Three years ago today, on October 20, 2011, Libyan dictator Moammar Al-Qaddafi (also spelled Gaddafi and Khadafy) was killed by rebels in the town of Sirte, in western Libya. The climactic act of the Libyan civil war, the killing brought to an end 42 years of Qaddafi’s undisputed rule in that North African country, making his one of the longest reigns by a head of state in modern times. Qaddafi’s fascinating life is full of so many twists and turns that it would be impossible to profile it in a blog post. But beyond the issues of geopolitics, terrorism and despotism raised by Qaddafi and his long rule over Libya, it’s also true that Qaddafi himself was a very strange and mysterious man, and the world he lived in was like none other inhabited by anyone on Earth.

Few people in the West know very much, or ever did, about Moammar Qaddafi. During the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan called him the “mad dog of the Middle East,” he was portrayed in the West mostly as a vaguely buffoonish character, a twitchy dictator who came as close as you can get to a real-life James Bond villain. The reality was much more complex. More than just a mad colonel who pranced about in silly uniforms, Qaddafi developed a bizarre and almost incoherent political philosophy and tried, with varying degrees of success, to rule Libya under it. Never burdened by modesty, Qaddafi also saw himself as something of a messiah not just in the Arab world, but across Africa and even globally. How he squared this messianic mission with sending out hit teams of terrorists to blow up nightclubs and 747s is something only he would have known.

qaddafi 2

In the 70s and 80s, Qaddafi fancied himself a tough guy. Here he is (on the right) with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who at this time (1977) was considered the world’s leading terrorist.

Qaddafi was, at least at first, a product of his age. He came to power in a military coup in 1969, toward the end of the era when Gemal Abdel Nasser, the ruler of Egypt, was the major mover and shaker in the Arab world. Nasser believed in pan-Arabism, that is, the notion that Arab countries should have some form of political unity in order to counterbalance Europe and the West. Qaddafi very much believed in this idea. In fact, the 1969 coup was partly designed to facilitate a union with Egypt, though that project never got off the ground. It should be noted that Nasser’s pan-Arabism was distinctly secular. Though Qaddafi and other secular Arab leaders certainly did see a place for Islam in their countries, Qaddafi’s political vision owed much more to classic 20th century revolutionary socialist thought than to any sort of religious fundamentalism.

Modeling himself on Chairman Mao and his “Little Red Book,” Qaddafi, once in power, sought to elucidate his political thought in a book he hoped would be ubiquitous in Libya. The “Little Green Book,” published between 1976 and 1979, was required reading for Libyans, but few others could make much sense out of it. Unlike socialist revolutionaries like Mao, Lenin or Che Guevara, Qaddafi’s background was military, not intellectual or political. He just wasn’t a political thinker. Few of his ideas made any practical sense. Libya was supposed to be a “direct democracy,” but that was a little hard to see in a country ruled by one man and propped up by the military. After Nasser fell in 1970 and the pan-Arab dream was pretty much dead, Qaddafi, only 27 when he came to power, was left as a strange outlier in a region that was soon radically transformed by the Camp David Accords, the Iranian Revolution, and the wars involving Afghanistan, the USSR, Israel, Iran, Iraq and the United States. If it had not been for his terrorist activities, the world would have been very content to forget about Qaddafi.

Personally Qaddafi was an enigma. He was obviously extremely vain, taking pride in changing his often bizarre costumes several times a day, hoping that he would be a fashion trend-setter. He was accused of rape and sexual abuse of various female members of his entourage and protection detail. He also reportedly had plastic surgery in the 1990s. Married twice, Qaddafi’s family was the subject of scrutiny in the West. One of his houses in Tripoli was hit by American bombs during Reagan’s anti-terrorist raid in 1986. Qaddafi claimed his baby daughter, Hanna, was killed in the attack. Yet after the Libyan revolution of 2011, records came to light of a Hanna Qaddafi being alive and well and working in a Tripoli hospital. There’s speculation that this might have been another child he adopted and named Hanna to honor his previous daughter, but there’s no proof of it.

panam 103

One of the most horrifying acts of terrorism in the pre-9/11 era was the bomb attack on Pan Am Airlines Flight 103 in December 1988. Qaddafi had a hand in it, and sheltered the culprits in Libya for years.

Qaddafi had an environmental consciousness. In 1999 he personally designed what he proclaimed to be the safest and most environmentally friendly car in the world, the Rocket. This strange-looking car was a wedge-shaped green sedan, looking a bit like something Luke Skywalker would ride on Tattooine in Star Wars. Qaddafi proclaimed that the Rocket was his gift to mankind. Despite Qaddafi’s bluster the Rocket never caught on. In 2009 he tried to unveil it again, but the project, if it was ever serious, was certainly not far along at the time of his overthrow and death.

During the 2011 Libyan Revolution, Qaddafi was rather puzzled by the fact that his own people didn’t seem to like him too much. He famously claimed that protesters demonstrating against his reign were on drugs, and that “colonialist” enemies were slipping hallucinogens into Nescafe. Qaddafi’s hold on reality, never very strong, seemed to have totally slipped toward the end. Fortunately his hold on power finally did too.

Moammar Qaddafi may well have been insane. Certainly he was one of the oddest ducks ever to rule a country in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Libyan people will be a long time recovering from his brutal rule, and the 2011 revolution by no means brought permanent stability to the country. His strange world died with him, and remains as puzzling after his death as it was during his life.

The photo of the Pan Am 103 wreckage is from the (British) Air Accident Investigation Branch and is used according to its terms with attribution.