BRUSSELS: A former senior US army officer who helped lead the hunt for Saddam Hussein believes Muammar Qadhafi will be caught as long as those pursuing him use local intelligence and zero in on his closest bodyguards.
Speaking before news emerged that a convoy of Libyan army vehicles had crossed into Niger carrying senior pro-Qadhafi figures, retired Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Russell said Qadhafi had traits similar to Saddam and other ego-driven autocrats that made him likely to rely on a small network of ultra-loyalists.
In hunting down Saddam in 2003 -- he was captured eight months after the fall of Baghdad, hiding in a hole near his hometown of Tikrit -- Russell relied on a mixture of local intelligence, special forces surveillance and psychological warfare to turn the local population against the deposed leader.
“We thought that if we could find the bodyguards, they may be good at protecting him, but not so good at protecting themselves. We knew that if we could find them and track them, they would probably lead us to Saddam,” he said.
From June 2003, the US military thought it had a pretty good idea that Saddam was hiding in the area around Tikrit and his nearby birthplace of al-Ouja, and set about pinpointing his bodyguards, closest family and relatives in the area.
From creating a fake insurgent group to draw away Saddam's religious supporters, to putting up posters of Saddam dressed as a woman or Elvis Presley around Tikrit to make fun of him, Russell and his unit tried to agitate the local population into giving him up while goading his backers into showing themselves.
“We would get tips from locals constantly saying 'they're here, we're seeing them', referring to Saddam's bodyguards, so we knew he had to be around even if we didn't know exactly where he was,” he said. “It was a matter of time.”
Members of Libya's interim the National Transitional Council cited Tuareg tribal sources saying a convoy of 10 vehicles with gold and cash had crossed from Libya into Niger on Monday night.
This followed word from military sources in France and Niger that scores of Libyan army vehicles had entered Niger. It was not clear whether Qadhafi was in the convoy.
While it was possible Qadhafi was trying to escape, Russell said he thought it was more likely that he would remain in Libya, sticking close to his power base and hometown networks.
“Like Saddam, he's probably too vain and too proud to leave Libya because he identifies everything about who he is with being powerful in his own country,” Russell, who is now a state senator in Oklahoma, told Reuters by telephone.
“When you've spent 40 years being accustomed to being the centre of your world, you are not prone to change.”
If he remains in Libya, Qadhafi is most likely in the north, staying where the population centres are, with a close group of ultra-loyal bodyguards at his side and within reach of his hometown of Sirte, a Mediterranean coastal city.
“You've got the coast in Libya, that's where the people are, that's where he'll be. Someone as ostentatious as Qadhafi, he's going to remain where his support is. He's not going to end up in some desert hole, even if that would be smarter,” he said.
Russell said it did not matter how large Libya was -- at 1.76 million sq km it is four times the size of Iraq -- if Qadhafi was going to be found, it would be people and human intelligence that would give him up.
“The people are the terrain. You can look at a country and its vastness, but it doesn't matter. Where the people are, that's where he's going to be. They are the terrain.
“If Saddam had really wanted to disappear, he would have gone to Syria and lived out the rest of his life comfortably as a goat herder. But he didn't do that. He went home and hid ... I think that's what's going to happen to Qadhafi as well.”
The critical thing -- and in Saddam's case it involved the capture of a trusted lieutenant, Mohammed Omar al-Musslit, who under US military interrogation divulged Saddam's whereabouts -- will be tracking down Qadhafi's closest bodyguards.
“These guys identify who they are by drawing on those around them, they need to feel the importance,” said Russell, the author of “We Got Him!” a book about the capture of Saddam. “As long as there are a handful of loyalists, that's where you start looking. Those families that intermarried with his family, the cabinet members he appointed. That's where he's going to be.”