Oct. 20, 2022

The Death of Colonel Gaddafi

The Death of Colonel Gaddafi

October 20th 2011. Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s long rule comes to an end when rebels capture and execute him.


Cold Open

It’s late February 2011 in Benghazi, a city in Libya on the north coast of Africa.

A car pushes slowly through the crowded streets. Inside, is an American Journalist, his crew, and their bodyguards: armed men from a local militia. The journalist stares out the window in amazement as the crowd cheers his arrival. He and his team are from the news network CNN. They’re the first TV crew to make it to Benghazi to report on the massive anti-government demonstrations currently underway in the city. The journalist glances up ahead. The excited crowd is even thicker there. One of the bodyguards suggests they get out and walk the rest of the way.

As the journalist and his crew step out of the car, a throng of people surges forward to greet them. Everyone wants to shake their hands and welcome them. The journalist and his crew struggle to squeeze through with their cameras and sound equipment. But with the help of their bodyguards, they finally make it to the front door of a nearby apartment block.

After they step inside, the bodyguards escort the journalist and his crew up several flights of stairs… until finally… they emerge on the roof. It’s the perfect spot, they’ve been told, to shoot their first segment. The American journalist looks out over the sea of people, stunned. He’s an experienced reporter, but he’s never seen anything like this before. The area between the apartment building and the beach is packed with men, women, and children. Their hands clasped in the air, they dance, sway, chant, and sing - defiant and joyful all at the same time. The journalist can’t help but smile. He knows this gathering is more than just a protest. It’s part of a growing movement spreading across Libya demanding change in the country, liberty for its people… and the end of the rule of a despised dictator: Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi has dominated Libyan politics since 1969 when he led a group of young army soldiers in a military coup. In the forty-two years since, Gaddafi has been able to withstand all threats to his regime in this oil-rich nation. He’s an erratic, eccentric bully - some say a madman. To maintain his grip on power, he’s employed an often-unpredictable mixture of generous patronage and brutal repression. But this demonstration in Benghazi represents the gravest danger to Gaddafi yet.

Across the region, dictators are being toppled by popular protests in a wave of revolutions known as the Arab Spring. Now, that movement has come to Libya. And soon, the mass protests will spill over into armed rebellion. The Arab Spring will ignite a civil war that will lead to the threat of a massacre, western intervention, and eventually, to Colonel Gaddafi’s capture and execution by rebel forces on October 20th, 2011.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is October 20th, 2011: The Death of Colonel Gaddafi.

Act One: Rebellion

It’s early morning on March 6th, 2011, seven months before the death of Colonel Gaddafi, in Bin Jawad, in central Libya.

A convoy of rebel vehicles filled with soldiers bounces over an artillery-pocked road as it heads into the center of the small town. One of the lead cars is a battered pick-up truck with a machine gun mounted on its rear. Its driver - a rebel fighter - peers through the windshield, scanning the buildings around for any sign of Colonel Gaddafi’s government troops.

Bin Jawad lies on the coastal road between the cities of Benghazi in the east and the Libyan capital Tripoli in the west. In late February, Rebel forces seized Benghazi and other towns in the eastern provinces. Then they began moving west along this coastal road toward the regime’s strongholds.

Colonel Gaddafi’s army advanced to counter them. And in small towns all along the coast, brutal battles for control are being fought. But the dictator’s army is better equipped than the ragtag group of rebel militia opposing him. Gaddafi’s forces have tanks, helicopters, and warplanes – and the difference is beginning to show results. But this driver isn’t afraid. Like many of his fellow rebels, he is willing to fight and die for his cause: freedom from Gaddafi’s tyranny.

As the driver’s truck rounds a corner, he catches a glimpse of movement up ahead. There’s a sudden dart of flame and smoke flashing through the air toward him. He pulls hard on the wheel. The truck veers, ricocheting off a building, as the rocket-propelled grenade flies past. It misses his car but slams into the vehicle behind him.

There are screams from the rebels inside as flames engulf the vehicle. Then bullets start to fly. Government troops are firing down on the rebels from the surrounding rooftops.

The driver of the battered pick-up truck does not escape the chaotic battle in Bin Jawad. He’s one of several hundred rebel fighters who go missing in the ambush. After the government troops chase them from town to town, the rebels are left exposed without cover in the open desert and are pounded by helicopters and warplanes.

