Muammar Gaddafi's sexual crimes

Libyan dictator raped women, held them captive. His security director shares harrowing, previously secret details

Published September 22, 2013 3:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/John Redman)
(AP/John Redman)

Excerpted from "Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya"

The only pictures available of him date to his capture on October 20, 2011, the same day that Muammar Gaddafi was captured. A short chaotic film taken by a rebel on a cell phone shows him haggard, disheveled, hair and beard unkempt, a wound caused by explosives beneath his right eye. His frantic flight with the Libyan Guide, whose much-feared chief of security he was, ended in carnage at the edge of the desert. This was the terrible image of a man defeated.

Mansour Daw stayed with the Libyan dictator until the very end, hurriedly leaving Bab al-Azizia when the insurgents seized Tripoli, first rushing off toward Bani Walid, where Gaddafi said farewell to his gathered family before heading for Sirte in the west—hiding there in ordinary houses that soon lacked all reserves, electricity, or food, and increasingly outnumbered by rebels—until the ultimate attempt at flight was stopped outright at dawn by NATO firing. Mansour was one of the few survivors of the last group of the faithful. And together with Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, he was the most important of the prisoners captured by the new regime. His name embodied the terror that was maintained for decades, and more recently the barbarous acts—rape, torture, executions—committed in his country to put down the revolution. All of Libya was waiting for him to explain himself. But Mansour Daw wasn’t talking. At least, that is what Ibrahim Beitalmal, a member of the Misrata Military Council and in charge of the military prisoners, was eager to warn me about when he gave me permission to meet with him.

On Saturday, March 10, 2012, he came into the large meeting hall of a building of the national army in Misrata, looking relaxed—in a khaki jacket, a wool cap on his head—and rested. His white beard was trimmed very short, and an ironic smile played around his lips. He had agreed to the idea of an interview without knowing its topic. Perhaps he saw it as a distraction in his solitary days. “I was in France four times,” he said as an introduction. “It was very nice.” All well and good, but we weren’t here to exchange pleasantries. I told him that I was investigating a subject that was said to be taboo, the sexual crimes of Colonel Gaddafi, and I was hoping he would tell me what he knew about it. “Nothing,” he answered. “I knew nothing. As a member of his family I owed him respect. So there was no question of broaching the subject with him. Besides, I didn’t even let myself look in that direction. Keeping my distance was the best way for me to keep my self-respect. I was protecting myself.”

“You knew, however, that Gaddafi was sexually abusing hundreds of young men and women?”

“I can’t deny or confirm that. Everyone has the right to a private life.”

“A private life? Can you talk about a private life when sexual relations are coerced, when there are countless accomplices, and state departments are called upon to facilitate these crimes?”

“Some people knew. I didn’t.”

“Did you know that young girls were held captive in the basement of his residence?”

“I swear I never went down to that basement! I am a commander and one of the highest-ranking officers in the army. In Moscow I wrote a thesis on military command structure. When I walk into a barracks, people tremble with fear. I’ve always known how to get respect—specifically, by keeping my distance from all that!”

“All that”? What did he mean? Suddenly he seemed ill at ease. Undoubtedly he was expecting to be faced with—and to dodge—questions about the war, arms, brigades, and mercenaries, but not questions about women. He was finding himself on shaky ground and was on his guard.

“What did the high command you personified think when you saw your leader disembark, surrounded by female bodyguards, most of whom were just young mistresses without any military training, to visit leaders of foreign countries?”

“I was not in charge of those trips and refused to participate in them! In the brief period of time that I myself ran the Guide’s security brigade, I can assure you that the girls in that ‘special service’ weren’t there!”

“Weren’t you insulted by that masquerade?”

“What could I say? I didn’t have a monopoly over the Libyan army! And even if I was unhappy, there was nothing I could do. In any event, women aren’t made for the army. It goes against nature. If they’d asked for my opinion there never would have been a Military Academy for Women.”

“Did Gaddafi genuinely believe in it when he created it in 1979?”

“Perhaps. But essentially I think that it is the academy that gave him the idea of using women in other ways.”

