Reflecting his deep antipathy to formal authority, Qaddafi not only disclaimed any formal title, but institutionalized this as a governing philosophy in what he called a "popular democracy," later "Islamic socialism." Dismantling parties and institutions, he formed "people's committees" across the country to establish a direct democracy. This principle was codified in the three slim volumes of his Green Book, the quixotic tome on political philosophy he published in 1976. Then, in 1977, at Qaddafi's bidding, the General People's Congress, which was in effect a committee of committees, conferred upon him the honorific title of permanent "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya," (jamahiriya is loosely translated as democracy of the masses or state of the masses, with no formal organizations other than the "people's committees"). In this democracy of the masses, Qaddafi would have no formal leadership role. This was the basis for Qaddafi's explanation in his Feb. 28 press conference that he can't resign because he has no official position.
After the revolution, Libya nationalized some 70 percent of the oil companies operating in Libya, including British Petroleum and Continental Oil, and joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with a resultant large increase of oil revenues for Libya. Using Libya's petroleum wealth, Qaddafi not only bankrolled terrorists, but almost indiscriminately funded rogue leaders around the world, including Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Empire, Haile Mengistu of Ethiopia, and Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
In reviewing Qaddafi's career, two things stand out. A consistent theme is his identification with the underdog, standing up against authority. And while he eschews the titles of power, he has, in fact, been quite ruthless in eliminating any threats to his own power. It has been estimated that some 10 to 20 percent of the Libyan population works for the people's committees, identifying threats to his power, dissidents, and regime critics, and eliminating them, forming a network of secret informers rivaling that of Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin, and the East German Stasi. So sensitive to plots is his regime that even to engage in a discussion with a foreigner is a crime punishable by three years in prison. The fear of dissidents includes those living abroad, who have sought the sanctuary of exile, and he has dispatched assassination teams abroad to silence outspoken anti-Libyan dissidents, for example shooting at 10 anti-Qaddafi protesters in Britain in 1984. And his reach extended to the United States: In 1980, he attempted to assassinate a Libyan graduate student at the University of Colorado, seriously wounding him, and killed a Libyan exile just before his U.S. citizenship ceremony in 1990. Amnesty International once estimated that Libya carried out at least 25 assassinations abroad in the 1980s.
In Qaddafi's constellation of enemies, the United States was to occupy a special role. To have the courage to stand up to the world's only superpower would surely magnify his stature. And stand up he did. Reagan recalled in his diaries that Qaddafi mounted an assassination plot against him in November 1981. In early 1986, when Qaddafi declared the Gulf of Sidra as Libya's territory, which extended some 200 miles beyond the coast, and threatened attacks against anyone who dared to cross "the line of death," the U.S. Navy carried out a longstanding planned exercise that indeed crossed the line. Qaddafi sent two sorties of jets against the American fleet, which were promptly shot down. Qaddafi then thanked the United States for making him "a hero to the Third World."
Later that year, Libyan agents bombed the La Belle disco in West Berlin, a favorite hangout for the U.S. military, killing three and wounding 229. Intercepts revealed this was a Libyan plot, providing Reagan the long-sought "smoking gun" to fulfill his inaugural commitment to make attacking terrorism his No. 1 priority. The United States mounted a bombing raid against Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in reprisal. Qaddafi claimed his adopted daughter was killed in the raid. Now, Qaddafi was fully engaged with his arch enemy. A year later, a Japanese Red Army terrorist, hired by Qaddafi, was apprehended at a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike with three pipe bombs discovered in his car. According to a February 1989 article in the New York Times, he intended to set them off in a Navy recruiting station in New York City on the first anniversary of the U.S. bombing raid on Tripoli. In 1988, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 occurred over Lockerbie, Scotland, a flight filled with American students returning home after study abroad, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground. Meticulous forensic examination traced the bomb back to Libya, leading to U.N. economic and political sanctions in 1992, which bit deeply, leading to Libya's economic and political isolation. The Libyan associate minister of justice, who recently defected, has confirmed that it was Qaddafi himself who gave the orders.