Saif al-Islam came to prominence in Libyan politics some 15 years ago when he began talking publicly about the need for economic reforms. He highlighted some of the human rights violations being perpetrated by his father’s regime, and was soon tipped as the heir in waiting.
Now he stands accused by the International Criminal Court of orchestrating a campaign of mass murder against Libyan pro-democracy protesters as the Gaddafis fought desperately to hold on to power.
In recent weeks he has reportedly claimed to have led a military campaign against Islamic State militants in the coastal town of Sabratha, he told a longstanding US contact, the Guardian reported– and claimed he would fight his way to Tripoli.”Saif al-Islam is inside Libya and is committed to his word, which he gave to all Libyans in 2011, when he said that he will remain in Libya to defend its territory or die a martyr for it,” a spokesman for Gaddafi said in a written statement, supplied through the US contact who had extensive dealings with him before the fall of his family’s rule.
“The forces who fought in Sabratha against IS, the gangs of illegal immigrants and the oil-smuggling mafias were mainly members of the tribes who support Saif al-Islam, and those who were part of the former Libyan army, also loyal to Saif Gaddafi.”
Observers say Gaddafi could still emerge as a political force if elections are held next year and he is allowed to stand despite his ICC indictment for alleged crimes against humanity.
He was also sentenced to death by a court in Tripoli in 2015, though that trial was conducted in absentia and was widely criticised by human rights groups.
A diplomat involved in election preparations said the ICC indictment would not necessarily stop him from standing, or winning.
“We don’t control who stands in the election. That is up to the Libyans,” the diplomat said. “You can see he has popularity on the ground, particularly in the south.”
If or when a vote does go ahead, Libya observers said Saif Gaddafi could benefit from the frustration of political divisions and a longing for the relative stability of the Gaddafi era.
After a 2015 UN-backed agreement, a unity Government of National Accord (GNA) with Fayez al-Sarraj as prime minister took office in Tripoli last year.
But it has struggled to impose its authority elsewhere, particularly in the east, where military strongman General Khalifa Haftar controls much of the territory and supports a rival parliament, backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
In September, the United Nations launched a new plan to bring stability to Libya, which has been in chaos since the 2011 NATO-backed popular revolt against Gaddafi.