Aug. 24, 2011 — -- Now that the Tripoli power base of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has fallen to rebel fighters, the hunt for the man who ruled the country for four decades has begun in earnest.
Rebel and foreign officials have said they believe he could still be in Libya, and speculation has focused on key cities still in dispute, as well as on a secret network of underground tunnels and bunkers that the Libyan president had built beneath Tripoli for just such an emergency.
"The real moment of victory is when Gadhafi is captured," Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of Libya's rebel council, said Wednesday before adding that the council doesn't have any idea where he is.
In an audio message broadcast early Wednesday morning, Gadhafi called his evacuation from his famous Bab al-Aziziya compound in southern Tripoli a "tactical move."
"I call on all the Tripoli residents with all its young, old and armed brigades to defend the city, to cleanse it, put an end to the traitors and kick them out from our city," he said, once again vowing "martyrdom" or victory. Gadhafi has not been seen for weeks, releasing only audio recordings in that time.
"He doesn't seem to have much control of anything. It's interesting that he hasn't been seen," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters on Tuesday.
Rebels have yet to take Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and some have speculated that he may be in the southern city of Sabha, his ancestral home. But the more feverish hypothesizing centers on a long-rumored "underground city" comprised of a series of tunnels and bunkers emanating from the Bab al-Aziziya compound that was attacked by U.S. warplanes in 1986 and again repeatedly by NATO during its five-month air campaign.
Before being overrun Tuesday, the heavily-fortified compound was guarded by the truest of Gadhafi loyalists, leading many to believe that Gadhafi and his family were still holed up inside. The sprawling 2.3 square mile fortress has a series of 12-foot walls surrounded a military barracks, private residences and a mosque, among other structures. When rebels entered, several climbed atop the iconic statue of a golden fist crushing an American fighter jet.
Gadhafi Tunnel Rumors
Tunnels have been rumored to run from the compound to the airport -- now in rebel control -- as well as to the Mediterranean coast several miles away and to the nearby Rixos hotel, where until Wednesday more than 30 foreign journalists were held by Gadhafi forces (One of the reporters, CNN's Matthew Chance, said they scoured the hotel from top to bottom but didn't find anything.) According to Reuters, one rebel leader told an Arabic newspaper recently that the tunnels are believed to be up to 20 miles long.
Tripoli isn't the only place tunnels and bunkers were built for Libya's eccentric leader. At a palace in the eastern city of al-Baida taken over earlier this year by protesters, a nuclear bunker was reportedly discovered. According to Al Jazeera, the bunker had a "fully serviced air filter system and is also equipped with emergency generators, fire alarm, water pumps, and a ladder fixed in what could have served as a back emergency exit."
And in the rebel capital of Benghazi, a series of tunnels and prison cells was discovered beneath the once-feared large green government complex known as the Katiba.
Then there's the Great Man-Made River, a project Gadhafi touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Its 2,500-mile system of pipes 12-feet in diameter carries fresh water all over Libya and some have even guessed that Gadhafi may be using it to escape.
With so little concrete information, some analysts believe intelligence services will question the western contractors brought in to build Gadhafi's various tunnels and bunkers. With few countries willing to take Gadhafi in, it's not terribly far-fetched to believe he may eventually be found in a Saddam Hussein-style spider hole. But millions of Libyans are hoping to find Gadhafi faster than the eight months it took to hunt down Hussein.