George Negus travels to Tripoli to meet the controversial Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi , who, in 40 years of absolute rule, has sponsored terrorists and revolutionaries and earned the status as world pariah. But perhaps with the wisdom of years, or having seen his once rich oil-producing country crippled by UN sanctions and isolation, Colonel al-Gaddafi recently seems to have come in from the desert and begun courting Western approval.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI – Sunday, 21st February 2010

GEORGE NEGUS: Sir, thank you very much for giving us this interview.

You’re a very busy man. Could you help me – what is the correct way for me to address you? Should I call you Leader or Brother Leader? What is the most appropriate title?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): As you like, as you like. You are free….

GEORGE NEGUS: When I told people that I was going to be able to interview you, they were intrigued. They are fascinated by yourself because you appear to have changed recently from the sort of person they were used to reading about and seeing on television, to a different kind of Muammar Gaddafi. Why do we think that you have changed?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): It is the world that has changed.

GEORGE NEGUS: But is there anything in particular that prompted you to go from the person who was, at one point, regarded as a dangerous person?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Of course, I was .. I am a leader of a revolution with global ideas. And I have actively contributed to liberation movements and colonial countries did not want that of course. That is why they portrayed me in this image. My principles have not changed.

GEORGE NEGUS: So when many people throughout the Western world, in particular, regarded you as a sponsor of terrorism, is that no longer the case?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): The West sees liberation movements as terrorist movements and that is why I am accused of supporting terrorism, because I support liberation movements.

GEORGE NEGUS: What about al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden because you have spoken out very firmly against Osama bin Laden? In fact, you were the first leader to call for his arrest.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): They are a terrorist group and we totally disagree with them.

GEORGE NEGUS: What’s the difference between a terrorist group and a liberation movement, in your eyes?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): A freedom fighter has a land that is occupied and he wants to liberate it, but a terrorist is someone who wants to kill people. And sometimes he doesn’t even have a program, a plan.

GEORGE NEGUS: So what about al-Qaeda?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): I think the method these people are using is … a storm in a teacup. They don’t have any justification for existence.

GEORGE NEGUS: So was September 11 a storm in a teacup?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Well of course, it is one of the terrorist acts.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you have any idea what should be done to combat terrorist groups like al-Qaeda?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): We should respond to them using the same arguments they use. They accuse America of violating the Muslim world, dominating it, interfering in it’s affairs and subjugating it. And that it supports the slaughter of Palestinians, displacing them and stopping them from returning home. And support of their argument increased after what happened in Iraq and…and in Gaza.

GEORGE NEGUS: Can we go back to whether or not you have changed because the impression the world has is that you have softened, you are more capable of living peacefully with the rest of the Western world for instance.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): I was a hardliner with regard to colonialism which had occupied Africa and large parts of the world. We were waging an armed struggle… and therefore one had to be strong. But now no one asks for weapons but for economic aid, which changes your position.

GEORGE NEGUS: Some of the reasons people think you have softened your position and you are no longer as dangerous as people used to say you were is because you have said you have no nuclear program, no weapons of mass destruction and that you believe that people like bin Laden are not the right kind of people to represent Islam.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): As to the nuclear program, it underwent a serious review by us, we built it after the revolution and the world has changed since.

GEORGE NEGUS: You did have a weapons of mass destruction program?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Of course there was. But we reviewed it, many states were showing off then about going in that direction.

GEORGE NEGUS: So you’re no longer fashionable?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Now there is no justification.

GEORGE NEGUS: Some cynical commentators have said that one of the reasons you got rid of your weapons of mass destruction program is because you feared the same fate as Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): No, we started to deal with abandoning this program and negotiating with superpowers before the Iraq War.

GEORGE NEGUS: Could we talk about Lockerbie because in the Western world if the word ‘Lockerbie’ is mentioned, the name Gaddafi is mentioned. When you hear the word ‘Lockerbie’, what do you think?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): The truth is nobody accepts actions against civilian targets and downing civilian planes. I don’t think a country can be responsible for or decide on such an action.

