Time magazine has quoted me in this article on Libya:
Saturday, Mar. 05, 2011
Sert: The Desert City That Holds Gaddafi's Destiny
The rebel forces in Benghazi have their eyes set on Tripoli, contemplating military action to take the Libyan capital if necessary. But if that goal is to be reached, they must move westward. And smack in the middle of their path will be the coastal city of Sert, which is the both the birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi and the heartland of his tribe, the Qadhadfa. Expect fierce and fearsome resistance if the rebels attack. "This really is the heartland of the regime," says Bruce St. John, author of seven books on Libya. "This would be a real prize for the opposition, but he clearly will defend it to the end, if he can."
"There's been a lot of money spent on that town since Gaddafi took over. It's a very well developed place now compared to what it was 40, 50 years ago. It's not a fortress by any means, but you probably won't find internal disloyalty within the town that would create a problem for its defense. Everyone there is pretty much a Gaddafi loyalist," says Andrew McGregor, a North African military expert with the Jamestown Foundation. Not only is the population of Sert considered exceptionally loyal, but Gaddafi has a large garrison stationed there. And there is an even bigger one — Hun military base — 150 miles south, which could easily reinforce the city or thwart rebels going south to try to circumvent Sert, a move that would bring them into open desert, making them vulnerable to attack from loyalist forces, says McGregor. (See TIME's exclusive photos of the protests in Libya.)
The rebels will need help to take Sert. "I don't think the opposition can capture Sert without help from the U.S., the U.K. or NATO," says Camille Tawil, a North African expert based in London. "Gaddafi has enough forces there to defend, if not to push them further away."
Historically, Sert was a poor settlement in a largely nomadic area, without a productive agricultural base (a reason why, unlike the Benghazi and Tripoli areas, the region was never settled by the ancient Greeks and Romans). Gaddafi's parents, lowly members of the relatively small and poor Qadhadfa tribe, were livestock herders, moving about the vast desert to the south of Sert. When he was 8 or 9, Gaddafi left the desert and went to live with his cousin in Sert, where he got his first formal education, before going to the military academy in Sabha in the south.(See pictures of the rise of Colonel Gaddafi.)
During Gaddafi's childhood in the 1950s, and even into the 1960s, many residents of the Sert area made their livelihood collecting scrap metal left over from the World War II desert battle sites, according to British scholar Tim Niblock, one of the very few foreigners who has visited Gaddafi there. Where his family once lived in tents a half-hour's drive south of Sert, Gaddafi has constructed a large multibuilding concrete compound known as Bu-Hadi, or Place of Quietness. Niblock had gone there to try to persuade Gaddafi to turn over the accused bomber of Pan Am Flight 103 (which blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988) to the Hague in a deal hatched by the U.S. and Britain in 1998.
"This is a retreat for him but also one of his two main residences," says Niblock. "It reminds him of his childhood." The other key residence Gaddafi keeps is the heavily fortified Bab Al-Aziziya military camp south of Tripoli.
Today Sert, which has 135,000 residents in the city and surroundings, has changed dramatically because of government largesse. The town now has reasonably good infrastructure (unlike most other Libyan cities) and sports a university and large hospital, along with numerous government buildings. In fact, all central government ministries — except for foreign affairs — had been ordered to relocate to Sert in order to create a new administrative capital roughly in the middle of the country, between the east, dominated by Benghazi, and the west, dominated by Tripoli. However, bureaucrats with comfortable homes in Tripoli, a city of more than 2 million, managed to defer transfers, and today most ministries have set up only satellite offices in Sert, with the real business of government still taking place in Tripoli.
Gaddafi was more effective setting up Sert as an international showcase, building a huge conference center, the Palais des Congres, the largest such hall in North Africa, and other facilities to host African summits, U.N. meetings and, more recently, the Darfur peace talks. "This is really the political capital of the regime," says Tawil, who has written a book about Islamist groups in North Africa. (Watch TIME's 2009 interview with Gaddafi.)
Another international touch in Sert: it is thought to have become home to possibly thousands of retired mercenaries from Chad, part of the Islamic Arab Legion Gaddafi funded in the 1980s, according to McGregor.
The real defense of the city, however, would come from the families of two key tribes — Gaddafi's Qadhadfa and the Magariha — many of whose members have been absorbed into Gaddafi's sprawling domestic and military-intelligence services or into key security units.
The question for both the regime and its opponents is whether or not Gaddafi's tribal support frays. Analysts are watching for signs of tribal defections from the regime as the only way to avoid a protracted civil war. There has been some internal grumbling that Gaddafi has already done damage to his tribe's future prospects, with much worse to come if he chooses to go down in a bloodbath. And there have been some Qadhadfa defections, including, most notably, Gaddafi's cousin Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, a brigadier general whose multiple responsibilities include commanding forces in the eastern portion of the country that has now successfully detached itself from the regime in Tripoli. (See an article about Free Libya looking to the future.)
But most experts say the bulk of the Qadhadfa tribe — estimated at 50,000 to 60,000 people — will follow Gaddafi to the end, even though many regarded him as a tribal parvenu who was extraordinarily lucky to have pulled off the 1969 coup against Libya's King Idris. Many other military officers, including some from more prominent tribes, were rumored to have been planning the same at that time. "The Qadhadfa tribe has become so closely enmeshed with the regime — there are so many in intelligence and security services — that they just don't have many other options," says Niblock, a scholar at the University of Exeter.
In a way, if Sert continues to stand as a symbol of loyalty to Gaddafi, the better it is for the regime. Says McGregor, "The people that haven't bolted already are now less likely, by the day, to bolt from the regime. If they see that Gaddafi is able to consolidate his position and is able to actually go on the offensive, then there's not a lot of incentive to take a big chance [and defect]." He adds, "They've been brought up with a very ingrained fear of Gaddafi, and the fact that he's still around a couple of weeks into this has probably got a lot of [them] thinking, well, he could come out on top in the long run here. I mean, this is not the first rebellion he's faced in Libya — and he's still in power."