18 Fascinating Facts About Muammar Gaddafi

Published November 1, 2016
Updated July 24, 2018

These Muammar Gaddafi facts illustrate that this controversial Libyan leader is marked by both unparalleled successes and dramatic failures.

Muammar Gaddafi came out of the Libyan hinterlands in the 1960s to overtake the oil-rich and underdeveloped country. Over more than 40 years in power, his bizarre personal style and boundless ambition created a Libyan state that seemed to have one part in a well-funded future utopia and another part in a regressive despotism.

Gaddafi’s rule would come to an end in 2011, when Libyan rebels, aided by the Arab League and the United States, killed him at the Battle of Sirte. Still, his persona and politics make him a figure of ceaseless fascination. These Muammar Gaddafi facts help illuminate why:

Nobody Knows When He Was Born

Muammar Gaddafi Facts
Muammar Mohammed Gaddafi was born sometime in the early 1940s — and that's about all we know, since his Bedouin clan does not record births.Getty Images

He Started As A Goat Herder

Gaddafi's tribe was extremely poor and barely eked out a living herding goats and camels. Gaddafi never forgot his humble beginnings, though: years later, he cried on television when going back to visit his old friends and reminisce about his youth.Probst/ullstein bild via Getty Images

He was bullied at school

Mural Of Gaddafi
Education wasn't free in the newly independent Kingdom of Libya, so almost no one in Gaddafi's clan sent their children to school. Gaddafi's father, however, saw potential in the boy and shipped him off at an early age to a religious school in Sirte. It was too far to stay in contact with his family, so at around age seven Gaddafi slept in the mosque and lived in the classroom. He stood out as a brilliant student and passed through six years' schooling in only four.Student Info

He became an activist for Bedouin pride as a child

While Gaddafi thrived academically in Sirte, Libya's ethnic division presented social challenges. The better-off Arab boys in Sirte bullied the Bedouin kids, and the other Bedouin boys took it out on Gaddafi. He responded the only way he knew how: by taking charge. According to the people who knew him then, the young Muammar Gaddafi organized the Bedouin boys to resist bullying and encouraged them to take pride in their culture. Before long, he was the alpha in a suddenly very proud clique that came to dominate the school. As a teenager, he moved with his family to Sabha, deep in the desert, where he became the first child in his family to attend high school.

Pictured: Bedouins at a well in Libya, 1942.
Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images

He started a riot at age 18

Gaddafi Looking Serious
The take-charge attitude Gaddafi developed in school served him well in Sabha. There, in addition to making some lifelong friends who would later help overthrow the government with him, he met Egyptian teachers and rabble-rousers. For the first time, the bright boy from nowhere was up to his neck in what would become the Pan-Arab movement.

Before long, Gaddafi was active in street politics. When a demonstration led by Gaddafi at age 18 smashed the windows of a local hotel for serving alcohol, authorities detained and then expelled him from Sabha.

He received training from the British military

Gaddafi In London
After secondary school, Gaddafi won admission to the University of Benghazi. He devoured the school's library, reading everything he could about the French Revolution and assorted works by Pan-Arab nationalists, though he was smart enough to avoid joining any of the groups monitored by the police.

Perhaps because of this cunning avoidance of organized political activity, the authorities were willing to overlook Gaddafi's criminal record and admitted him to the Libyan military academy. Later, he would travel to England for training as a signals officer.
Wikimedia Commons

He may have assassinated his academy headmaster

Gaddafi Young Profile
If Gaddafi only joined the army to overthrow the government, he didn’t really hide it. His British instructors complained about his negative attitude and defiance of their authority. He never fraternized with the British the way other cadets did, he refused to learn more than rudimentary phrases in the English language, and on leave he insisted on wearing Bedouin robes while he shopped in London.

According to secret British records at the time, Gaddafi was suspected in the death of the Libyan academy commandant, with whom he had had several public disagreements.
Wikimedia Commons

He took power in a totally bloodless coup

Gaddafi Coup
By 1964, Gaddafi had founded a secret society with his fellow young officers. They pooled their salaries and organized an underground political movement with the aim of overthrowing the king. On September 1, 1969, they did just that, striking simultaneously across the country while King Idris was on a state visit to Greece.

In a single day, without a shot fired, Idris' government fell and his son renounced the family's claim to the throne. The total lack of violence led to the revolt being dubbed the "White Revolution." Immediately, Gaddafi and his fellow revolutionaries abolished the monarchy, announced a socialist republic, and formed a guiding committee to steer the revolution toward a united Arab state.

He kept quitting his job as dictator

Being dictator turned out to be hard work. Within a year of taking power, US intelligence – still trying to butter him up – warned Gaddafi that another gang of disaffected officers planned a counter-coup. Gaddafi squashed that, after which point he started encountering resistance from central committee members about how to direct Libya's government. Gaddafi's solution was to quit.

Resigning all of his government posts, he went back to his family's Bedouin tent until the committee asked him to return as its guardian. He did, but then he quit again in 1974, only to be begged to come back again and given the power to rule by decree. Muammar Gaddafi, the impoverished goat herder from the desert, was now in total control of an oil-rich one-party state.

Left: Gaddafi waves to demonstrators gathered to show support for his return after he resigns as leader of the Revolutionary Command Council.
Genevieve Chauvel/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

He boosted Libya's GDP by 600 percent — in his first decade in power

Interesting Facts About Muammar Gaddafi
Despite being part of the short-lived United Arab Republic (UAR) with Egypt and Syria, Gaddafi was left out of the loop during the planning for the Six-Day War — mainly because Assad and Sadat didn't trust Gaddafi. This exclusion extended into OPEC negotiations, as well as his treatment by the Sudanese government, which held a close political relationship with Egypt.

