The two most dynamic members of the late Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's inner circle were captured over the weekend: Saif al-Islam, his Western-educated son and one-time successor, and Abdullah al-Senussi, his brother-in-law and spymaster. These two men were the powers behind the throne. Saif was known for his seemingly genuine admiration of Western constitutionalism and technological progress. Senussi understood that Libya couldn't survive isolated from the West, but also grasped that introducing Western technology and the discourse of human rights would complicate his continued efforts to repress the Libyan people.
Both men were profoundly aware of the challenges the 21st century presented to the continued rule of the Qaddafi clan and urged a controlled opening to the West to save the "family business" -- an effort that eventually backfired. Most outside observers assume that Senussi, as a security thug from the desert, was a reactionary figure who fought against Saif's progressive détente with the West after 2003 and his economic privatization inside Libya. I came to meet Senussi while working in Libya in 2008 and discovered, to my great surprise, that, although he bordered on being illiterate -- even in Arabic -- he grasped the urgency of attracting foreign direct investment as much as any of the so-called Libyan reformers with doctoral degrees.
Senussi embodied the paranoid yet shrewd center of the regime. In the 1980s, when he ran the internal security apparatus, he was the second most powerful man in Libya; later on, after heading the military intelligence in the 1990s, he had a brief falling out with the colonel but remained a close advisor and his most trusted "fixer" in times of crisis. When we met, he expressed his regret that he had not invested more resources in having his son learn English. (Impressed with my spoken Levantine Arabic, he had me followed after our meetings. Word got back to me through the leaky Libyan security apparatus that he assumed I was not a real management consultant but actually a Lebanese spy investigating the kidnapping of Musa al-Sadr in 1978. As a New Yorker without a drop of Arab blood who had struggled for over a decade to learn Arabic, I was quite flattered.)
Senussi had a greater understanding than Saif that, in opening Libya to the West, the Qaddafi regime was playing with fire. He counselled the colonel to avoid placing too much trust in Western-educated technocrats and he kept his tribesmen from the Southern Megarha tribe in key positions of the security services. By contrast, Saif failed to see the dangers to his father's regime implicit in advocating for a free press and inviting groups like Human Rights Watch to conduct investigations.
Without the chaotic one step-forward, two steps-backward economic liberalization these two men facilitated, Libya would have remained an international pariah state, but it also would have remained isolated from the regime-destabilizing effects of the Internet and the Libyan diaspora. In hermetically closed states, such as the Libya of the 1990s or today's North Korea, a popular revolution is next to impossible. Only after a perestroika and a glasnost can a totalitarian regime be challenged from within. Efforts to restrain popular discontent, such as Senussi's massacre of more than 1,000 prisoners at Abu Salim Prison in 1996, usually collapse once the people can communicate with the outside world.