About 40 lipsticked, bejeweled bodyguards surround the Libyan dictator at all times. They wear designer sunglasses and high heels with their military camouflage. But they're purported to be trained killers -- graduates of an elite military academy in Tripoli that's solely for women.
Gadhafi established the Tripoli Women's Military Academy in 1979 as a symbol of women's emancipation. "I promised my mother to improve the situation of women in Libya," he reportedly said at the time. His mother, a Bedouin tribeswoman born when Libya was an Italian colony, was illiterate.
The few foreign visitors who've been granted a glimpse inside the academy describe a spartan cement-block complex where 100 handpicked women drill in elite killing techniques, day and night, for three years. They're awoken by bugle call at 4:30 a.m. and jog for one and a half hours, before branching off into classes. Some train to fly MiG fighter jets, while others learn martial arts or how to fire rocket-propelled grenades.
"The three-year training program involves all aspects of soldiering, from firing artillery and rocket launchers to hand-to-hand combat and communications," said Jane Kokan, a Canadian journalist who was granted rare permission to visit Libya in 1995 for a documentary about Gadhafi's bodyguards.
Doug Sanders, another Canadian journalist who visited the academy, in 2004, wrote on his blog that he believes the elite female bodyguards, known also as "Protectors of the VIP," reveal something about Gadhafi's "idiosyncratic mind, and a revolutionary enigma in a Muslim nation where women are still far from equal in daily life."
The academy's best students are dubbed "revolutionary nuns," and they never marry and dedicate their lives to the idea of Gadhafi's 1969 revolution. They're banned from having sex and swear an oath to protect the Libyan leader until death, if need be. In 1998, a bodyguard named Aisha threw herself on top of Gadhafi when Islamic militants ambushed his motorcade. A barrage of bullets killed her and injured two others, but Gadhafi escaped unharmed.
So while Gadhafi's all-female crew -- and especially their photos -- have been featured in many a tongue-in-cheek article in the Western press, they could actually prove powerful in protecting him. Foreign intelligence agents are likely trying already to stealthily chip away at the loyalty of Gadhafi's elite inner circle. But while diplomats at the U.N. and even some of Gadhafi's distant relatives have turned on him, there have been no reports of defections from Gadhafi's all-female bodyguard clan -- though the regime would likely try its best to squelch any such publicity.
"Without the leader, women in Libya would be nothing," Fatia, a 27-year-old bodyguard trainee in Tripoli, told Kokan during her research. "He gave us life. I am ready to die for him. He is a father, a brother and a friend to whom you can confide. You have no idea how humble he is."
Gadhafi is thought to be in hiding somewhere outside Tripoli, but he emerged overnight to deliver a rousing speech from the balcony of his Bab al-Aziziya compound, which was hit by an allied cruise missile two days earlier. It's also where a mysterious Libyan air force crash, purportedly by a Libyan pilot on a kamikaze suicide mission, may have killed one of Gadhafi's sons. Reporters were barred from the Tripoli compound while Gadhafi spoke last night, and he was whisked away after five minutes.
But there are rumors he might try to flee. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told ABC News that some senior Libyan officials are putting out feelers about possible exile locations, "allegedly on Gadhafi's behalf."
But just last week, French and British bombers destroyed an airfield in western Libyan thought to house the Gadhafi family's private jets -- eliminating the Libyan leader's means of jetting out of the country secretly. Now he may be looking around at his bodyguards, wondering how long they can continue to protect him.