Viewpoint: Gaddafi messages carefully calculated

by Noman Benotman, 1 September 2011

Apparently conflicting messages from the Gaddafi camp reflect a well-orchestrated campaign by Muammar Gaddafi to cling to power in Libya, writes long-time opposition activist Noman Benotman.

In a phone call to Al-Arabiya television late on Wednesday, Saadi Gaddafi – a former footballer who ran Libya’s football federation – said he was ready to negotiate with the rebels to stop the bloodshed.

Shortly afterwards, Saif al-Islam – once considered the moderate face of the Gaddafi regime and the heir apparent – urged his father’s supporters to fight the rebels “day and night.”

It was a classic case of good-cop, bad-cop – Saadi appealing for peace and Saif al-Islam calling for war.

As I listened to the two sons – on the same day, addressing the same issue but contradicting each other entirely – I could see their father sitting somewhere and laughing.

On Thursday, Col Gaddafi himself delivered an audio message, calling on his supporters to set Libya ablaze.

“If Libya goes up in flames, who will be able to govern it? Let it burn… We are still armed. We will fight in every valley, in every street, in every oasis, and every town,” he said.

Different audiences

It is all part of a calculated and well co-ordinated strategy.

Saadi’s message appeared to be designed for the regime’s detractors and the National Transitional Council (NTC), a bid to calm tensions and buy time, perhaps even save his life and that of his family.

In an unusual move for the well-known playboy, he used religiously-charged language, perhaps calculating that only this type of language would appeal to the NTC.

But in Libya, it is crucial for the leadership to appear strong and in control, not weak and begging.

So, Saif al-Islam – and later his father – struck a defiant tone, hoping to keep morale high among what is left of their loyalist tribes.

Saif al-Islam called on tribes and certain areas in Libya to carry on the battle against the rebel “rats”, directly instructing them to kill anti-government militants.

Some say divisions within the Gaddafi clan were evident in the beginning of the revolution, around February and early March, with family members blaming each other for the uprising.

But this is not the case any more. The Gaddafi clan are fighting a family war against the Libyan people, and they know it is a fight to the death.

Funds and equipment

The family still has substantial resources at their disposal – tribal backing and billions in cash that they can access while still at large.

Rough estimates say Col Gaddafi has at least $9bn-10bn (£5.5bn-£6.2bn) under his control in Libya.

But I strongly believe that Col Gaddafi’s financial infrastructure extends across Sub-Saharan Africa, where he uses front companies and even charities to further the Gaddafi agenda by moving money from place-to-place.

Other reports say that the Libyan leader has been contacting African businessmen looking to sell large quantities of gold, likely stolen from Libya’s central bank.

It is difficult to trace such transactions, because of the number of shell companies and front groups at his disposal.

From a military perspective, in certain areas – including Sirte (Col Gaddafi’s hometown) and Bani Walid to the south-west – Gaddafi still commands a vast amount of military equipment.

But because of the ongoing Nato air strikes, Gaddafi and his inner circle have been forced to fight and defend their last stronghold using strategies and tactics not of their own choice.