The author (far right) with Gaddafi's killer (next to him, with the bald head and keffiyeh).
The day I met Gaddafi’s killer had already been a headfuck. Through our own stupidity, we’d driven into the no-man’s land between two tribal militias who’d been fighting each other for days. Warning shots cracked over the car roof as we slowed to a halt. We waited to die and were amazed we didn’t.
Back at the hotel, I went straight to the fridge to grab a bottle of Libya’s vile, alcohol-free beer. "Hey", shouted a bald rebel, sprawled cockily across the sofa, like a louche Hollywood producer who was about to promise to make me a star. "Remember me? I know you from Sirte." "Sorry, I wasn’t at Sirte," I told him. He looked pissed off. "I know you from Sirte," he said. "We were friends. You know me. I killed Gaddafi." I looked back at him and at his pistol on the coffee table next to him. "Oh yeah, of course I do," I said. "What’s your name again?"
Ahmed Ali Muhammad al-Swayib is a 35-year-old son of Benghazi, born to parents from Misrata – the city that had seen the worst fighting of the war, leaving the centre in ruins after months of bitter siege. Like many volunteers from Benghazi, Ahmed had travelled west to fight in Misrata. Unlike most, however, he didn’t then immediately flee back to Benghazi’s relative peace. Instead, he fought the war through to its bloody climax in Sirte as a rifleman in Misrata’s Lions of the Valley brigade.
I had seen his face before, I realised. Bald, wild-looking, with one wonky eye, he was the starring character in a video taken moments after Gaddafi’s murder. In the clip, a group of rebels are surrounding Ahmed, kissing him on the head and proclaiming him Gaddafi’s killer. "I saw him do it," one says. "I saw him kill Gaddafi with his own hands, just now." Ahmed smiles bashfully then raises two pistols in the air – the instruments of summary Libyan justice. I looked at the pistol on the table and the pistol in Ahmed’s waistband. The same two pistols: FN Five Sevens.
Even in a country awash with guns, these pistols were very rare. Manufactured by Belgium’s FN Herstal, only 360 were delivered to Libya, all destined for the elite 32 Brigade, commanded by Gaddafi’s son Khamis, or for the dictator’s personal bodyguard. The only place they would be found in Libya is surrounding Gaddafi. Things were looking good, so I sat down to talk.
However, there was a problem. Ahmed didn’t want to do an interview. His situation was complex. He was staying in a three star hotel in Tripoli he couldn’t afford – someone else was paying his bills – and we both knew going public as Gaddafi’s killer would be a one-way ticket to the Hague. Sure, I said, no interview. So I switched on my Blackberry voice recorder and slipped it on the table next to him as I chatted to his friend.
Muhammad Juma al-Shoshni is 25, from al-Khoms, and claims to have killed Gaddafi’s son, Mutassim. "There were four of us”, he said, “watching a yard of a house after the fight. Gaddafi’s people came forward and started shooting at us. We killed two and the third one said, ‘Let me live and I’ll tell you a secret. The first one in the yard is Mutassim.'"
“Mutassim started shooting with a pistol when we searched the yard. We wounded him – just a small wound – in the throat and he surrendered. We took him to a small barracks and I asked him, ‘Why are you killing the Libyan people? Look at your father now. There used to be hundreds of cars full of people, following behind him, saying how great he was. Now there are hundreds of cars taking him away to die.'
"He started arguing with us and pissing me off, so I told him to say the shahada – the Muslim declaration of belief. I said, 'The Libyan people will never forgive you, but maybe God will give you some mercy.' But he just smiled and touched this magic necklace on his neck, one like Africans have. I even put my hands on his head and said, 'This is the Qur'an, the last thing and the first thing,' and he just smiled and touched this evil thing on his neck, so we shot him. And then we took his necklace and burned it.”
Muhammad Juma al-Shoshni, in the double-denim, who claims to have killed Gaddafi's son, Mutassim.
