“The flood of footage and images”, pronounced BBC News on the day that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was finally hunted down and murdered, “allow for no conspiracy theories, as have flourished after Osama bin Landen's killing.” How wrong can you be? Gaddafi's capture in his home town of Sirte on October 20th, 2011 was indeed blazoned all over the Internet, all around the world, in disturbing detail. In one segment of phone footage, you heard automatic gunfire, car horns, joyous hollering and cries of “God is great!”. You saw a limp, bewildered and bleeding Gaddafi slapped, insulted, beaten and abused, blood pouring down one side of his face and onto his shirt – one image even appeared to show him being sodomized with a bayonet. You felt the rage and confusion of the scene; you felt, if you had any humanity in you, Gaddafi's pain and bewildered terror.
Stills circulated that showed his corpse, but what was never shown – or was never clear – was the actual moment of Gaddafi's death. Somehow, the fact that there was so much footage of his capture and assault underlined the absence of those “missing” images. Then still more footage came to light, showing Gaddafi beaten and bloodied, but alive, suggesting he wasn't in fact killed until later – until after his “body” had been dragged off towards the town of Mistrata in an ambulance.
Statements by the national Transitional Council (NTC) – the rebel army that deposed the Libyan leader – added to the confusion, and the suspicion. One fighter said that Gaddafi was shot by his own men, while the interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, initially claimed that Gaddafi had died in crossfire on his way to the hospital. The UN International Commission of Inquiry reported on the affair in March 2012, but didn't clarify matters much. “Though wounded”, it concluded, Gaddafi was “alive on capture and subsequently died in thuwar [revolutionary] capture”. The inquiry was “unable to confirm” that his death was “an unlawful killing”.
Some believed that NATO (or the CIA, or MI6) had secretly ordered his execution – despite claiming to want to take him alive, and despite signing up to various international laws preventing ht e assassination of heads of state. The suspicion was that NTO, or its allies, were terrified a trial would expose the supposed secret deals surrounding Libya's dismantling of its weapons of mass destruction programme in 2004, and its acceptance of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. As many pointed out, NATO had already repeatedly tried to kill Gaddafi with air strikes. And, according to the then-government of Libya, NATO had killed Gaddafi's son, Saif Al-Arab, in an air strike on April 30th, 2011.
In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Sirte, Gaddafi loyalists tried to assert their leader was not, in fact, dead, hoping to prolong the life of the crumbling regime. This quickly became untenable, and his supporters switched their efforts towards proving that Gaddafi had been extra judicially killed. It seemed a reasonable conclusion. Even if NTC officers didn't order Gaddafi's death, they were not in control of the scene after his capture. Whether it was military murder of a mob lynching – either way, it didn't exactly constitute due process. Then, video footage emerged of Gaddafi's son, Mutassim, who had been captured at the same time as his father, The video showed him alive in rebel custody, calmly smoking a cigarette, with what appeared to be only minor injuries. Soon after, his corpse was on display. No one tried to claim that he had been put on trial in between times.
Amateur forensic scientists were pouring over the footage of Colonel Gaddafi's capture, and asking questions. Why, if NTC officials claimed he was wounded in the legs, was there no blood on his trousers? What about the counterclaim that the wound was to his stomach? Why was there a bullet hole in his left temple – and was this why images of his body laid out showed it with the head turned sideways? Was this to conceal the gunshot wound? Why does Gaddafi's hair look lighter in one video, and darker in another? How come his beard was so well trimmed if he'd been hiding in a sewer? Why does his naked upper body look so young? “Do you know”, one suspicious blogger asked, “how the body of a 70 year old man looks like?”
Gaddafi, it was also observed, had twelve body doubles. Had one of them stood in for the man himself, in an act of the utmost devotion to doppelganger duty? The pro-Gaddafi and anti-US conspiracy site www.aangirfan.blogspot.co.uk was one of many sites to repeat claims that the murdered man was a well-known lookalike from Sirte, killed by the “psychopathis criminals” of the NTC “solely for their psychological operation... tarnishing the image of Gaddafi on the one hand and smearing Islam on the other”. “In reality”, it was concluded, “it is these 'druggie types' gired by the secret services of NATO countries, who have nothing to do with Islam, who committed these crimes.”
Where the real Gaddafi was hiding, or what he was ding, or why it was anyones interest to keep him alive, were questions mostly left unanswered. One much copied-and-pasted comment appearing on many sites quotes “one theory” that Gaddafi “as a 33 degree Freemason and former asset of the CIA has been allowed to retire to obscurity in some country such as Italy, France, Morocco or Algeria”. Or somewhere.
Perhaps Israel? One of the longest-running Libyan conspiracy theories is that Gaddafi is... Jewish. In any-Semitic Arab and North African circles, it's not uncommon for opposition politicians to be called “Jew”, as if this were an insult. It can be used as a political slur to suggest ties with the hated Israeli government or even Mossad, Israel's notorious intelligence service. In the case of Gaddafi, however, some surprising evidence emerged. Israeli television dug up an elderly Libyan Jewish settler in Israel, Gita Boaron, who claimed that her grandmother was the sister of Gaddafi's grandmother – his Jewish grandmother. Under Israeli law, this would give Gaddafi the right to settle in Israel. Whether or not he would be welcome is another matter: one of his more noxious acts as leader, in 1969, was to expel Libya's historic Jewish population.