The search for Muammar Qadhafi has intensified after Libyan rebels seized most of Tripoli. The initial focus was on Qadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound and nearby apartment blocks in a neighborhood that contains many Qadhafi loyalists.
Today, the chairman of the rebel Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abul Jalil, stated that the rebels have no concrete information on Qadhafi’s location. Although the erratic dictator had recently been thought to be in Tripoli, he has remained in hiding long enough that he may have escaped the disorganized noose fashioned by a poorly coordinated alliance of rebel groups that have converged on the capital.
The curious nighttime appearances of Qadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, suggest the presence of a tunnel network that Qadhafi may have exploited to escape. Although known as a “mad dog” in the West, the Libyan dictator is a cunning survivor known as the “Desert Fox” in Libya, in part for his sly ability to play rivals off each other, as well as his affinity for retreating to the open desert in the manner of his Bedouin Arab ancestors.
Qadhafi appears to have become less dependent on his female bodyguard entourage, according to U.S. embassy cables leaked by WikiLeaks. He is said to dislike staying above the ground floor of buildings and avoids flying over open water. A close associate who defected to the rebels has said that he expects Qadhafi to go down fighting but not take his own life if surrounded.
Algerian officials today denied rumors that Qadhafi or other top Libyan officials crossed the border in a convoy of armored cars to take refuge in Algeria. There is also an unconfirmed report that Qadhafi fled to Zimbabwe. Opponents of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe claim that their spies saw Qadhafi emerge from a Zimbabwean air force jet in Harare on Wednesday and that he now is living in a suburb of Harare.
But rather than take refuge with distrusted foreigners, Qadhafi is likely to seek out blood relatives and members of his tribal clan or those of his bodyguards as his regime continues to disintegrate.
He is likely to head for one of his few remaining strongholds: his hometown near Sirte or the desert town of Sabha, where he remains popular after spreading a lot of money around. The two main tribes in Sirte—the Gadhadhfa and the Urfali—remain loyal to the Libyan leader and could continue to provide him with protection indefinitely. NATO has recently been very active in launching air strikes in support of rebel offensives around Sirte as the prime focus of the fighting moves to Qadhafi’s prime remaining stronghold.
Like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who evaded a nationwide manhunt for nine months, Qadhafi is likely to exploit clan networks to find protection. Hussein was eventually discovered by U.S. forces near his hometown of Tikrit after an extensive intelligence-gathering operation that focused on five families with close ties to his security detail.
Qadhafi may not have had the foresight to take the same elaborate precautions taken by the Iraqi dictator to avoid detection. But on the other hand, Libya is much bigger than Iraq, and Libya’s disjointed rebel movement lacks the intelligence assets, surveillance capabilities, sophisticated communications, command structure, and material resources that U.S. troops enjoyed in hunting Saddam.
The makeshift rebel army is also hampered by emerging rivalries between military commanders, political leaders in eastern and western Libya, longstanding tensions between Berbers and Arabs, and the presence of fiercely independent militias—some of them infused with extremist Islamist ideologies. Last month’s assassination of rebel military commander Abdel Fatah Younis may be an ominous sign of a violent power struggle going on behind the scenes in the opposition camp.
If the opposition splinters after toppling Qadhafi, it may leave a vacuum that he can exploit to rally his followers against the rebels. The hunt for the “Desert Fox” remains a high priority for consolidating political stability in Libya.