Gaddafi reacted by withdrawing from the UAR alliance and focusing on domestic reforms. By nationalizing his country's oil fields, Gaddafi became the first Arab head of state to claw back some of the profits foreign oil companies had extracted. He used the money for public works and education, and redistributed wealth among the lower classes. Libya's gross domestic product rose from around $3.5 billion in 1969 to over $20 billion by 1979.

Pictured: From left, Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Muammar Gaddafi, Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Georges Habache of the Peoples Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

He wrote a book — and made it required reading

Gaddafi Book
With this progress came ego. Like many other dictators, Gaddafi wrote a book chock-full of his thoughts. The "Green Book" came in three parts, and in it Gaddafi “solved” all of the problems of democracy, capitalism, and family life. Citizens of Libya were required to carry a copy with them at all times. It may be a coincidence, but Western intelligence agencies believe this was around the time Gaddafi began using cocaine.Wikimedia Commons

He made major strides in education

At the time Gaddafi took power, only 25 percent of adult Libyans could read. The Guardian of the One September Revolution (Gaddafi's official title) was determined to fix it.

In just a few years, via an aggressive campaign of rural school building and educational initiatives to the Bedouins, Gaddafi managed to raise that figure to 83 percent, which still stands as one of the fastest rises in literacy in history.

Pictured: Gaddafi meets with Libyan high school students in Tripoli.
Genevieve Chauvel/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

He carried a tent with him wherever he traveled

Gaddafi Tent On Vacation
Every leader needs a brand, and "humble man called to greatness" is as good as any. Gaddafi's modest origins presented a perfect log cabin-to-White House story, and he reinforced it every way he could.

This, of course, may explain why he took a tent with him everywhere he went. Not just any tent, though: Gaddafi's tent was the size of a hotel and required its own airplane when he traveled overseas. When he went to address the UN, he was in the habit of pitching the tent in Portugal overnight and flying to New York early in the morning, after which he'd fly right back to Portugal.
Wikimedia Commons

He had a fear of heights

Libyan Dictator Muammar Gaddafi Facts
Gaddafi's attachment to his tent seems to be part of a generalized set of phobias he started developing in the 1970s. He was scared of heights, for example. Many people hold the same fear, but Gaddafi took it to absurd lengths. He avoided flying whenever possible, he refused to ride escalators or elevators, and he wouldn't walk up more than 35 steps. He never explained why.Getty Images

His bodyguards were female virgins

Gaddafi With Amazons
By the end of the 1970s, Gaddafi had developed a host of eccentricities. He wore flashy robes and Sgt. Pepper-esque military uniforms in public; he traveled with a bodyguard of "Amazons" (a team of virgins who pledged chastity and were trained in martial arts), and he became intensely paranoid about being touched. In one infamous video, he clearly hits one of his guards for allowing a person in a crowd to touch his hand.

By the early 1980s, he seems to have been torn between a desire to hole up in his "bulletproof tent" and gratuitously indulging his libido. He even had a signal for his retinue when he wanted to sleep with a woman he met in public: as she walked away, he would pat her on the shoulder in a friendly gesture. As soon as he had passed, a member of his entourage would take the girl aside and "ask" her back to Gaddafi's palace.
Getty Images

He indulged in the extravagant

Gaddafi Gold Couch
When the woman he had chosen arrived at his private quarters, they found quite a bachelor's pad. Zebra-skin and leopard-pelt accents draped his home, alongside a solid-gold couch in the shape of a mermaid crafted to look like his daughter.

Visitors may have also set eyes on the world's largest golden gun collection and one of the world's best-stocked cabinets of liquor, which was illegal everywhere else in Libya. Of course, abortion was also illegal in Libya, and to get around that, Gaddafi built a large underground medical clinic where a full-time medical staff would abort the many pregnancies for which he was responsible.
Twitter/Silvia Fehrmann

He had strange crushes

Gaddafi Rice Album
When rebels swarmed Gaddafi's palace after his 2011 overthrow, they found nine pet lions and some bizarre personal material. Gaddafi had a huge, high-quality poster of Jake Gyllenhaal from the movie "Prince of Persia" — along with gay porn. A DVD copy of Boyz Tracks was buried under a load of personal papers.

To be fair, rebels may have planted that when they stormed the palace. But even if it was propaganda, no one doubts Gaddafi had a real crush on US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During an official visit to Libya, he called her "Leezza" and personally led her on a tour of his estate. He gave her a golden ring and a lute, and showered her with other gifts worth over $200,000. Gaddafi later called Rice a "proud black African queen," and kept a private photo album with hundreds of pictures of her in it.
Daily Mail

He gave daily televised speeches that could run for hours

Gaddafi On Television
By the time Gaddafi met his end — dragged out of a pipe and rectally impaled on a shaft of wood — many Libyans had grown tired of his rule.

He had certainly done a better job of modernizing his country than most Shari'a-compliant dictators, but his eccentricity and general repression had grated on the Libyan people. Carrying around a three-volume book all the time was one thing, but Gaddafi made increasingly heavy demands on his people's patience.

His television broadcasts serve as a prime example of that. In the 1980s, Gaddafi had a television studio built inside his palace complex, from which he broadcast daily addresses to the nation that could go on for hours every day.

Intrigued by these Muammar Gaddafi facts? To learn more about contentious historical figures, check out these Osama bin Laden facts. Then, read up on the seven craziest dictators in history.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Stockton, Richard. "18 Fascinating Facts About Muammar Gaddafi." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 1, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/muammar-gaddafi-facts. Accessed June 19, 2024.