The world had thought he was under lock and key. And so, when Saif al-Islam Gaddafi appeared at Tripoli's Rixos Hotel in the early hours of yesterday morning, it is fair to say the journalists he woke up were surprised to see him.
But there was no doubting it: Saif al-Islam was there and in a mood that could hardly be considered defeatist. The man who once looked poised to lead Libya towards a more liberal future was described as "brimming with confidence" and "pumped full of adrenalin" as he told reporters that pro-Gaddafi forces had led rebels into "a trap".
"I am here to refute the lies," he told reporters. "You have seen how the Libyan people rose up together, men and women, to break the backbone of the rebels, rats and gangs yesterday and today."
In stark contrast to the rebel chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil's claims that "the Gaddafi era is over", Saif al-Islam added that his father was safe, "of course".
His bold words appeared a little more fragile later yesterday, when rebels stormed his father's compound and swarmed over the statue of a fist crushing a US warplane that has stood for decades for his regime's defiance.
But, in the middle of the night, perching on the doorframe of a white 4x4 outside the Bab al-Aziziya complex after taking reporters on a drive through regime-held areas of the capital, the debonair, LSE-educated businessman cut a convincing figure. He grinned as he made victory signs and leaned down to shake the hands of scores of supporters who crowded around the armoured car to greet him.
Uncharacteristically unshaven and dressed in a green military T-shirt, the son who became his father's spokesman during the anti-regime protests in February sent a clear message through these images – the Gaddafi family and their supporters had not given up their fight for Tripoli.
It seems the Libyan leader's son has developed a penchant for surprising followers and critics.
After spending more than a decade on a charm offensive against the West, Saif al-Islam began to undo this work when he delivered a defiant speech in support of his father's regime in the wake of February's demonstrations. He later vowed that government forces would "crush" the rebellion. "We will never ever surrender," he said.
Whether he will stand by those words in the days and weeks to come remains open to question. But on his late-night tour of Tripoli, at least, Saif al-Islam was still unbowed.Reuse content