To help exact his revenge, Qaddafi recruited Liberia's Charles Taylor, a war criminal now standing trial for crimes against humanity, including the abduction of children for combat, systematic rape, and mass murder. Another Qaddafi recruit, Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF), would be standing trial in the same court for similar crimes had he not died of natural causes.
Sankoh, an illiterate corporal, formed the RUF under Taylor's auspices and together they pioneered their signature atrocity in the 1990s -- the amputation of the arms and legs of men, women, and children as part of a scorched-earth campaign designed to take over the region's rich diamond fields. Their atrocities were backed by Qaddafi, who routinely met with Taylor and his closest associates to review the progress of the conflicts and supply weapons. Qaddafi continued sending arms to Taylor even as the latter was being forced from office in 2003.
Another alumnus of the center was Laurent Kabila, whose brutal forces swept to power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1997 when the dictatorial regime of Mobutu Sese Seko imploded. Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine/Cuban revolutionary, had tried to work with Kabila's troops in the 1960s only to give up in despair because of Kabila's incompetent leadership and the massive corruption he enabled. Relations with Kabila's son Joseph, the current DRC president, are not as close.
Compaoré, the current president of Burkina Faso, is another illustrious WRC graduate. In 1987, troops loyal to Compaoré, who was then a captain and minister of the presidency, assassinated his best friend, President Thomas Sankara, to pave the way for Compaoré to take power. As president of the tiny, impoverished, landlocked country, Compaoré sent troops and resources to back Taylor's insurgency in Liberia and the RUF in Sierra Leone. A 2002 United Nations investigation found that Compaoré played a significant role in arming the RUF and Taylor in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Compaoré has remained a staunch Qaddafi ally through the years.
In Latin America, Qaddafi had been supporting the Sandinistas and Ortega since 1979, and Ortega has still not forgotten the favor. Last week Ortega called Qaddafi his "brother" and this week conveyed his support, promising that "Nicaragua, my government the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and our people are with you in these battles."
The Libyan relationship with Chávez and the FARC dates at least to 2000. A series of email exchanges among FARC commander Raúl Reyes, Qaddafi, and Ortega show how deep that relationship remained in the recent past. The FARC, founded in 1964 and operating primarily in Colombia, is the Western Hemisphere's oldest guerrilla movement. Since Chávez took office he has given the FARC extensive political support and called for the group to be removed from the U.S. and EU terrorism lists. Ortega has long-standing ties to the FARC as well as to Qaddafi and Chávez.
After Reyes was killed in 2008, his computer hard drives were captured by the Colombian police. They contain a trove of correspondence, including a Sept. 4, 2000, letter from the FARC high command to "Comrade Colonel Gaddafi, Great Leader of the World Mathaba." The missive thanked Qaddafi for recently hosting senior FARC commanders in Libya. The FARC went on to request "a loan of $100 million, repayable in five years. . . . One of our primary needs is the purchase of surface-to-air missiles to repel and shoot down the combat aircraft." The aircraft in question were supplied to the Colombian military by the United States.
Reyes wrote a Feb. 22, 2003, letter marked "Hand Delivery" to Ortega, asking for an update on the status of the FARCs earlier request for missiles, stressing the urgency of the petition. "Dear Comrade Daniel," Reyes wrote, "The Libyans said they would answer us but we have not yet received any information. . . . while we were in Libya they explained to us that the political responsibility for Libya's policies in the region were in the hands of Daniel Ortega. For that reason, we are approaching you, in hopes of obtaining an answer." It is unclear whether the weapons were ever delivered.
Chávez pulled out all the stops during Qaddafi's visit to Venezuela in 2009. "What Símon Bolívar is to the Venezuelan people, Qaddafi is to the Libyan people," Chávez said while awarding the Libyan leader the "Order of the Liberator" medal, along with a replica of Bolívar's sword. Qaddafi in turn praised Chávez for "having driven out the colonialists," just as he had driven out those in Libya. "We share the same destiny, the same battle in the same trench against a common enemy, and we will conquer," Qaddafi said.
It seems that Chávez, Ortega, Mugabe, Compaoré, and the rest of Qaddafi's shrinking club of despots desperately hope that the colonel was not right. The support of Chávez and Ortega for Qaddafi has been politically costly and proved to be an embarrassment to many of Latin America's erstwhile revolutionaries who now share a vision of a democratic future. The aging dictators club will likely be one member short soon, and the survivors -- and their citizens -- will be left to ponder if there is a shared destiny.