Gadhafi’s House Band

The children of Moammar Gadhafi were increasingly engaged in recent months in covering up scandals fit for a “Libyan soap opera,” including negative publicity from extravagant displays of wealth, such as a million-dollar private concert by pop diva Beyonce, according to a new batch of secret diplomatic cables released Feb. 23.

The assessments by U.S. diplomats were published by the secret-spilling web site WikiLeaks as Gadhafi vowed to fight to the “last drop of blood” to put down an uprising against his 42-year rule of the North African nation. At least 300 protesters are believed to have been killed by pro-government forces in the past week of clashes.

Growing anger over crass behavior by Gadhafi’s offspring, such as son Hannibal’s 2008 arrest for beating servants in a hotel in Switzerland, may have helped spark the current uprising. “The family has been in a tailspin recently,” a cable assessed a year ago.

The diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in the Libyan capital of Tripoli describe how Gadhafi’s children have carved out spheres of influence, seemingly treating the country as their personal fiefdom.

Muhammad, the oldest son, dominated telecommunications, another son, Muatassim, was National Security Adviser, Hannibal was influential in maritime shipping, Khamis commanded a top military unit, while daughter Aisha ran a quasi-governmental organization. Another son, Saadi, was given the job of setting up an Export Free Trade Zone in western Libya.

Seif al-Islam Gadhafi cultivated a respectable image as Libya’s face to the West, and had locals rallying for him to be heir-apparent, the 2010 cable said. However, that image may well have been destroyed in a single instant earlier this week when he went on TV to threaten anti-government protesters with civil war if they persisted.

The family’s unchecked control in Libya is highlighted in a July 2008 embassy report that Muatassim put pressure on the chairman of the National Oil Corp., Shukri Ghanem, to give him $1.2 billion in cash and oil shipments. Ghanem told a confidant at the time he was considering resigning because he feared Muatassim could seek revenge if he wasn’t paid, a 2008 cable said.

The confidant described Gadhafi’s children as thugs, saying that “no one can cross or refuse such people without suffering consequences, particularly when the matter is to do with money,” the cable said.

Another 2008 dispatch noted that government funding was used to capitalize Hannibal’s maritime transportation company. The “close integration of private and public interests in many of Libya’s key economic entities” became apparent when Libya quickly halted oil shipments in response to his detention in Geneva over the alleged beating of the servants.

Two years later, a cable cited reports that Hannibal physically abused his wife, Aline.

In 2009, Aline had threatened to leave Hannibal and fled to London, the cable said. “Hannibal pursued Aline in London, and the encounter ended in assault,” the cable said. Hannibal’s mother, Safiya, and sister, Aisha, then persuaded Aline to report to police that she had been hurt in an accident and not mention abuse, according to the diplomats.

Saadi was described as having a troubled past, including run-ins with police in Europe, drug and alcohol abuse, and excessive partying, a 2009 cable said. It was an important objective for the regime to create “the appearance of useful employment” for Gadhafi’s children, the report said.

Flaunting of wealth was starting the hurt the family’s image, the diplomats said. They noted that Muatassim “kicked off 2010 the same way he spent 2009 – with a New Year’s Eve trip to St. Bart’s – reportedly featuring copious amounts of alcohol and a million-dollar personal concert courtesy of Beyonce, Usher, and other musicians.”

“The family has provided local observers with enough dirt for a Libyan soap opera,” the 2010 cable concluded.

The diplomats also noted “acute discord” among the Gadhafi siblings. The growing rivalries – in the absence of a succession mechanism and amid rumors of Gadhafi’s health problems – “could play an important, if not determinative role, in whether the family is able to hold on to power after the author of the revolution exits the political scene,” a 2009 dispatch said.

Still, Gadhafi still remains very much in control, despite his carefully crafted image as an aloof philosopher-king, a cable said.

The dictator is intimately involved in the most important work, such as vetting business deals involving public funds to “ensure that opportunities to extract rents from those contracts are distributed to key regime allies,” the diplomats observed.