Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the new commander of the Libyan rebel Tripoli Military Council, is now linked to one of the most symbolic events of the Libyan revolution: the capture of the Bab al-Aziziya compound, residence of the Libyan dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Before the revolution, Belhaj was known for being one of the father-founders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an Islamist organization created with the dual goal of toppling Gaddafi, regarded as an infidel, and of establishing an Islamic state through armed struggle.
Born in 1966, Belhaj's career started in Afghanistan in 1988, where he fought alongside the mujahedeen -- Muslim guerrilla warriors engaged in jihad, or holy war -- against the Soviets. After the defeat of the Soviet Union in Kabul, he was for a short time in Pakistan, and later in Iraq. In 1995, he participated in founding of the LIFG, joined by 2500 Libyans, many of whom had participated in the war in Afghanistan. In 1996, Belhaj participated with the LIFG in an attempt on the life of Gaddafi. The failed assassination gave the group credibility and legitimization as an opposition movement.
The LIFG's ideology
Luis Martinez, director of the French Research Institute on Africa and the Mediterranean (CERAM), in his book, The Libyan Paradox, argues that the LIFG's jihad against Gaddafi was based on the need to establish an Islamic regime which could bring back social "justice." Martinez reports on an interview in 1996 by the then-spokesman, Abu Bakr Al-Sharif, where he advanced the following arguments:
"There is no doubt that the tragic situation which is hurting Libyan society is not hidden from any person with even the least concern for the situation of the Muslim. So, the absence of the Islamic regime – which is a guarantor for the achievement of a salvation and peace in this world and the next – is what brought us to the situation. Gaddafi, as a ruler who has been forced over the necks of the Muslims in Libya in order to achieve the interests of the enemies of our Nation, has fulfilled the role which has been expected from him to the letter. This role required him to break the rules of Islam and its symbols within the minds of people and everyday lives."
The LIFG's spokesman also revealed – as reported by Martinez – that the only way out from Gaddafi's dictatorship was a religious revival. "The most important achievement of the LIFG is the bringing back to life an overlooked requirement and a dead Sunnah [the way of life based on the teachings and practices of the Prophet Mohammed, considered the perfect man, whom all men should emulate]. I mean, by the fight against the apostates and the traitors. It also revived the hope – with the help of Allah – in the spirits which had been overcome with the hopelessness and fear which had been created by the regime through entrenched means."
In the years since its creation, between 1996 and 1998, the LIFG was involved in violent clashes with Libyan security forces.
Al-Qaeda named Belhaj the "Emir of the Mujahideen"
Around the end of 1998, the LIFG was almost annihilated by the Gaddafi's regime. As a consequence, most of its leaders fled to Afghanistan and joined forces with the Taliban. There, "Belhaj is alleged to have developed 'lose relationships' with al-Qaeda leaders and Taliban chief Mullah Omar, according to an arrest warrant issued by the Libyan government in 2002," the BBC stated on in its website.
In 2007, Al-Qaeda gave the LIFG the seal of approval. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reports that that year, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, then Al-Qaeda's second-in-command, announced that the LIFG had been merged into Al-Qaeda. Further, in his recorded message, Al-Zawahiri named Belhaj, at the time in a Libyan jail, as the "Emir of the Mujahideen."
Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, in his book, The Secret History of Al-Qaeda. confirmed that the LIFG had "long-standing ties" with Osama bin Laden's organization, dating back to the jihad in Afghanistan. Atwan mentioned also the fact that Libyans have always been prominently featured in the Al-Qaeda cast list: "Abu Anas Al-Libi was one the masterminds behind the 1998 US Embassy bombings; Abu Hafs Al-Libi was Al-Zarqawi's lieutenant until his death in 2004; and Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi commanded Al-Khaldan, and Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan." All these men – argued Atwan – were at some point also members of the LIFG.
In recent interviews after the Libyan uprising, however, Belhaj denied that he ever had any connection with Al-Qaeda., and claimed that media got it all "mixed up."
Belhaj's arrest and release
MEMRI also reports that in February 2004, Belhadj was arrested with his pregnant wife in Malaysia, and transferred to Bangkok, where he was interrogated and allegedly tortured by the CIA. He was then extradited to Libya in March of that year; tortured, and jailed in a small and completely dark cell in the Abu Salim prison for seven years. While in jail, Belhaj and other LIFG's members wrote a book called Corrective Studies, giving up on the jihad, or holy war, against Muslim Arab leaders, but at the same time advocating for jihad against external enemies.
In March 2010, Belhaj, along with other LIFG's members, was finally released as part of the regime's program for rehabilitation of Islamist extremists. His release, MEMRI reports, was announced at a press conference by Gaddafi's son, Saif Al-Islam, himself, who said that the men who were freed no longer represented a danger. On that occasion, Belhaj praised the mediation of Saif al-Islam for his release.
Some files recently unearthed from Gaddafi's intelligence archives show that at that time of Belhaj's arrest, the CIA and the British MI6 were cooperating with the Libyan regime to hunt down international terrorists. For his abduction, which he considers illegal, Belhaj now demands apologies from both the US and Britain. Belhaj told the BBC: "What happened to me and my family is illegal. It deserves an apology. And for what happened to me when I was captured and tortured."
Did Belhaj change?
Belhaj is today one of the candidates positioned to lead a post-revolutionary Libya. French media, such Le Figaro, have quoted him thanking the West for its help in toppling the Gaddafi's regime, while showing open gratitude to the NATO's military operation. MEMRI reports that Belhaj is now trying to renew his image, and was quoted saying that: "We look for [the establishment of] a country of freedom, justice and equality, where the rights of all Libyans are preserved."
Belhaj recently accompanied the president of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdel Jalil, to important meetings for the future of Libya in France and then in Qatar. On these occasions, Belhaj had been introduced as the "armed wing of the revolution." Even though Belhaj is now acclaimed as a hero of the revolution, however, some Libyans still have doubts about his real intentions. As reported by the Guardian, Abdurrahman Shalgham, who presides over the Libyan delegation to the UN, and who was a former foreign minister under Gaddafi, criticized Belhaj, dismissing him as "a mere preacher and not a military commander;" and NTC member Othman Ben Sassi said that Belhaj "was nothing, nothing. He arrived at the last moment and organized some people," thanks to the military experience he accumulated over the years in the war in Afghanistan.
The spokesman for the Libyan revolution, Ahmed Omar Bani, argued instead that Belhaj is sharing the dreams of all Libyans to build a democratic country. Also, France believes there is no reason to feel worried about Belhaj's Islamist past, as Islamist movements apparently now despise him and are delegitimizing his role as leader. In the meantime, Belhaj's presence is already creating friction among the NTC. Libya is still a country with several open war fronts, and one of them is certainly the power struggle among the leaders of the revolution.