“Then I just lay down on the ground and cried, and my friends poured water over me and said 'Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.' After a few minutes I came back to normal. When we were in Sirte I would wake up and pray to God every day to make my heart strong, and God listened to me and gave me this blessing.”
This was all good stuff, but I wanted Ahmed, and I wanted him on camera. My driver was chatting away to him in Arabic, saying "God is great" at choice moments and translating tidbits of his story for me. “You know what Gaddafi’s last words were? He said ‘This is forbidden, I am your father. So he shot him!’" He guffawed appreciatively. But whenever I asked Ahmed whether he’d let us film his story, he shook his head angrily. Muhammad winked at me and whispered that he’d be able to arrange it. “Ahmed’s a good guy”, he said, “but he’s a bit crazy. Don’t worry, I’ll fix it. But tell me – how much is an iPad in your country?”
The next day, Muhammad beckoned me over to a corner of the hotel lobby. “Don’t worry”, he said, “I’ll fix it now. You’ll get your story”. He went upstairs to convince Ahmed while my cameraman set up his tripod in a corner of the room. A few minutes later, the lift doors pinged open and Ahmed came out, brandishing his Kalashnikov like a boss-eyed Libyan Scarface. He came towards me, cocking the rifle, and jabbed it in my chest. The hotel receptionists crouched down behind their desk for cover. Muhammad sidled out of the lift behind him, white-faced, staring at the ground. The next few seconds moved very slowly.
“I did not kill that devil for money,” said Ahmed quietly, “I killed him for God and Libya. Do you understand?” I understood. His voice quavered. “I will kill the first person who tries to give me money for this. I will kill him with this” – he shoved the barrel into my chest again – “like I killed Gaddafi. Do you understand?” Again, I understood. Very slowly, I apologised for the apparent misunderstanding. "It’s all a mistake," I coaxed soothingly. "Ask Muhammad." Muhammad stared sheepishly at the ground. Ahmed lowered his rifle. The hotel staff stood back up. We all sat down and had tea and sugary fruit juice and too many cigarettes. When they left an hour later, I went to my room and vomited.
Ahmed Ali Muhammad al-Swayib, who claims to have killed Muammar Gaddafi.
Over tea, Ahmed started crying and apologised for threatening me. "I get too emotional at times," he said. "It’s all been very difficult. Sometimes I can’t control myself." I assured him I understood and there was nothing to apologise for. I was in London when Gaddafi was killed, and whenever commentators threw their hands up in horror at the brutality of his murder, I shrugged it off. Whoever did it, I figured, was probably some heavily PTSD’d 18-year-old kid from Misrata who’d gone off to war without any training, seen his city destroyed, his family huddling for shelter under rocket fire and his best mates killed in front of him. It was a Libyan end to a Libyan story, with a brutal, not undeserved sort of justice.
But the truth, if Ahmed’s story was the truth, was slightly different. He was twice as old as most of the Misratan fighters, had been a drifter before the war and had a reputation for wild, dangerous mood swings even among his comrades. Maybe he killed Gaddafi and maybe he didn’t. But the people on the scene were certain that he did and he was at the right place at the right time, with the rare bodyguard-issue pistols to prove it. More vividly, I’d experienced his sudden rage and his sudden bout of tearful remorse. If ever someone was likely to suddenly shoot an unarmed captive, it was Ahmed.
The day he checked out of the hotel, he beckoned me aside and whispered in my ear. “Don’t trust Muhammad,” he said. “He is a liar. He did not kill Mutassim, he just wants the money. Only I am the killer.” He seemed to say it with as much sadness as pride. A few days later, in a bombed-out hotel café in Misrata, I chatted about Ahmed with Hashim, my old fixer. He shrugged it off. “Who cares? Everyone wants to say they killed him, but it was a group effort. All of us did it – all of us Libyans. It was the perfect end. They fucked him and then they killed him.” He smiled winningly.
Follow Aris on Twitter: @arisroussinos
More about the Gaddafi family:
Watch - The Rebels of Libya