When, at the outset of the unrest that would eventually lead to his downfall, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi asserted that al-Qaeda was behind the challenge to his regime, Western commentators treated his claims with widespread derision and dismissed them out of hand. If it was not already clear from earlier revelations about al-Qaeda-linked rebels, it is now unmistakably clear that such derision was misplaced. The commander of the rebel forces that have taken control of Tripoli is none other than Abdul-Hakim Belhadj, the historical leader of Libya's al-Qaeda affiliate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
As MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, has reported, the LIFG was recognized as an al-Qaeda affiliate by no less an authority than Ayman al-Zawahiri, the longtime chief ideologist of al-Qaeda and its current leader. According to MEMRI, in 2007, al-Zawahiri announced the incorporation of the LIFG into the al-Qaeda network and personally named Belhadj the "Emir of the Mujahideen." The LIFG has been listed as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations Security Council.
A 2008 U.S. State Department report on terrorism states that the LIFG "merged" with al-Qaeda in November 2007. The same State Department report notes that according to Spanish media, an LIFG "emir" by the name of Abdallah al-Sadeq had links to "Tunisian Islamist Serhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, the suspected ringleader in the 2004 Madrid attacks." "Abdallah al-Sadeq" is the nom de guerre of Abdul-Hakim Belhadj.
Whereas the role of Belhadj in the Libyan rebellion was kept under wraps until the fall of Tripoli, the presence of other Qaeda-linked militants was known much earlier. The most prominent of these is Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi. The American news media has somewhat minimized al-Hasadi's role, limiting it to the "defense" of his hometown of Darnah. Many European press reports, however, have identified him as a leading commander of rebel forces conducting offensive operations on the eastern front in the Libyan war.
In February, shortly after the unrest broke out in Libya, a Libyan government official told EU ambassadors in Tripoli that al-Hasadi had declared an Islamic emirate in Darnah and, further, that al-Hasadi was a former detainee at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. The claims were widely dismissed as Libyan government propaganda; when it turned out that al-Hasadi had never in fact been detained at Guantanamo, many Western observers had reason to believe that their skepticism had been justified. In retrospect, however, it seems clear that the initial report was not a matter of deception, but at worst confusion – whether on the part of the Libyan official or his European counterparts. (Al-Hasadi's first name, incidentally, was also misreported in the initial accounts.)
As we now know, the reality was, if anything, more damning to the rebels' cause. Not just one, but rather two known al-Qaeda-linked Islamic radicals were playing leading roles in the rebellion in Darnah. Both had been previously detained by American forces, but only one, former Bin Laden associate Abu Sufian bin Qumu, had spent time at Guantanamo.
Following his 2002 capture in the Afghan-Pakistani border region, al-Hasadi was transferred by American authorities directly to Libya, where he was imprisoned for several years prior to his release in 2008. Al-Hasadi has admitted not only to fighting against coalition forces in Afghanistan, but also to recruiting Libyans to fight against American and coalition forces in Iraq. Captured al-Qaeda personnel records show that al-Hasadi's hometown of Darnah sent more recruits to fight with al-Qaeda in Iraq than any other city or town did, and far more in per capita terms. (See discussion here.)
Bin Qumu, the former Guantanamo detainee, has reportedly served as trainer of rebel forces in Darnah. Bin Qumu was captured in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. He was transferred to Guantanamo in May 2002. A leaked Department of Defense detainee assessment states that Bin Qumu appeared to have a "position of leadership" among the "extremist elements" supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bin Qumu is reported to have first trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and then to have accompanied Bin Laden to the Sudan in the mid-1990s. The Department of Defense assessment includes a long-list of the terrorist connections of Bin Qumu, and notes that a document belonging to 9/11 financier Mustafa al-Hawsawi lists him as "an Al-Qaida member receiving family support."
Like al-Hasadi and Bin Qumu, Belhadj was also detained by American authorities -- reportedly, in Bangkok in 2004. He is rumored to have previously established ties with the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi would go on to merge his al-Tawhid wal-Jihad organization into al-Qaeda, thus giving rise to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Video evidence of atrocities committed by rebel forces in Libya – including at least two beheading videos – clearly recalls the videotaped atrocities for which the late al-Zarqawi would become grimly famous. (On the evidence of rebel atrocities, see here and here.)
After reportedly being interrogated by the CIA, Belhadj was transferred to Libya, where he was kept in prison for the next six years. He was released in March 2010 as part of a "detainee rehabilitation" program spearheaded by Muammar al-Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi. Hundreds of other Islamic radicals were likewise released under the program.
During much of the last decade, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi was a privileged interlocutor among Western governments. See, for instance, the comments by late U.S. congressman Tom Lantos here. According to lead EU negotiator Marc Pierini, Saif al-Islam played a "key role" in securing the release of five Bulgarian nurses imprisoned in Libya as part of the notorious "Bulgarian nurses affair." (For details and background, see here.)
Saif al-Islam marked the March 2010 release of Belhadj and some 213 other Islamist detainees by giving a programmatic speech on "reconciliation and dialogue." The Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research has published a report on the Libyan program, including a transcript of Saif al-Islam's speech. The transcript makes clear that in addition to Belhadj, the American ambassador was also present for the event.
According to MEMRI, in statements from the 1990s Belhadj emphasized "that the LIFG opposes all who advocate democracy or believe that Islam's victory can be achieved by any means other than jihad."