How Tripoli Was Taken: The Lightning Advance That Ended Gadhafi’s Rule


By Clemens Höges

In the end, the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime came quickly, after the rebels mounted a lightning advance into Tripoli to finally topple the hated dictator who ruled Libya for 42 years. SPIEGEL followed the ragtag convoy of desperate, committed fighters into the capital.

The man is finally sitting on the fine sandy beach of Tripoli. The sea is calm and the water a deep turquoise blue. He says that he’s a very good marksman, and has a black rifle lying across his knees. Now, after all that’s happened, it doesn’t bother him anymore to shoot black Africans he believes are mercenaries. But shooting Libyans, says Abu Bakr Uraibi, is still difficult for him. And the first time he killed someone was the most difficult of all.

It happened during the first few weeks of the war, in Jabal Nafusa, a rugged mountain chain southwest of Tripoli. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s generals had dispatched 150 soldiers to close the border to Dahiba in Tunisia. The rebels were bringing in much of their supplies through the small border crossing, and a nearby mountain offered a good vantage point to control the road below.
The soldiers came at 4 a.m. They climbed the mountain, not knowing that Uraibi and 30 other rebels, a small group of inexperienced men, were there waiting for them. But the rebels were intimately familiar with the terrain, unlike Gadhafi’s soldiers . The soldiers were exhausted from the climb, while their enemies were wide awake and alert.

Then the rebels opened fire. “I was afraid of killing people,” says Uraibi. “You see someone moving and you pull the trigger. Then you still a man lying there, completely motionless. It’s a shock.”

In the space of only a few days last week, rebels from the barren mountains swept Gadhafi’s regime aside, putting an end to the rule of an autocrat who had controlled the country for 42 years, a man who dominated and suppressed his people more viciously than almost any other Arab dictator. It was a frenzied attack motivated by rage, and Uraibi was at the very front of the rebel force when it stormed Tripoli and eventually took control of Gadhafi’s compound, Bab al-Aziziya.

Uraibi is a serious man from the small city of Jadu in the Nafusa Mountains. He rarely laughs, and his smile is only visible in good light. “Six months of war take a toll on a man,” he says. He is 44, a middle-class owner of a construction company in Tripoli. This victory, and this revolt in general, explains what makes men like Uraibi fight with such grim determination.

Rebel Tells How He Left Germany to Join the Fight

The advance on Tripoli begins on Sunday, August 21, in Zawiya, a city of 250,000 on the coastal road, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Tripoli. A column of rebel combat vehicles stretches for a kilometer along the road, heading east. It is a ragtag force that includes cars filled with fighters and the rebels’ combat vehicles: pickup trucks with machine guns, rocket launchers and rapid-fire guns mounted on the beds. Most of the rebels are from the Nafusa Mountains, and they are traveling in groups identifiable by their stickers, groups like the Zintan Brigade and the Tripoli Brigade. With about 2,000 men Uraibi’s group, the Jadu Brigade, is one of the largest.

Whenever the convoy comes to a stop in the scorching heat, the pickups spread out from the road, firing at individual buildings or groups of soldiers. Then it continues on its way in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes, leaving the air smelling of burnt gunpowder. A thin man with a salt-and-pepper beard, wearing a green canvas uniform, squats by the side of the road. Ali A., a businessman from the western German city of Giessen, is taking a short break from the war.

The war began for him 22 years ago, he says, when he fled through the desert. His rage against the regime began to grow in Germany, where he managed to get by, first as an asylum seeker and later as a German citizen. But he felt disconnected from the life he was living there, gleaning bits and pieces of news about his real life in Libya from friends in the country. He prefers not to see his last name in print, especially in SPIEGEL, fearing that the German authorities could decide to prosecute him for killing people in Libya. The man, who operates a rocket launcher, has no idea how many people he has killed.

As a young man living in Jansur, a Tripoli suburb, he printed flyers with a group of friends. They distributed the flyers outside schools at night, demanded more democracy and protested against Gadhafi’s senseless war in Chad, where more than 7,500 Libyans were killed by the time it ended in 1987.

Gadhafi’s secret police tracked down the small group, and one day they came to his parents’ house to arrest him. He wasn’t home, but he happened to call the house while the men were there. His brother told him about the police and Ali, fearing that he would be sent to prison for years, never even went home that day, leaving his wife and their three-month-old daughter behind.

“I didn’t know that it would take 22 years,” he says, speaking German with a faint regional dialect from the western state of Hesse.