He gave a little laugh as, with a trace of male complicity, he made eye contact with the prison director, who had just joined us, as if to say: “You know what I mean by ‘using in other ways.’” So then I asked him if he knew the female bodyguards Soraya had told me about, Salma Milad in particular. I described her as being built like a tank, with a gun at her belt, watching over the Guide on every trip, ironing his clothes and tormenting his little slaves. He didn’t hesitate. Of course, he had known her very well! He even acknowledged that she’d gained a certain level of competence at the Military Academy.

But the prominent place she had won by Gaddafi’s side was still hard to swallow, even now. “That shocked me, you know. That display of closeness actually embarrassed me. Believe me, I even shouted against it. And when she was under my command I wouldn’t let her get away with anything. One day when we were on a mission in Kufra, in the southern part of the country, I gave her an earful on the internal radio. Gaddafi intercepted the conversation and intervened, seething: ‘Never talk to her like that again! One day I’ll make her a general, you’ll see. And she will be your superior!’ My heart missed a beat. ‘If you make her a general, she’ll still never be anything but Salma Milad to me!’ Every receiver linked to the network heard the exchange and Gaddafi was extremely offended by it. How could anyone speak to the head of the army that way? He had a plane pick me up and I did thirty days in solitary. So? What do you think of that? It shows you I have values, morals, that I draw the line.”

Gradually, Mansour Daw let his guard down. Although I had been told that he didn’t yet allow himself to be at all critical of the Guide, I sensed he was eager to clear himself of any involvement in the heinous business we were discussing. Strictly speaking, he revealed nothing, only hinted at things, but through these hints he confirmed that those close to Gaddafi were familiar with most of his activities, even participated in some of them, and tolerated no criticism. The leader’s relations with women, military or not, was a private matter. Anyone who hindered him could count on his wrath. On the other hand, those who were willing to understand, encourage, and facilitate their master’s sick obsession came to hold considerable power inside the regime. And Mansour Daw was unable to hide his contempt.

“How was this activity organized?”

“It fell under the umbrella of the Department of Protocol under the direction of Nuri Mesmari, a schemer who had the gall to parade around in a general’s uniform every now and then, and had the nickname ‘the general of special affairs’ so the only word that was applicable could be avoided.”

“And what was that?”

“I hardly dare tell you: ‘general of the whores’! He looked for women everywhere; that was his specialty and his primary function; he would even pick up prostitutes on the street.”

“And Mabrouka Sherif ?”

“Crucial to the system. She actually carried a lot of weight with Gaddafi, and was glued to his side on a permanent basis. I was so revolted by her that I refused to shake her hand on three separate occasions. She had networks all over and dealt, among other things, with the wives of state leaders. She practiced black magic, and I’m sure that she used it to keep Gaddafi under her control.”

“Did he believe in black magic?”

“He denied it, but although we’re living in a scientific era, even Western leaders consult clairvoyants! In any case, there were several of us who wanted to tell him that Mabrouka Sherif and Mesmari practiced it. I remember one day when there were five of us high-ranking military officers in the car with him, I was driving, and one of us said: ‘Watch out! You’re the victim of black magic and those two are busy wrecking your image.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I have complete con in them.’ All my warnings failed completely. He was the head of state and I was nothing but a paid employee. I’m not the one who needs to answer for his crimes!”

“When did you work closely with the Department of Protocol?”

“Virtually never, for, as I told you, I would refuse to be part of the official trips Mesmari organized. But they still asked me to go to Spain, to France, et cetera. Even if they put my name on the list and reserved a room for me at the hotel, I’d refuse. I didn’t want to be mixed up in that.”

“Mixed up in what?”

“These goings-on with women.”

“Because those trips were favorable for various forms of making deals?”

“I heard a lot of things, because there were clashes with the actual military. As chief of protocol, Mesmari, who spoke several languages, managed to disguise the arrivals of the women as ‘committees,’ ‘delegations,’ or ‘groups of journalists.’ I also know that this ‘special service’ was a very lucrative business for his officials, especially if they went abroad and tampered with the gifts. I knew how to protect myself.”

