Saif al-Islam Qaddafi once vowed to fight and die on Libyan soil, but now he may be ready to hand himself in to the International Criminal Court rather than suffer his father’s gruesome fate.
An official of the National Transitional Council said on Wednesday that Saif al-Islam, the only one of Muammar Qaddafi’s eight children still on the run, had proposed surrendering to the Hague-based ICC, where he is wanted on war crimes charges.
Any surrender would mark another U-turn by Saif al-Islam, an internationally well-connected philanthropist and liberal reformer who turned abruptly into a soldier ready to die rather than capitulate when rebels rose up against his father.
“We fight here in Libya; we die here in Libya,” he told Reuters Television in an interview shortly after the rebellion broke out in February.
Three of Qaddafi’s sons did die on home soil, along with their father, whose battered and abused body went on public show in a meat store before its burial on Tuesday.
But Saif al-Islam, whose name means “Sword of Islam”, wants to put his fate in the hands of the ICC, along with Qaddafi’s former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, who is also wanted by the court, the NTC official said.
Educated at the London School of Economics, Saif al-Islam was once seen by many governments as the acceptable, Western-friendly face of Libya, and heir apparent to his father. But when the rebellion broke out, he immediately chose family and clan loyalties over his many friendships in the West.
Rumors of arrest
As Tripoli fell to rebels in August, the ICC’s prosecutor announced he had been arrested, opening the way for his extradition. However, he soon popped up at a Tripoli hotel used by foreign journalists to prove he remained a free man.
“I am here to disperse the rumors ...,” he said, pumping his fists in the air, smiling, waving and shaking hands with supporters.
The ICC later said it had never received official confirmation of Saif’s capture.
Qaddafi’s four other surviving children − three sons and a daughter − are in exile in neighboring Algeria and Niger.
Analysts doubt that Saif al-Islam could lead a serious insurgency against Libya’s rulers, saying his influence is much reduced with his dominating and intimidating father now dead.
“The answer really is a big “no.” Saif rose to prominence by virtue of being his father’s son,” said Jon Marks, chairman of the consultancy Cross Border Information.
“Ironically, his biggest boosters during the ‘Saif years’ − when he was prominent but perhaps never dominant given his father’s leading role pulling the strings − are the very governments and politicians who ended up bombing his regime into oblivion.”
Before the rebellion, Saif al-Islam sometimes appeared genuinely at odds with Qaddafi senior, who ruled for 42 years through fear and violence.
Mainly through his charitable Qaddafi Foundation, Saif al-Islam pushed for reform, including more media freedom, acknowledgement of past rights abuses and the adoption of a constitution. He also oversaw a reconciliation with Islamist rebels who launched an insurgency in the 1990s.
But his efforts were stymied by opposition from inside the ruling elite and − some analysts say − from members of his own family. Last year, the independent newspaper he had helped to found was forced to mute its criticism of the authorities and his foundation withdrew from political activities.
One of his projects did succeed, albeit one that suited his father. He played a central role in negotiating the lifting of U.S. and European sanctions on Libya in 2004, in return for Tripoli ending its nuclear and chemical weapons programs.
This led to Britain’s then-prime minister, Tony Blair, visiting Tripoli to embrace Qaddafi senior, long a pariah in the West.
Saif al-Islam owned a 10-million-pound ($16-million) home in London but his activities and friendships caused much embarrassment in the West when the rebellion broke out.
The director of the London School of Economics, Howard Davies, resigned over the university’s ties to its former student.
The LSE had accepted a 300,000-pound donation from Saif al-Islam’s foundation, a decision that Davies said had “backfired.” The LSE also investigated the authenticity of Saif al-Islam’s PhD thesis, which was awarded in 2008.