Only three days after the uprising began in Benghazi, Ali closed his business in Giessen. He flew to Tunisia and crossed the border into the mountains, where he joined the Nafusa rebels and then joined another group of rebels from Jansur. The group has now formed its own brigade, the Jansur Brigade, probably the smallest with only 40 men.

He knows that his daughter now has a child of her own. But neither his wife nor his daughter know that he is coming, that he is a soldier in this war and that he is killing others so that he can return to life in Jansur.

Suddenly his comrades call out to him. It’s time to move on. They are approaching a bridge where Gadhafi’s soldiers are waiting with tanks. He climbs behind the steering wheel of the black Ford F-150. The pickup is camouflaged with mud, and other rebels are now manning the rocket launcher on the bed, which they take turns operating. “I can see them,” he says. But the men quickly lose sight of one another in this chaotic war, and in his case it’s because his only means of communication is a German mobile phone that doesn’t work here in Libya. He accelerates and the group starts driving toward the rumbling sound of gunfire near the bridge, where only fighters dare to go.

As Abu Bakr Uraibi will later recount, his group with the Jadu Brigade is nearby– and not moving from the spot. Uraibi has learned a lot in recent months.

‘Gadhafi Ruined Our Country’

Shortly after the uprising began, he took his wife and five children and drove home to Jadu. He was afraid that Gadhafi’s troops would attack the towns in the Nafusa Mountains, and he knew immediately which side he would take. The people living in the mountains are not Arabs but Berbers, the original inhabitants of Libya, with their own language and writing that looks like primitive rock drawings. “Gadhafi always discriminated against Berbers,” says Uraibi. “He didn’t trust us.”

Uraibi is doing relatively well, he says, but he is fighting for the future. “Gadhafi ruined our country, the healthcare system, the schools. Our oil makes us as rich as the sheikhs on the Gulf. But where is the money? And why do we isolate ourselves? We could have tourists, we could travel and we could be open.”

In Jadu, he saw 1,000 protesters attack the local office of the intelligence service. The guards fled, and the insurgents kicked down the doors and removed the weapons from the building. About 20 army officers joined the rebels and turned protesters into fighters. Later on, says a young rebel with the Jadu Brigade, foreigners also helped them, but he doesn’t know where they came from.

At first, says Uraibi, the rebels got their supplies from Tunisia, but then small propeller planes started bringing them weapons from Benghazi. The Jadu men put up wind vanes along one of the few straight sections of road through the mountains to create a makeshift runway. Later on, French aircraft began dropping off loads of weapons and materials. Soon the rebels even had modern Milan guided missiles to use against Gadhafi’s tanks.

The rebels now have two “Operation Rooms,” one in Benghazi and one in Nafusa. The people manning the command centers speak good English and have local mobile telephones and satellite phones. The phones enable the rebels and NATO to coordinate their efforts, which is why the Jadu Brigade is now waiting on the road to Tripoli.

A barracks housing the elite unit headed by Gadhafi’s son Khamis is on the other side of the bridge. Uraibi’s group tried to capture the Khamis positions at first, but then they decided to call the Operation Room and give the staff their coordinates.

Sometimes things work the other way around, says Uraibi. Then NATO draws red lines and instructs the rebels not to cross those lines, so as not to get in the way of the pilots. According to Uraibi, his brigade lost 10 men in four cars who had been traveling on the wrong side of the line near Jadu.

Finally Uraibi sees five jets fly in to attack the army position. Then the Jadu Brigade’s vehicles set off for the barracks.

A short time later, two large, unrecognizable pieces of military equipment lie in front of the gate to the large barracks. The stench of burnt flesh hangs in the air. There are pools of blood around bullet-riddled mattresses in a room where the guards apparently slept. A broken mirror and a belt are on the floor. Hundreds of rebels drag weapons and crates of ammunition out through the gate. A few young fighters have managed to start a tank that the pilots apparently overlooked. The road to Tripoli is clear. But most of the soldiers are also likely to be fleeing in the same direction.

On Wednesday night, a rebel advance party drives to Green Square in downtown Tripoli. The rest of the convoy follows behind. Tripoli is a city of two million people, a sea of houses with hundreds of alleys where soldiers could be waiting to ambush the rebels. In the midst of it all is a unique fortress that houses Gadhafi’s residence, the Bab al-Aziziya barracks, an entire district unto itself and a refuge for the last of Gadhafi’s troops. The conditions suggest that a bloody battle could ensue and drag on for weeks.