Outgunned, they soon begin to fall back toward Benghazi. But they are still pursued by Colonel Gaddafi’s army. It seems that once again the wily old dictator will withstand another threat to his long-established regime.


Eleven days later, on March 17th, 2011, Colonel Gaddafi sits at a desk in his office in an underground bunker in Tripoli, the capital of Libya.

An aide slides a microphone toward him as the dictator rearranges his elaborate silk attire. In the corner of the room, a young technician makes adjustments to his recording equipment, before giving Gaddafi a deferential nod, signaling that he can begin his speech.

Gaddafi is winning the Libyan Civil War. One after another, towns held by the rebels in the east have fallen to his army. Now, Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery are closing in on the unofficial capital of the uprising: Benghazi.

Gaddafi hopes to put down the rebellion as quickly as possible. The United Nations has already passed a resolution condemning his regime’s response to the uprising. And the governments of the NATO alliance of Western democracies are debating how to intervene to protect the rebels. Gaddafi wants to crush the opposition now before the superior NATO forces get involved.

So in his speech on Libyan state radio, Gaddafi tells the country that his forces are preparing an attack on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. He says there will be “No more hesitation… The moment of truth has come.” His message is clear: the rebels have two options: surrender or die.

After his speech, Libyan state television shows exuberant crowds of pro-Gaddafi supporters in the capital cheering their leader on, waving flags, and jumping up and down holding portraits of the dictator.

But there’s a wider audience to Gaddafi’s speech. Soon, it will be repeated on international news networks. The blood-curdling threat to effectively wipe out the country’s second-largest city will cause fear and outrage around the globe, and finally push the Western powers of the NATO alliance to end their debates and get involved in the fight.

Act Two: Intervention

It’s the evening of March 19th, 2011, seven months before the death of Colonel Gaddafi.

On a US Navy Destroyer stationed in the Mediterranean, miles off the coast of Libya, a sailor sits at his console in combat control below deck, the cramped hub where crewmen monitor and operate the ship’s advanced weaponry. The sailor's face is illuminated by the glow of the computer screens as he makes his final systems check. Then the commanding officer standing behind him gives the order. At the push of a button, a high-pitched alarm sounds, alerting all on board to the impending launch of a Tomahawk cruise missile.

This destroyer is part of a fleet of NATO ships and submarines stationed off the coast of Libya. The Western allies have been watching events unfold in the country with growing alarm.

During Gaddafi’s four-decade reign, the dictator has often been an enemy of the West. But, at times, he’s also been an ally. In the 1980s, Gaddafi was a pariah – he supplied weapons to militant Irish republican groups fighting in Northern Ireland. And his regime was blamed for terrorist attacks on a Berlin nightclub in 1986 and on a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in Scotland two years later.

But when America began its ‘War on Terror’, Libya came in from the cold. Gaddafi condemned the 9/11 attacks and rebuilt relations with leaders in the West. In response, the US dropped Lybia from a list of state sponsors of terrorism and lifted sanctions against its economy.

But Gaddafi’s reaction to the Arab Spring ended that fragile harmony. When protests broke out in Libya, he outraged the West with a brutal crackdown. Now, Gaddafi’s promise to wipe out the rebel stronghold of Benghazi has finally pushed NATO into the fight. Just as Gaddafi’s forces reached the outskirts of the city, the orders were given for NATO forces to attack.

Now, on the deck of this American destroyer, there’s a loud roar and a bright flash as a Tomahawk cruise missile streaks upward into the night. It arcs through the clouds, hurtling across the black sky toward the distant coast of Libya. It’s one of more than a hundred missiles launched by American and British vessels in the Mediterranean. The bombardment targets Libya’s coastal air defenses. These must be destroyed so NATO jets can establish air superiority over the country and safely conduct targeted strikes against Gaddafi’s forces.

In this first onslaught, dozens of air defense sites are obliterated. But this is just the beginning. The Libyan army has no defense against NATO’s advanced weaponry. And just like that, the course of the war has changed once again. Only this time, to the benefit of the rebels. 


Five months later, on August 25th, 2011, a rebel fighter creeps through a dark tunnel deep below the city of Tripoli. In one hand, he grips a Kalashnikov rifle. In the other, a flashlight. The electricity has been cut off. He can barely see as he makes his way through this vast maze of passageways.

