When Moammar Gadhafi Tried to Pitch a Tent in New Jersey
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Gadhafi’s legacy includes a three-story house in a leafy mid-Atlantic suburb.
By Austin Bodetti
Many people despise their neighbors. Few, however, have feelings as strong as New Jersey Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Until 2011, the mansion next to his own belonged to a Libyan government headed by Moammar Gadhafi, an autocrat long associated with terrorism. In 2003, Gadhafi accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, the 1988 downing of a flight over Scotland that killed 270 people.
“I was extremely uncomfortable with the prospect of living next to an international terrorist,” Boteach says. “Plenty of people from New Jersey had died in the Lockerbie bombing.”
In 1982, the Libyan Mission to the United Nations spent $1 million on the three-story house in the city of Englewood, New Jersey, claiming that the Libyan ambassador to the U.N. could use it as a vacation property. While residents lamented the Gadhafi-linked purchase as soon as they learned of it, the mansion that Libyan diplomats named “Thunder Rock” caused its greatest controversy almost three decades later when Gadhafi announced plans to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September 2009.
“With all the activity going on next door, I suspected that Gadhafi would try to stay in Englewood when he came to the United States,” said Boteach. “Unfortunately, my hunch turned out to be correct.”
After I got death threats, my police department was forced to assign an officer to protect me 24/7.
Michael Wildes, former mayor of Englewood, N.J.
Wherever Gadhafi traveled, he insisted on sleeping in a tent so large that it required its own plane. After New York denied his request to pitch the tent in Central Park, Gadhafi turned to Thunder Rock, hoping to pitch his tent there. But he needed the permission of the neighbors, and for its part, Englewood had no desire to host one of Africa’s most notorious dictators. Gadhafi did himself no favors by heralding Scottish authorities’ release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a convicted perpetrator of the Lockerbie bombing, just a month before the U.N. General Assembly. The critics of Gadhafi’s visit included Michael Wildes, an accomplished lawyer and Englewood’s mayor at the time.
“It offended me as an American and a Jew that Gadhafi and his co-conspirators thought they could erect a tent in Englewood after perpetrating Lockerbie,” Wildes says.
A motley coalition of public figures soon mobilized against Gadhafi. Boteach led a protest on his lawn, telling Gadhafi to “kiss a part of our bold New Jersey anatomy,” while Wildes launched a successful lawsuit to halt renovations to Thunder Rock’s pool, which had begun in preparation for Gadhafi’s arrival. Englewood residents lobbied the U.S. State Department to keep Gadhafi from coming to their city, and Wildes, drawing on his background in immigration law, noted that American officials could restrict the dictator’s visa. Even a congressman and a senator from New Jersey voiced their displeasure with the visit.
“The dispute got so out of hand that it became a threat to my physical safety,” said Wildes. “After I got death threats, my police department was forced to assign an officer to protect me 24/7.”
Libya broke under the pressure and canceled plans for Gadhafi’s sojourn in Englewood by the end of August. Instead, the strongman opted to stay at the Libyan Mission to the U.N. in Manhattan following a bizarre, ill-fated attempt to erect his tent on a New York property owned by Donald Trump.
Two years after the 2009 Englewood fiasco, Libyan rebels killed Gadhafi and ousted his regime. Because Thunder Rock had belonged to the Libyan Foreign Ministry, not the dictator himself, ownership of the mansion transferred from Gadhafi’s government to the one that followed.
“Gadhafi and his inner circle used a variety of intermediaries and investment vehicles to acquire foreign properties for personal use, but outright purchases by the Gadhafi family were mostly done in Africa,” said Jason Pack, founder of the consultancy Libya-Analysis and himself a longtime New Jersey resident. “They wouldn’t have been stupid enough to try to acquire property in the United States directly, especially as U.N. sanctions had been in place against Gadhafi and his children after the Lockerbie bombing.”
A spokesman for the Libyan Mission to the U.N. told OZY that Thunder Rock, worth nearly $6 million today, according to New Jersey public records, now acts as a home for Libya’s ambassador to the U.N. Wildes, who returned to office last year, confirmed this account. A spokesman for the State Department said that the property had managed to avoid further controversies since 2011, and Wildes agreed.
“We haven’t run into any issues with the new owners of the mansion, nor should we punish the children for the sins of the father, so to speak,” concluded Wildes.
While Libya’s current leadership has aligned itself with the U.S. and dedicated many resources to counterterrorism, some New Jerseyans remain wary of the continued Libyan presence in Englewood. A decade after his showdown with Gadhafi, Boteach is still keeping an eye on Thunder Rock.
“The story didn’t just end with Gadhafi,” said Boteach. “I still have a lot of questions, and there’s no reason to have a diplomatic mission in Englewood. Why is it tax-exempt? Is it really a diplomatic mission? Who uses it? Who owns it? Why isn’t it sold for the benefit of the Libyan people?”
- Austin Bodetti, OZY AuthorContact Austin Bodetti