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My last encounter with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi

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Faced with a roaring crowd of around 2,000 young men, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was grinning, and giving two thumbs up. Beaming and laughing, he had to wait around 10 minutes for the frenzied audience to become quiet enough for him to speak. And then he spat out an address filled with fury, shouting: “this is not a revolution, these are traitors!” Warning of the threat from both Al Qaeda and “western colonisers”, Saif whipped the crowd into a frenzy. It was a highly orchestrated, high-security rally under heavy guard in his father’s compound, Bab al-Azizya.

FRANCE 24 reporters Catherine Norris-Trent and Khalil Bechir in the lobby of the Rixos hotel, Tripoli in March 2011.
FRANCE 24 reporters Catherine Norris-Trent and Khalil Bechir in the lobby of the Rixos hotel, Tripoli in March 2011.

But when we came across him in the lobby of Tripoli’s Rixos hotel, Saif was barely recognisable. Gaddafi’s chosen heir was quietly spoken, dressed down in jeans, a T-shirt and a casual jacket, and accompanied at a small distance only by his head of security. His tone was meek and polite, and he was eager to shake hands with the few journalists still awake after 1am. In those days Saif had the habit of popping over to the Rixos late at night to grant interviews to journalists, scheduling two or three in quick succession.

Saif-al-Islam Gaddafi couldn’t have been a more different man than the furious figure at the rally earlier. In an impeccable British accent, he asked me where I was from in the UK – he of course being a notorious alumnus of the London School of Economics. We were anxious to pin him down for a more serious interview, to try and get some answers or some insight into one of the regime’s most skilled purveyors of double-speak. He accepted our request with a smile and posed for a quick photograph. A few days later, NATO began its military campaign in Libya, and Saif-al-Islam cut off his contact with western journalists.

FRANCE 24 reporter Catherine Norris-Trent has extensively covered the Libyan uprising.

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