Death Chant to Frighten Gadhafi’s Men

But the rebels encounter little resistance as they drive through the suburbs, parking their pickups in the Rigata luxury resort. The neighborhood consists of second homes for the wealthy scattered under the trees, and Uraibi and his men move into a house directly on the beach. Another group of men have apparently broken into a villa owned by Gadhafi’s son Hannibal, at least according to the photo albums they find there, which contain snapshots of Hannibal, a notorious playboy, many of them together with a woman. In one photo, the scantily clad woman lounges on a sofa, holding a lap dog wearing a pink sweater. The rebels howl with laughter as they eagerly thumb through the photos, fighting over the albums.

A monotonous sing-song voice from Tripoli drones from the loudspeakers at night, chanting “Allahu akbar” — “God is great” — sounding like a CD that keeps skipping. The call is known as Takbir. It’s easy to get use to it, and some might even find it appealing. But this particular Takbir is a death chant for fallen soldiers. The rebels use it to frighten Gadhafi’s men.

The next day the men from the Jadu Brigade drive into downtown Tripoli. Uraibi and a few friends sit on their Ford in the heat, saying very little.

The rebels stop for a moment at their last checkpoint, listening to the sound of artillery booming from the front. Some of the gun operators are already standing behind their weapons, eager to go into battle. After a few hundred meters, the street curves to the right, passes under a bridge and rises up along an embankment. Behind the embankment is a shopping center, and behind that is Bab al-Aziziya.

Now they are surrounded by high walls, and snipers set their sights on individual rebels, including those under the bridge, which, of course, is open at both ends. Uraibi sees rebels under the bridge, including some from Mizrata, which has been fiercely contested for months. It’s a good sign, because the men from Misrata are more experienced in urban warfare than Uraibi’s men from the mountains. Nevertheless, Uraibi drives up to the front, reaches the embankment, and keeps going. He estimates that 600 soldiers are fighting for their lives in the compound. The rebels have about 2,000 men, but their weapons are too light to break through the wall.

Uraibi remembers a construction site in the area, where there is heavy construction machinery, including bulldozers and wheel loaders. One of his friends jumps down from the pickup and runs off.

He returns very slowly — in the driver’s cab of a bulldozer. The soldiers open fire on him immediately, but Uraibi’s friend has raised the bulldozer’s large steel shovel like a shield. The rebels fire a barrage of bullets, covering the bulldozer until it breaks through the wall, allowing the rest of the men to storm through the opening.

On Thursday night, many SUVs block an access road to the rebel camp, in a scene reminiscent of a gangster film. Men holding weapons stand together in small groups, illuminated by headlights and taillights. A number of men are standing around a delicate-looking man with large eyes, a black piece of material wrapped around his head and a cast around his right arm — an injury from a previous battle.

Many of the fighters worship Ibrahim al-Madani, 26, because his father Mohammed was the first leader of the 1,000 Nafusa rebels. A portrait of both men hangs in most houses in the rebel villages.

‘We Want a Cosmopolitan Government’

The father died in a battle on May 7. He reportedly offered to pardon the government soldiers if they gave up, but then he died painfully at the hands of Gadhafi’s men.

His son, the new commander, says: “We want peace. We want a cosmopolitan government, and we must collect all weapons in the country. We trust our new leaders.”

Those new leaders arrive in the capital in a convoy of cars on Thursday morning. They are the men from the National Transitional Council, the ones who ran the rebel government in Benghazi for the last five months, the politicians of a new Libya.

It was originally human rights attorneys who had started the first protest in Libya’s second-largest city. Then politicians began defecting from the Gadhafi government and joined the rebels, men like former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who then managed to cleverly incorporate the influential leaders and elders from Libyan tribes into the rebel movement.

Now they are all promising their supporters in the West that they intend to develop a democracy, and they are discussing the possibility of free and fair elections in eight months. They are also imploring their fellow rebels to refrain from acts of revenge. They even want to integrate Gadhafi loyalists into the new power structures, at least those with no blood on their hands. “We are learning from the experiences that were made in Iraq and after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says Fatih Baja, the chief of planning for the National Transitional Council.

But the murder of a former Gadhafi general, Abdul Fattah Younes, who had become one of the top rebel commanders, has set an ominous precedent. The murder was apparently committed by fighters from Younes’s own ranks, possibly with the knowledge of their leaders. Could Libya face an intertribal conflict, after all? What burdens will the new Libya face?
The rebels are still celebrating their victory on Gadhafi’s Green Square, the center of Tripoli and the center of the country.

After half a year of armed resistance, the men ought to be familiar with their weapons, but many still strike a macho pose, holding their machine guns with only one hand. When they fire the guns, the recoil pushes the muzzles back. One of the men fires the last bullets in his magazine into one of the palm trees on the square. A palm frond slowly floats down to the street, and then cars drive over it.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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