He's exploring Colonel Gaddafi’s underground lair. It’s a web of tunnels that extends for miles underneath Libya's capital city. But there’s no sign of the dictator. Gaddafi has already fled.

The intervention of NATO tipped the scales of war in favor of the rebels. After clearing Gaddafi’s coastal air defenses, NATO sent in warplanes to enforce a no-fly zone to ground the Libyan Air Force. Then they targeted the tanks, artillery, and other heavy vehicles used by Gaddafi’s forces. These air strikes saved the city of Benghazi from destruction. And with this powerful air support, the rebels were able to advance out of their eastern strongholds and push Gaddafi’s armies back. By the middle of August 2011, they were at the gates of Tripoli. And after days of fierce street fighting, the rebels broke into Gaddafi’s presidential compound and began to sweep through the network of tunnels the dictator built beneath it.

So now deep within the bunker, the rebel fighter comes to a thick steel door. He puts down his flashlight and rifle for a moment. There’s a shriek of metal as he wrenches the door open. Picking up his gun, he cautiously creeps into the corridor beyond. There’s no one to be seen. A shaft of sunlight pierces through a ragged hole in the ceiling. A NATO bomb – a ‘bunker-buster’ – has smashed through the thick concrete above it. The walls are blackened with fire and the twisted remains of office furniture and communications equipment lie scattered across the floor.

Through the broken roof, the fighter can hear the rattle of distant machine gun fire and the occasional pop of artillery. There are still some Gaddafi loyalists fighting in the city. But they are surrounded and outnumbered. It’s only a matter of time before the capital is under the complete control of the rebels.

But the young fighter knows that there’s no chance of ending the war unless they can find Gaddafi. He and his fellow rebels will have to continue the fight, working over the next weeks to clear the last enclaves supporting the old regime, and finally bring the despised dictator to justice.

Act Three: Death of a Tyrant

It’s the morning of October 20th, 2011, outside the city of Sirte in central Libya.

On a stretch of road in an industrial area, the wreckage of a convoy of trucks, decimated by a NATO airstrike, burns on the asphalt. On the ground nearby, is a large storm drain. This foul-smelling hole in the ground is the last refuge of Libya's once all-powerful dictator.

Gaddafi cowers inside, badly wounded and covered in sweat and blood. His clothes are torn and bloodied, and his once-curly black hair is matted down against his head. After ruling Libya with an iron fist for 42 years, Gaddafi is forced to hide in a ditch. 

After fleeing Tripoli in August, Gaddafi fled more than 200 miles east to the city of Sirte and holed up there with a group of heavily armed soldiers, the last still loyal to his regime. But by October, the rebels had the city surrounded. Early on October 20th, Gaddafi and his inner circle attempted to flee once again in a convoy of cars.  But they were spotted by a NATO aircraft which immobilized the convoy with an airstrike. Gaddafi survived the attack, but rebel ground troops were already closing in. The dictator made his last stand with a handful of bodyguards there on the roadside before retreating into the shadows of this storm drain. Now, it’s only a matter of time before his inevitable capture.

Soon, Gaddafi hears the sound of gunshots and the shouts of more rebel fighters closing in on his location. Moments later, a rifle pokes inside the drain and a voice calls out: surrender or die. Gaddafi has no choice. Trembling, the dictator crawls from his hiding place.

At once, he is surrounded by armed rebel troops. One man roughly pulls back his hair to take a closer look at his face and confirm his identity. Excited, the man shouts: “Muammar! Muammar!”. And the rest of the rebels cheer. After weeks of hunting, they’ve finally found him.

Colonel Gaddafi never faces trial for his crimes against the people of Libya. Instead, the rebel fighters humiliate, torture, and finally execute the dictator by shooting him in the head on the road outside Sirte.

The death of Colonel Gaddafi marks the end of the civil war which broke out in early 2011. But despite the hopes of the Libyan rebels and their Western allies, Gaddafi’s fall does not usher in a new era of peace and prosperity in the country. The collapse of the dictator’s regime leaves a power vacuum that the rebels struggle to fill. The various militias fighting against Gaddafi were united mainly by their hatred for the dictator. And after his fall, the rivalry between the different factions surfaces, leading to a second civil war. Colonel Gaddafi and his despised regime are gone but the country still lives in the shadow of his cruel reign which finally ended with his death on October 20th, 2011.


Next on History Daily. October 21st, 1805. British naval hero Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson is mortally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.