Then I brought up Soraya’s testimony. How Salma and Mabrouka kidnapped her in Sirte, her successive rapes, her incarceration in a basement at Bab al-Azizia. He shook his head, devastated. “I wasn’t consulted on that sort of subject. I could have opposed it. They would have put me in prison. I swear I knew nothing about that basement! It goes against my values! I am a respected military man, a father, a grandfather. Can you see me as a rapist? A pimp? Never! I’d be incapable of sleeping with a woman who isn’t interested!” There was a moment of silence during which he seemed lost in his thoughts. He took a deep breath, threw a meaningful look at the two rebels in charge of the prison, and, raising his arms to the sky, exclaimed: “He who should have been the nation’s spiritual leader! It’s awful!”

Was he really surprised or was he putting on an act? Was it conceivable that Libya’s chief of security was really dumbfounded as he heard mention of the crimes perpetrated by the master of Bab al-Azizia, while so many employees—guards, chauffeurs, nurses—were aware of them? “I didn’t spend much time with him. We weren’t close. We were closely related, and I stayed with him until the end. I even supported him when he was wounded, to bring him to safety. But I swear that this information comes as a shock! What I heard about the gynecological examination room at the university gives me goose bumps.”

“Would you say that sex was used as a political weapon?”

“Come now! That’s a classic. You know very well that sex is used as a weapon all over the world. Even in France. The first time I went there I knew that the French Secret Service had signed up a Tunisian woman to trap me. Fair enough, but it showed how little they knew me. They don’t pursue me—I am the one who pursues! Gaddafi often sent girls also to trap those close to him or highly placed people in the government. Some came to their downfall that way.”

“Did you know that he forced some ministers to have sexual relations with him?”

“It doesn’t surprise me. There are so many ambitious people. There were even those who were prepared to hand over their wife or daughter in exchange for some favor or other. That is the height of disgrace in Libyan culture. It’s the sign of a subhuman.”

“Apparently, he also tried to rape the wives of his cousins.”

“You’re not a man if you allow your own wife to be touched.”

“How should you react?”

“By killing the rapist. Or by bringing about your own death.”

“You can’t be ignorant of the fact that he also assaulted wives of the guards and the military?”

“I guarantee you that he never touched my own family. I always did everything to protect them.”

“How ?”

“I made sure my wife never got into any car that wasn’t driven by me or one of my sons. We didn’t have a chauffeur. Except occasionally when I’d rely on the services of my wife’s brother, who was even more protective than I was. And jealous, too!”

“So you didn’t trust Gaddafi?”

“We didn’t invite him to my son’s wedding. On the third day Safia came to congratulate us and have her picture taken with my son and his wife. That was all.”


“I didn’t want my highly respected family to fall victim to his activities. The wedding was held at my house because I was afraid of the cameras at the hotels. The orchestra was made up of women, and the reception was all women except for my son. And we had prohibited any cell phones so that no pictures could be taken on the sly.”

“Did you think he might have picked out a victim had he been invited to the reception?”

“He wouldn’t have dared to pounce on any of my guests. He knew all too well what my reaction would have been. But I preferred that he be somewhere else. Had he come he would surely have been accompanied by his whores, always on the lookout, and that terrified me.”

What an admission! What mistrust! Did he have any regrets for having followed such a shameless criminal all the way to the end? He sat up in his chair and took his time before answering.

“In the beginning I trusted him and had no idea about his barbaric acts. Now that he is dead, what’s the point of expressing any personal regrets? I keep that to myself, buried deep inside me. I protected my family, and that to me is what’s most important. And from here on in I surrender myself to the justice of the Libyan people. I will accept its verdict. Even if it’s a death sentence.”

He got up to leave, waiting to be taken back to his cell, then changed his mind.

“You know, when I came here, to Misrata, this city that had been so badly damaged by the war, I had lost a great deal of blood. I was wounded, on the brink of death. They took care of me and treated me with respect. I need to say that. I sleep on a mattress that the prison director brought me himself from his own home. He gave me clothes. I’m discovering the pleasure of speaking with good men, who fought for the rebellion, and the almost fraternal link that unites us. Unsettling, isn’t it?”

From "Gaddafi's Harem" © Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 2012; Translation copyright © 2013 by Marjolijn de Jager; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

By Annick Cojean

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