GEORGE NEGUS: So you could look the world in the face and say quite honestly that you did not order the Lockerbie attack?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Of course. No country would do such a thing.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you think that the man accused actually was responsible for that bombing of that plane that killed 270 people? He was a Libyan intelligence officer.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): He is not an intelligence officer. He is a university professor. Had the appeal continued at the European Court he would have been acquitted.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you think he was guilty?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): I don’t think so. Even the International court of Justice said that it was a political trial.

GEORGE NEGUS: So how do you feel that Libya and yourself in particular have been linked to that disaster?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Like I said at the time, they would blame everything on Libya as it was leading the liberation movement. Even now, terrorist acts might be carried out by terrorists who aren’t linked to bin Laden but they are immediately attributed to him.

GEORGE NEGUS: If Lockerbie had nothing to do with you and Libya, why did you offer so much money in compensation to the families, the victims, the families of the victims?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): This is a peaceful settlement to resolve the problems between us.

GEORGE NEGUS: But why did you do it, if Libya wasn’t involved and you weren’t the person who ordered that bombing?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): We, at the end, accepted the judgement that was made, even though it was not a legal judgement but a political one.

GEORGE NEGUS: So what do you say, as a man, as a human being and as a father and later you suffered, your own family suffered when the retaliatory attacks occurred in Libya over that other bombing? What do you say to the families of the people who think that you were responsible?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): I have expressed myself about this numerous times. It is a tragedy – it was hideous. Who would support such an act? It’s not possible. Only someone who is mad or a terrorist – it is a real tragedy.

GEORGE NEGUS: Tell me about IsraTine – we talked about your plan for Israel and Palestine.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): it is just my proposal to join two halves of two words.

GEORGE NEGUS: The reality is that it’s not going to be as easy as you make it sound – to get the Israelis and Palestinians to stop killing each other the way they are.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): If they wanted to end the violence and war between them and if they wanted Jews and Palestinians to live in peace… Jews and Palestinians… then they should consider this solution. One democratic state, free from weapons of mass destruction, and with the return of the Palestinian refugees.

GEORGE NEGUS: And you seriously believe it would work – in your lifetime?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): If God guides them, then this is the solution.

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess I’m wondering how the Jews could see a light from Allah. There is a religious problem too isn’t there? A religious difficulty!

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): What is the religious difficulty?

GEORGE NEGUS: That the Jews probably don’t believe in Allah.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): What would hinder this solution? This solution is not linked to religion – it is linked to reality. Four million displaced Palestinians must return, and the land will be for all of them, Palestinians and Israelis. What is the difference between what was said about throwing Jews into the sea and throwing Palestinians into the desert? It is the same thing.

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess what I’m saying is if it was a simple matter of getting these people to think more sensibly about it, why hasn’t it happened before?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): The old generation… the old guard are reactionaries and bigots, but I think the new generation would accept this solution.

GEORGE NEGUS: So it’s up to the young people to overcome the stupidity of the old people? Accepting yourself, of course. Could you tell me how you feel at the moment as we’re speaking, the Americans and the coalition forces in Afghanistan have mounted a major military offensive. What would you do about this? Do you see the Taliban, for instance, as freedom fighters or terrorists?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): The Taliban are not a threat and should not have been fought – they could have left the Taliban there and it would have been good.

GEORGE NEGUS: For the Taliban to be the government?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Yes, because the Taliban are not Al-Qaida – the Taliban are not bin Laden.

GEORGE NEGUS: So they’re not terrorists? In your eyes, they’re not terrorists?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): No, no. You know that the followers of bin Laden and Al-Qaida are Arabs not Afghans. The Taliban are Afghans – they want to rule their country in a religious manner, they are free to do that – look at the Vatican – same thing! What is the danger in that? They do not have the capability to invade America or Europe. What linked the Taliban, or what linked Afghanistan to Al- Qaida are the West and the Americans. The relationship was created by the Americans and by Muslim countries allied to America.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you still believe America is a dangerous nation where world peace is concerned and do you feel any better about America since Obama has been elected as president?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Of course, Obama without a doubt is an exceptional case, but America is America. Obama’s term is for a maximum of eight years.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you think he should stay forever?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): I wish, yes.

