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Profile: Colonel Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam
The eccentric Libyan leader's son, Saif al-Islam, has emerged as the key broker in Tripoli's detente with the West, report Alastair Jamieson and Colin Freeman.
22 August 2009 • 9:27pm
Save perhaps for his fondness for pet tigers, Saif al-Islam could be said to enjoy much in common with Lord Mandelson, who he met at the Rothschild family estate in Corfu only days before the release of the Lockerbie bomber.
Yet as he escorted Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi back home to Libya on a private jet last week, the 37-year-old son of Colonel Gaddafi showed he also has his father's ability for mischief making.
In a TV broadcast recorded on the plane, he sparked a new row between Britain and Libya by claiming that the release of the Pan Am culprit had indeed been linked to lucrative business deals - despite Downing Street's insistence that it was purely a matter for the Scottish government.
"It is to be said for the first time, you were present on the table in all commercial, oil and gas agreements that we supervised in that period," he told Megrahi, as the pair sat together in the private jet's luxury lounge. "You were on the table in all British interests when it came to Libya, and I personally supervised this matter."
His comments, which were released late on Friday night, were recorded for Libya's Al Motawasset TV, a new channel launched by Saif al-Islam only a few days ago. Given his roving role at the centre of Libyan politics, it may not be the last political "exclusives" that he has to offer.
With every step that the North African state has taken to end its pariah status, he has played a central role - be it the talks to end Libya's secret nuclear programme, recent prisoner releases, or lucrative trade deals. His fluent English, and ability to act as the acceptable face of the Gaddafi family, has seen him cultivate a dazzling array of contacts, ranging from the Duke of York and Lord Mandelson through to American billionaires, yacht-owners and party hosts.
Born the second oldest of seven of Col Gaddafi's sons, the young Saif al-Islam experienced the international hostility to his father's regime at first hand, losing a four-year-old sister to a US missile attack on the family home in Tripoli in 1984. But in keeping with the unpredictable nature of his father's regime, he grew not into a fellow revolutionary firebrand, nor a spoilt Arab playboy, but as an earnest young man with an interest in progressive politics and the reform of his country.
Eight years after 1984 shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London, for which Libya has accepted responsibility, he began a part-time PhD in governance and international relations at the London School of Economics. Explaining his decision to buy a flat in London in 2002, he said his outcast father would not meet the cost of long stays at top hotels. "Living at Claridge's is not an option," he told an interviewer.
A designer and painter, he also has an architecture degree from Al-Fateh University in Tripoli as well as a Masters in business from Imadec University in Vienna. While his main residence remains Col Gaddafi's military compound in Tripoli, he also has a farm outside the city, where he keeps two pet tigers.
In contrast to his father, when once acted as a bankroller for the IRA and numerous other terrorist groups, Saif al-Islam has channeled cash into humanitarian causes as chair of the wealthy Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which devotes itself to "development and humanitarian work in social , economic, cultural and human rights fields". Only last month, it signed an agreement with his alma mater, the LSE, t donate £1.5 million to the university over the next five years.
However, while he has long been tipped as the man to take over from his father, Saif al-Islam declared uin 2008 that he had no interest in "inheriting" his reign, claiming that he would withdraw from formal politics altogether.
"My role now is to build a civilized society that has free and genuine institutions, just ties and organizations, and unions," he declared. Despite his avowed intentions, however, critics say Libya's human rights record remains poor. As a Western diplomat in Tripoli told The Sunday Telegraph earlier this year: "There are still serious limits to freedom of speech and political activism here, and threats to the regime are dealt with severely."
Saif al Islam's last big brokering act was the release in 2007 of six Bulgarian nurses who spent eight years in a Libyan prison charged with infecting children with the HIV virus. The other partner in the deal was France's Nicolas Sarkozy, for whom it was an early diplomatic coup. The gloss was somewhat taken off, however, when Saif al-Islam subsequently revealed the handover was linked to the sale of anti-tank missiles and a radio communications system to Libya. Whatever his diplomatic talents, discretion is perhaps not one of them - as Gordon Brown may now well be feeling.
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