Aviator sunglasses… check! Plenty of medals never won in battle…check! Female bodyguards…
Meet former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, known to his people as the “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya,” or sometimes just as “Colonel Gaddafi.” Gaddafi was perhaps the most eccentric dictator in our book; he did plenty of crazy stuff that had all kinds of repercussions on his rule, his country, and the world.
At first glance, Gaddafi looks like just a standard, tin-pot dictator, but a closer look reveals a man who truly lived in his own world.
Once referred to by American President Ronald Reagan as the “mad dog of the Middle East,” Gaddafi was a high-profile dictator during the Cold War not only for his support of anti-Western governments and dissidents, and at times terrorists, but also for his eccentricities.
Although he ruled his country with an iron fist, he never promoted himself to General, which is certainly strange for a dictator. Gaddafi shared paranoia with the other dictators on our list, but he reacted to it in truly unique ways: he had a bulletproof tent, imported nurses from Ukraine, and was protected by an all-female staff of bodyguards.
And that’s just some of the crazy that the Libyan dictator exuded daily.
The Poor Bedouin
Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi was born into a poor Bedouin family in Libya during World War II. Although he was never a particularly religious person, Libya is an Islamic country and the educational system Gaddafi experienced was heavily infused with religion. Young Gaddafi accepted his religious background but was more influenced by the burgeoning Arab nationalism of the 1950s. Gaddafi was impressed with Egypt’s dictator, Gamal Nasser, and the stance he took on behalf of his people against the West. Nasser would play a major role in the ideology and style that Gaddafi would later adopt when he became ruler.
After getting arrested for taking part in a pro-Islamic demonstration that turned violent, Gaddafi joined the Libyan military and found his true calling.
Gaddafi initially had a difficult time adjusting to the regimentation of military life. It wasn’t that he wasn’t able to do the work or even that he disliked it, but he had problems with the British officers who staffed the army’s ranks in the 1960s.
Despite his obstinacy, though, he advanced through the ranks and was even sent to an English immersion camp in England in 1966. By that time, Gaddafi had moved past his initial negative attitude toward the English, but his eccentricities were on full display.
When Gaddafi visited London, he did so wearing traditional Libyan garb. He raised more than a few eyebrows when he was there and his training officers were also amused. To them, Gaddafi was a good-hearted bloke, if not a little “off,” who was for the most part harmless.
Little did they know.
The Revolutionary Nuns
In 1969, Gaddafi played a central role in the overthrow of Libya’s king, Idris I. The coup left Gaddafi as head of state and, as his first act, he promoted himself from lieutenant to colonel. Yes, that’s right, for whatever reason he just didn’t go ahead and make himself general. It was truly indicative of Gaddafi’s unpredictable nature.
The Colonel immediately made big and sometimes draconian changes to Libyan society. Christian churches were closed and alcohol was banned in the name of Islamic law. But at the same time, women were given more rights than they had under the previous monarchy.
He also expelled all the Jews and Italians from Libya.
In terms of foreign policy, Gaddafi adopted a very anti-Western stance that vacillated from Arab nationalism to Islamism, and then to Marxism. He claimed that he was anti-Marxist since Marxism was atheistic, but he developed close relations with the communist bloc and he instituted socialism in Libya. Gaddafi proclaimed Islam as the only religion of Libya, but he would persecute Islamic fundamentalists along with his political enemies. In his early years of rule, he cozied up to Arab nationalist regimes, such as Nasser’s Egypt, but in the later years of his rule, he professed alliances and unity with sub-Saharan Africa.
Truly, Gaddafi was an enigma and appeared quite crazy to outsiders. His anti-Western ideology and theatrics led him to make Libya a safe haven for radical and terrorist groups, which resulted in an American air bombing mission on the country in 1986.
Gaddafi’s crazy decisions about the friends he kept in the 1970s and ‘80s led to disastrous consequences, as his home was targeted in the 1986 bombing, possibly killing one of his daughters.
But just like we’ve seen throughout this book, tragedies and brushes with death only seem to drive most dictators to double down on the craziness.
By the late 1980s, Gaddafi’s behavior was increasingly eccentric, or perhaps it was just noticed more.
He didn’t go anywhere without his retinue of female bodyguards known as “The Revolutionary Nuns.” When asked why his bodyguards were female, Gaddafi responded that Muslim assassins would hesitate to kill women.
Gaddafi also had a staff of Ukrainian nurses to care for him. The nurses were led by a buxom woman named Galyna Kolotnytska, who was said to care for the Colonel in a number of ways.
Good news came for Gaddafi in 2006 when the United States took Libya off its list of nations that sponsored terrorism. The move meant that Gaddafi could more freely travel around the world and even visit the United States, but he couldn’t stand flying and could only fly for eight hours at a time, which meant that Gaddafi had to take circuitous routes to arrive at his locations.
In late 2010, it looked as though the eccentric Colonel had reformed his crazy ways and was going to join the community of nations. He visited the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly, and as strange and rambling as his speech there was, it was considered innocuous.
But then the Arab Spring happened.
The Arab Spring protest movement in Libya descended into a civil war, which ended when NATO airstrikes helped Gaddafi’s enemies come to power. Once they got a hold of Gaddafi, there were apparently still plenty of people who were unhappy with his crazy ideas and actions in the previous decades, so they brutally and publicly executed him on October 20, 2011.
So ended the life of what was perhaps the most eccentric and craziest dictator of all.
Did You Know?
- Some of Gaddafi’s female bodyguards later accused him of rape and torture.
- Gaddafi was accused of having his foreign secretary killed and then kept in a freezer so he could see the body.
- Perhaps owing to his Bedouin roots, Gaddafi hated heights and would only stay on the first floor of hotels. When he attended the United Nations General Assembly in 2010, he brought his bulletproof tent and camels and stayed in New Jersey.
- Gaddafi started a war with Chad in 1969 that left more than 7,000 of his people dead and a war with Egypt in 1977 that killed 400 Libyans. He is also often credited for hundreds or even thousands of deaths through terrorist proxies, but the number of domestic enemies he had tortured and killed remains unknown, although it is believed to at least be in the hundreds.
- Gaddafi had nine children, two adopted, with his second wife, Safia Farkash.