GEORGE NEGUS: Why do you think he’s an exception?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): His approach, his cultural influence and his race – being a black American.

GEORGE NEGUS: So, you think his Kenyan descent is important?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Of course, he has even Arab and Islamic roots, and thus his mentality is different to that of the Yankees.

GEORGE NEGUS: A lot of Yankees and a lot of Americans generally would be very upset to be reminded that he has Islamic roots.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Why are they concerned? You see, they are racist.

GEORGE NEGUS: Could you work with the man?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Of course.

GEORGE NEGUS: Could you imagine him coming to your country?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Not necessary, but it would be good. I am not asking him to come but if it happens, it would be good.

GEORGE NEGUS: Could I ask you about democracy because you use the word but to people in the West, Libya is not democratic. They see you as an autocrat, almost an absolute monarch. I mean how can you convince people in the West that your idea of democracy, which is very different from theirs, is still democracy? No political parties, no opposition.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Of course parties rule there while there are people to rule, the solution is for them is to come over and see Libya.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you have the final say? Was it you, for instance, that decided to get rid of the weapons of mass destruction?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Of course, I have a moral influence, I am the leader of the revolution and the revolution was the making of the people.

GEORGE NEGUS: So what about the people who see you as a dictator? Is that a word that you will not tolerate?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Of course not. Whoever says that is ignorant and stupid.

GEORGE NEGUS: So, you think you know better than anybody how the people think, and what the people want?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): Not at all. The people are the authority and have the authority and what is being said is not being said by the people. If someone says that, then he wants to rule the people.

GEORGE NEGUS: Will there be a Gaddafi dynasty? You have sons. Is it automatic that one of your sons will succeed you? You have said when you go, whether you stop being the leader or, unfortunately, you pass on, that the people will all be president.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): The authority is with the people, in the end. Authority lies with the Libyan people who rule and so all other options are out.

GEORGE NEGUS: How do you find out what the people want?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): The people say now they are exercising authority. Other options might be proposed but they are alternatives to the people’s authority. The people are free.

GEORGE NEGUS: So it wouldn’t really upset you if they said “We don’t like the Gaddafi system”?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): For 40 years I have not been the ruler, the authority has been with the people. They take nothing from me or add anything to me.

GEORGE NEGUS: Interestingly enough, I’m exactly the same age as you, and in 1969, when you had your bloodless coup, I started in journalism. It is a strange coincidence. I also had a Volkswagen car like your Beetle. But, we say in the West that people should have certain things on their tombstone – certain words on their tombstone. What do you think people will want to see on Muammar Gaddafi’s tombstone. Gaddafi an angel or Gaddafi a villain?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): No, I heard a different question.

INTERPRETER: No, I mean, sir ….. How do I sat it, I mean, in hundreds of years, what do you want written about you?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): He used other words.

INTERPRETER: Sir, I don’t want to say them.

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): No, well, I … what is to be said about me… that I worked for others. I did not do anything for myself.

INTERPRETER: That I worked for the others. To give service for the others, nothing for myself.

GEORGE NEGUS: “Gaddafi the servant”? Can I finish on this note? One last question. For a man who was regarded by many people in the West as a fearsome person and a danger to peace and democracy, how do you describe yourself to people who say that? Were we wrong about you?

COLONEL MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI (Translation): I forgive them, they were ignorant

GEORGE NEGUS: Thank you, that’s very generous. Thank you very much.

Well, even a day later, it still feels like one of the strangest interviews I’ve ever conducted – a much-mellowed Muammar Gaddafi in from the cold. And, no matter how the guy sees himself, you’d definitely never describe him as a glaring example of democracy. He still hasn’t reached that point yet. And, as for a post-Gaddafi Libya, well, this country and, for that matter, the entire world, won’t be the same without him. He’s a very curious man. And no sight whatsoever of even one of those reportedly 40 female virgin bodyguards. Well, maybe they’re just a Libyan urban myth.