By Mike Taibbi, NBC News Correspondent, with additional reporting by Sohel Uddin, NBC News Producer
TRIPOLI – There were room-sized rugs placed in the middle of a busy intersection, a few hundred yards from the Hani cemetery in central Tripoli. The plan, we were told, was for a group of clerics to lead public prayers over the coffin of Saif al-Arab, the 29-year-old son of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi who was killed in a NATO bombing raid Saturday night, along with three of Gadhafi’s grandchildren – a raid which reportedly just missed killing Gadhafi himself and his wife Safia.
A crowd of about 2,000 gathered in Tripoli Monday for the funeral of Saif al-Arab, Gadhafi's son killed in a NATO raid Saturday night.
Saif’s death was the big story here as Monday dawned, the only story for many on a day when the rest of the world woke up to the news that an American special forces team had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
But as the news spread about bin Laden’s death, despite the ongoing conflict in Libya between the rebels and the government, the two sides were united by one thing: their disdain for the former terrorist mastermind.
The NATO strike in Tripoli flattened two buildings in a family compound where many in the Gadhafi family had gathered Saturday night, a compound which NATO Gen. Charles Bouchard said was in fact a military target.
“We do not target individuals,” Bouchard said in a statement. “We regret all loss of life, especially innocent civilians being harmed as a result of the ongoing conflict.”
However, none of the thousands who attended the funeral seemed to believe that. “This was a direct operation to assassinate the leader of this country,” government spokesman Musa Ibrahim said of the air attack that killed Saif al-Arab, one of the least known of Gadhafi’s seven sons.
As the funeral gathered steam and veered toward chaos, a surging procession that overwhelmed the original plans for a ceremony centered on public prayers, mourners shouted “Gadhafi lives in our hearts!” and “Libya will have its revenge!”
Since the bombing raid and the deaths of Gadhafi’s son and grandchildren had dominated the state-controlled media here, many attending the funeral knew nothing by midday about the killing of bin Laden.
Mike Taibbi / NBC News
Crowds chanting support for Col. Moammar Gadafi gathered in Tripoli on Monday for the funeral of his son, Saif al-Arab, who was killed in a NATO air strike Saturday.
We watched for a couple of hours (the foreign press was allowed to attend and cover the funeral) and understood why some of the more than 1,000 angry mourners, who reasonably assumed the press contingent included Westerners, directed their rage at us.
One man, when I said I was an American, spoke good English and chose after a few minutes to stop shouting and start talking. He carried a cellphone, a set of car keys, wore a dress shirt, neatly pressed slacks and said he was a businessman.
“Listen,” he said, talking about Saturday’s NATO raid and two other bomb attacks in the past week that came close to taking out Gadhafi, “you tell me why one sovereign country can go in and assassinate someone in another sovereign country?”
I let him go on until he’d said his piece, and then asked him what he thought of the killing of Osama bin Laden. He hadn’t heard, asked for details, and I told him what had been reported. He thought about it, nodding as he thought, then said, “That’s good. That’s different. It’s good!” He reached to shake my hand and then walked away.
‘He was not welcome here’
A short time later I spoke with a government official who’s one of our regular contacts, told him of that exchange at the funeral and asked if he was surprised.
“No, not at all,” he said, spitting out bin Laden’s name, along with a profanity. “He’s the reason for so much of the trouble in the Arab world … the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s happening here in Libya. We never wanted him, when he tried to recruit here or set up terror camps … He was not welcome here.”
In fact, in Libya’s civil uprising that began in mid-February and is now mired in what feels like a stalemate, bin Laden was tagged with the bogeyman label early on, based on the terror leader’s unsuccessful history here.
Even Libya’s own self-described Jihadist organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, repudiated bin Laden and al-Qaida years ago, declaring that “the strategy of killing civilians is never legitimate.”
And once the uprising against Gadhafi took shape, the Libyan strongman blamed it all on al-Qaida. On Feb. 24, nine days after the rebellion began, Gadhafi called into state television and urged those taking up arms to against his government to ignore al-Qaida and bin Laden. He condemned the rebellion as “an enemy who is manipulating people” with hallucinogenic drugs, “an enemy who is wanted by America and the Western World. Do not listen to bin Laden and his followers.” Later, Gadhafi told a Russian news service it was bin Laden’s plan to “take over Libya” and to “turn it into another Afghanistan or Somalia.”
But in the aftermath of the funeral, when Tripoli had caught up to the news of the killing of bin Laden, it seemed the two sides in Libya’s internal death struggle were in agreement: the terror leader’s death was good news.
However, there was a point of disagreement over what it meant.
For the Gadhafi government, the key instigator of the ongoing civil war had been eliminated. But the rebels seemed to take inspiration from it. Col. Ahmed Bani, the rebel military spokesman, said, “We are very happy and we are waiting for the next step … to do the same to Gadhafi."