He transformed Libya into a dictatorship, criminalizing dissent, creating a network of informers and executing opponents. He sent hit squads to hunt down dissidents – "stray dogs," he called them -- who fled to Europe and the U.S.
Most significantly, Gadhafi squeezed foreign oil companies to give his regime nearly 80 percent of the revenue from Libya's vast oil fields, a model that would be duplicated by other oil-producing states. It provided Gadhafi with the resources to cause havoc around the world. Harboring a deep resentment of the West, Gadhafi financed revolutionary movements in Africa, Asia and Europe -- from the I.R.A. in Northern Ireland to Islamic radicals in the Philippines. He supported Palestinian terrorism, and reportedly offered safe haven to the alleged mastermind of the "Black September" attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Gadhafi's conduct put him on a collision course with the United States. Soon after taking office, President Reagan severed diplomatic relations with Libya and slapped an embargo on its oil. Gadhafi upped the ante when Libyan agents orchestrated the bombing of a West Berlin disco in 1986, killing two U.S. servicemen. American warplanes bombed Gadhafi's compound in retaliation, nearly killing the dictator.
The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 cemented Libya's standing as a rogue state. The ensuing sanctions against him were so severe, Barbara Walters needed the State Department's permission to visit Libya to interview Gadhafi.
Asked in that interview about Washington's demand that he needed to "renounce international terrorism," Gadhafi laughed. "This could be the response when someone is sponsoring terrorism, but when our official position is that we are against terrorism, such demand would be meaningless," he said.
Gadhafi scoffed when Walters brandished a report accusing him of using surrogates to commit terrorism around the world. "What is the practical evidence, the concrete evidence?" he said. "These are all lies … only ink and paper."
All of which made Gadhafi's about-face after 9/11, his rejection of terrorism, even more striking. Reportedly, he shared his intelligence files on al Qaeda with the C.I.A., and allowed the U.S. to use a Libyan site for the harsh interrogation of a terror suspect.
With the lifting of sanctions, U.S. and international companies rushed into Libya to do business. World leaders like Italy's Silvio Berlusconi paid visits. Gadhafi and his country were pariahs no more.
Now rehabilitated, Gadhafi cast himself as a statesman, and in early 2009, he was elected to lead the African Union, a confederation of 53 nations.
But the makeover unraveled in August 2009 after Scotland freed the only person convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, a former Libyan agent named Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. Although the release was described as a humanitarian gesture -- Megrahi suffered from prostate cancer – it triggered outrage in the U.S. and Britain. The outcry mushroomed when Megrahi returned to a hero's welcome in Tripoli orchestrated by Gadhafi's regime. Once again, Gadhafi appeared to be up to his old tricks.
Gadhafi's ability to outrage was on full display during a subsequent visit to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.