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Who is Saif al-Islam Gadhafi?

By the CNN Wire Staff
A deal may be in the works to have Saif al-Islam Gadhafi replace his father as leader of Libya's regime.
A deal may be in the works to have Saif al-Islam Gadhafi replace his father as leader of Libya's regime.
  • Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, 38, was once thought to be a leading reformer
  • He has emerged as one of his father's most-visible defenders
  • Sources close to Gadhafi tell CNN any transition in Libya would involve Saif
  • 'He's the heir apparent,' says CNN National Security Contributor Fran Townsend

(CNN) -- Once thought to be a leading reformer inside the Libyan government, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi has emerged as one of his father's most visible defenders.

Saif, 38, has never lived a day in which his father Moammar didn't rule Libya -- as its undisputed leader inside the country and an enigmatic, controversial voice for the world.

And yet, as the Libyan government faced a stiff popular uprising, it was Moammar Gadhafi's second-eldest son -- and not the Leader of the Revolution himself -- who was first to talk to the nation about the unrest and detail a plan to address it.

In early March Saif made it known his feeling about outside intervention into the unrest in Libya.

"We're not afraid of the America fleet, NATO, France. You people, this is our country. We live here, we die here. We will never, ever surrender to those terrorists. Libyan nation is so united now. We are so strong," he said.

That was March. This is now. And still, Saif's name makes front-page news.

Citing unnamed British government sources, the Guardian newspaper reported Friday that a senior adviser to Saif -- Mohammed Ismael -- was in London for secret talks with British officials.

Ismael told CNN earlier this week that he would be traveling to London for family reasons. Calls placed to his mobile phone were not answered Friday.

But Guma El-Gamaty, a leader of the Libyan opposition, said Ismael's visit was anything but personal.

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"Our sources from Tripoli tell us that Saif has sent Mohammed Ismael to London with a specific offer. The offer is that Colonel Gadhafi will go into retirement, inside Libya, perhaps in his town of Sirte or Sabha in the south and Saif will take over and oversee some sort of reforms," he told CNN's Becky Anderson.

Asked about the Guardian report, a British Foreign Office spokesman neither confirmed nor denied it. "We are not going to provide running commentary on our contacts with Libyan officials," the spokesman said. "In any contact that we do have, we make it clear that Gadhafi has to go."

Meanwhile, sources close to Gadhafi have told CNN that any transition in Libya would involve his son, Saif, who has long been seen as a possible successor to his father.

Saif has denied any such desire, but others were interested in the idea for some time because he was considered more modern in his thinking, even reform minded by many Libya watchers. But that was before his recent and very public vows to fight to the "last bullet."

Among his relatives, Saif was seen in some ways as the polar opposite of his father.

Whereas Moammar Gadhafi years ago launched a program to "destroy imported ideologies, whether they are Eastern or Western," his son speaks fluent English, earned his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, written an op-ed in the New York Times and has been a frequent go-between in talks with international officials.

Moammar rarely goes anywhere without a distinctive tribal dress and an ornate Bedouin tent. The well-traveled Saif, meanwhile, is more likely to appear in Western business attire: a suit and tie.

While the father runs a nation, his son's main job -- at least before his 2009 appointment as General Coordinator, a position like many in the nation's government with few guidelines -- was heading a charity, the Gadhafi Foundation.

And lastly, while the elder Gadhafi is known for his heavy-handed rule in Libya and its restrictions on civil rights and more, Saif Gadhafi fashioned himself as a human rights advocate and pushed for democratic and institutional reforms that could give more power and freedoms to the people.

David Held, a professor at London School of Economics and Saif Gadhafi's academic advisor, said Gadhafi knew he had a dilemma.

"He was torn," said Held. "There was a dilemma in his heart between loyalty to his father and the regime and on the other hand desperately realizng that the Gadhafi regime was untenable, unjustified and the reform utterly crucial."

Still, his status as a leading reformer and pull with foreign diplomats have dropped significantly since the start of the uprising.

And for all their differences, Saif's standing in the world is largely defined by his father's role. While some may see the son as more open to change, there's little question that his loyalty remains first with Moammar.

"He's the heir apparent," CNN National Security Contributor Fran Townsend said about Saif. "The question will be, will he be able to retain control in light of the current chaos?"

CNN's Greg Botelho contributed to this report.