Libya: Carpet salesman leads hunt for Gaddafi

Hisham Buhagiar hopes to reopen his carpet sales business in the next couple of weeks. He also hopes to catch Muammar Gaddafi.

Buhagiar is the closest thing the Libyans have to a chief Gaddafi hunter, though he gently points out that Libya’s DIY revolution doesn’t much go in for job titles. Softly spoken and quietly confident, the 47-year-old admits he is learning as he goes — but predicts Gaddafi will be captured within two weeks.

“We have to catch him, but if he resists he’s going to die,” Buhagiar, speaking in English, said. “We have to bring him to justice. It will show the world that after all the bad things he did, we still have the law.”

The autocratic leader’s last public appearance was more than three months ago when he was photographed playing chess in Tripoli with Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, head of the World Chess Federation. His Pimpernel-like vanishing act remains the main unfinished business of the revolution. Buhagiar’s operatives, however, claim to have seen Gaddafi twice this week near the southern city of Sabha.

“One time he was in a convoy going from north to south,” said Buhagiar. “The other time he was having lunch; somebody from one of the loyal tribes invited him. He’s close to the area of Sabha but he’s on the move all the time.”

He said information of this kind comes from informants among the local population and six unarmed surveillance experts who follow the trail but are usually a day behind.

“When he was in Bani Walid we were about to move but we didn’t have enough men to do the job,” Buhagiar added. “He was on the move when we saw him there about two weeks ago.”

Gaddafi travels inside a formidable military convoy, he continued, with a close ring of around 100 cousins and fellow tribesmen and an outer ring of about 300 to 500, including mercenaries. “When he stops, they close the circle,” said Buhagiar. “When he moves, they open the circle.”

Gaddafi, who continues to release audio messages urging his loyalists to fight on, sleeps in a different place every night in one of his hallmark tents. “That is the way he finds comfortable, the Bedouin life,” adds Buhagiar.

Dapper figure
Libya’s hunter-in-chief cuts a dapper figure in dark jacket, designer shirt, jeans and brown leather shoes in the lobby of a five-star Tripoli hotel. He opens his laptop to bring up a map of Gaddafi’s suspected whereabouts, but cannot log on because the facial recognition technology fails to discern his face in the light.

Buhagiar is working 16 hours a day on security issues but cannot devote all of his time to the search for the ousted leader. He is a novice when it comes to manhunts, and is puzzled at why the media is so interested.

But, he said, “it’s very logical. It’s like a chess game. Everyone can see your moves but they cannot see what’s in your head.”

Buhagiar set up a carpet company 20 years ago though his six shops in Tripoli were forced to close during this year’s rebellion. He spent much of the time in the Nafusa mountains, fighting in four battles and receiving gunshot wounds in both legs. But carpet-selling should serve him well in this new assignment; it’s a trade that requires familiarity with remote places, contact with desert tribes and useful foreign clients.

A special forces team of 50 is working on the search, he said, “plus a lot of helpers. We are in contact with other battalions. If I need 1 000 guys, I can get 1 000. But we don’t want a confrontational war. We want to go in and snatch him.”

Such is the diffuse and often disorganised nature of the Libyan forces that Buhagiar knows he is not the only Gaddafi hunter around. Recent reports have suggested help is also coming from French intelligence and small CIA teams. Asked if Nato is supporting the effort, he initially said “sometimes”. Then he corrected himself: “Until now, no. We are in good contact with Nato.”

The nerve centre coordinating the search is not the stuff of a Hollywood spy thriller. Pointing to his laptop, Buhagiar joked: “This is my ops room.” He added: “We do have a place where we meet. We use phones, sat phones, Google, Skype. We don’t have maps on the wall because that gives away what you’re thinking.”

About three or four calls a day come in from members of the public offering tipoffs. Some are unlikely to lead to the prize; one recently claimed to have divined Gaddafi’s whereabouts through black magic. Buhagiar added: “We have a lot of good calls and a lot of speculation. It takes a long time to sort out but it’s good for us to plot his way. We’re using technology to find out the number of people surrounding him, intercepting calls from their cell phones. He doesn’t use a phone or any other technology.”

But the challenge facing the Gaddafi hunters is daunting: Libya’s massive desert in the south is like another country. Buhagiar travelled there last week to a place that he names but asks not to be published. In this remote hinterland he has found people who are not aware of the uprising and believe “revolution” refers to Gaddafi’s coup of 1969.

He said TV there is using this for propaganda and even shows old footage of Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, Bab al-Azizia, to give the impression he still controls it. “A lot of people don’t know what’s going on,” said Buhagiar. “They are not linked to the outside world. They think they’re fighting crusaders.” —

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