Gamaty, wrote on Twitter that 17 of Gadhafi’s top aides had also been captured. There was no word yet on the fate of Gadhafi’s son, Saif, who was one of the government’s most brutal and relentless commanders.
Gamaty also wrote on Twitter that Saif Gadhafi’s convoy may have been hit by a NATO air strike near Surt Thursday, and that he had either been injured or arrested. NATO confirmed the air strike in a report by Reuters, but could not confirm whether any members of the Gadhafi family or top leadership had been in the convoy at the time of the attack.
Response to the news from Western officials were slow, in part because NATO and other organizations were unable to confirm the news. CBS released footage Thursday of the moments just before an interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during which Clinton was informed by an aide of Gadhafi’s capture. “Wow,” Clinton says in the video, seeming genuinely surprised. “Unconfirmed reports about Gadhafi being captured,” Clinton told an aide, before adding, “We’ve had a bunch of those before, we’ve had him captured a couple of times.”
The immediate implications of Gadhafi’s death for the Libyan rebel movement, the wider Arab Spring and the West were unclear, but were certain to be far-reaching. Adam Serwer of Mother Jones wrote Thursday that the matter of how Gadhafi met his end would matter greatly to the legitimacy of the rebel movement, which may be in part by Western officials have yet to formally acknowledge the news. Whether Gadhafi was injured in battle or executed afterward, Serwer wrote, means the “difference between a legal kill and a war crime.”
Dan Drezner of Foreign Policy wrote that the implication of Gadhafi’s bloody death may be ultimately be negative for the wider Arab Spring. A dictator watching the conflict in Libya might be emboldened to use deadly force in order to stay in power, if for no other reason than to avoid the grisly death that awaited Gadhafi. “when leaders have expectations of a violent demise if they lose power, they have a more powerful incentive to use force to stay in power,” Drezner wrote.
One thing, however, is certain: Gadhafi’s death is a victory, if somewhat belated, for the international coalition that intervened in the conflict, and for the Obama administration. President Obama can now conceivably claim to have overseen the deaths of the some of the world’s most reviled terrorists and dictators, from Osama bin Laden to Anwar al-Awlaki to, now, Gadhafi.