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Colonel Gaddafi and I on 9/11

Abdul Rahman Shalgam

Published: Updated:

On 11 September 2001, a wave of intense feelings washed over the entire world, touching every soul on this earth.

It’s noon in Tripoli. I leave my office at the Foreign Ministry, preparing to leave for Rome, where my wife and son are waiting for me to join them on a flight to New York, where I would be attending a United Nations Security Council meeting. I get home to all the phones ringing incessantly: the red command phone, the internal line with the Foreign Ministry, the external line as well. The first one I picked up was the red command phone. On the other line was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. He asks me: “What happened in America?” I say: “I don’t know. I just got home a few minutes ago and I’m preparing to leave for Rome. This is the first call I take since getting home.” He says: “God’s promise has befallen America. Hijacked civilian airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Watch the news and stay in touch.”

I head to my office at the Ministry. A few minutes later, Moussa Koussa, head of the External Security Service, joins me, followed by Ammar al-Latif, a cultivated, knowledgeable man who occupied many posts throughout his journey, such as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Tourism, and head of the Internal Security Service. We sit together in front of the TV, watching the events unfold in New York live on air. We begin discussing what happened and the possible perpetrators. We delve into both the likely and unlikely scenarios, reviewing the possibilities, and pondering how Washington would react to this terrible, unprecedented act. Colonel Gaddafi calls and asks me to draft a statement denouncing what happened and expressing condolences to the American people, and the three of us discuss how to draft the statement. When it is done, I call the Colonel and read it out loud to him. He asks me to come over to the leadership base in Bab al-Aziziah. No sooner do I reach the gate than a guard rushes me: “Quick, sir. The leader is waiting for you.” I dash for the tent, where I find the Colonel sitting alone with a cup of tea in his hand. Despite the urge, I do not ask about the Gharyan-native band playing music and dancing in front of his house, many parts of which the US had destroyed in an air raid in 1986.

Immediately after I sit down, he asks me to read the draft statement. When I’m done, he describes the statement as “very plausible,” but asks me to add the adjective “horrifying” to the term “terrorist act,” as well as a sentence about “Libya’s readiness to provide blood units to help the wounded.” I smile when he says “horrifying.” He replies: “Yes, I meant what you understood.”

We speak about Washington’s possible reaction, given that the extremely violent act targeted a symbol of America’s commercial and architectural greatness, in the heart of the city that serves as the UN capital. He says the US Administration’s priority will be to find out who did this, and the response will undoubtedly be extremely violent and direct.

I mention to him the conversation we had had about a month before with Saad Mujbir, my assistant for political affairs, when we were discussing indirect communications with the US regarding the Lockerbie incident, which saw a hijacked American flight crashing in the Scottish town of Lockerbie. During that meeting, the Colonel had said: “Ask the Americans: if one mad Libyan pilot attacks a tower in America, we must take responsibility for that?” Then, he asked us to announce Libya’s recognition of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Mujbir vehemently objected, asking: “What good would it do us to say this and recognize the Taliban when we have just begun indirect talks with Washington?” Indeed, we took a cue from Mujbir and decided against issuing any statement or recognition as originally suggested by the Colonel.

At the end of our talk, I ask him: “Should we just issue the statement from the Foreign Ministry in Tripoli, or should we send it to our mission in New York for translation and referral to the US State Department?” He says: “Better send it directly to the US.”

Before I leave, he asks me to follow up on what happened, the US reactions, news from Washington about who stands behind the act. I go back to my office, where Koussa and al-Latif are waiting for me. We carry on with our conversations, analyses, and guesses about the perpetrator. The Colonel and I stay on the phone that night. His focus was any news on the perpetrator. Undoubtedly, the Lockerbie incident, in which fingers were pointed at Libya, and the ensuing sanctions on the country were still fresh in the Colonel’s mind, despite his firm belief in Libya’s complete innocence.

Soon enough, the perpetrator is revealed. Osama bin Laden announces that he had personally assigned a group of his followers to commit the horrible attack.

The Security Council session was subsequently postponed, and my wife and son came back from Rome to Tripoli. Upon their arrival, we remembered the visit they had made in September of the previous year to the Twin Towers, which had now been destroyed, leaving behind thousands of casualties.

I called a meeting with Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, Muhammad Bilqasem al-Zouay, and Abdullah al-Sanoussi, to discuss what had happened in New York and the expected US reaction after Osama bin Laden had announced his responsibility for the attack. We agreed that though Afghanistan will surely be the next US target, it will only be a small bite that will not satisfy the hunger of US revenge for this massacre that killed thousands of innocent people. The question was: who would be the big, greasy bite that will put out America’s fire of rage and fill its hunger for revenge?

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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