Abdel Hakim Belhaj: in Libya, old US Enemies become friends!
The man in charge of the military committee responsible for keeping order in Tripoli, and, (according to his words) a strong & grateful ally of the United States and NATO, is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who fought in Afghanistan alongside the Mujahideen and in the Soviet-Afghan war.
In 1992 Abdel Hakim Belhaj returned to Libya, where he formed with others the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which tried to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi from 1994 onwards. Belhadj was known during this period as Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq, and was part of the LIFG that fought an insurgency campaign based from eastern Libya. But after three unsuccessful assassination attempts on Gaddafi, the LIFG was crushed in 1998. Belhadj and other leaders of the LIFG fled to Afghanistan, and joined the Taliban.
Belhaj as an enemy of the US
Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, Abdel Hakim was arrested in Pakistan in late 2001, and handed over to US security officials, but unlike other captives taken in Afghanistan, he was repatriated to Libya two months later.
Tracked by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), after a tip-off from MI6 gained from London-based informants, Belhadj was arrested with his pregnant wife in 2004 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia. Transferred on the same plane to Bangkok, he was then placed in the custody of the CIA, where he was retained at a secret prison at the airport. He was subjected to extraordinary rendition on behalf of the United States, and sent to Thailand. His pregnant wife, traveling with him, was taken away, and his child would be 6 before he saw him.
In Bangkok, Mr. Belhaj said, he was tortured for a few days by two people he said were C.I.A. agents, and then, worse, they repatriated him to Libya, where he was thrown into solitary confinement for six years, three of them without a shower, one without a glimpse of the sun.
In 2010 under a “de-radicalisation” drive championed by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the Libyan authorities released him amongst 170 other Libyan Islamists. In March 2011, Belhadj appeared in an unreleased al-Jazeera film, in which he praised the mediation of Saif al-Islam for his release. In response, Gaddafi’s son said that the men who had been freed “were no longer a danger to society.”
Belhaj as US and NATO ally!
Miraculously, now, this man is in charge of the military committee responsible for keeping order in Tripoli, and, he says, is a grateful ally of the United States and NATO.
And while Mr. Belhaj concedes that he was the emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was deemed by the United States to be a terrorist group allied with Al Qaeda, he says he has no Islamic agenda. He says he will disband the fighters under his command, merging them into the formal military or police, once the Libyan revolution is over.
He says there are no hard feelings over his past treatment by the United States.
As the United States and other Western powers embrace and help finance the new government taking shape in Libya, they have started forming business relationships with Islamists like Mr. Belhaj. Once considered enemies in the war on terror, they suddenly have been thrust into positions of authority — with American and NATO blessing.
In Washington, the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment on Mr. Belhaj or his new role. A State Department official said the Obama administration was aware of Islamist backgrounds among the rebel fighters in Libya and had expressed concern to the Transitional National Council, the new rebel government, and that it had received assurances.
“The last few months, we’ve had the T.N.C. saying all the right things, and making the right moves,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s delicacy.
Mr. Belhaj, 45, a short and serious man with a close-cropped beard, burst onto the scene in the mountains west of Tripoli only in the last few weeks before the fall of the capital, as the leader of a brigade of rebel fighters.
“He wasn’t even in the military council in the western mountains,” said Othman Ben Sassi, a member of the Transitional National Council from Zuwarah in the west. “He was nothing, nothing. He arrived at the last moment, organized some people but was not responsible for the military council in the mountains.”
Then came the push on Tripoli, which fell with unexpected speed, and Mr. Belhaj and his fighters focused on the fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, where they distinguished themselves as relatively disciplined fighters.
A veteran of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, Mr. Belhaj has what most rebel fighters have lacked — actual military experience. Yet he has still not adopted a military rank (unlike many rebels who quickly became self-appointed colonels and generals), which he said should go only to members of the army.
Dressed in new military fatigues, with a pistol strapped backward to his belt, Mr. Belhaj was interviewed at his offices in the Mitiga Military Airbase in Tripoli, the site of what had been the United States Air Force’s Wheelus Air Base until 1970.
Last weekend, Mr. Belhaj was voted commander of the Tripoli Military Council, a grouping of several brigades of rebels involved in taking the capital, by the other brigades, a move that aroused some criticism among liberal members of the council.
However, his appointment was strongly supported by Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the council, who said that as Colonel Qaddafi’s former minister of justice he got to know Mr. Belhaj well during negotiations leading to his release from prison in 2010. Mr. Belhaj and other Islamist radicals made a historic compromise with the Qaddafi government, one that was brokered by Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the Qaddafi son seen then as a moderating influence.
The Islamists agreed to disband the Islamic Fighting Group, replacing it with the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change, and renounced violent struggle. “We kept that promise,” Mr. Belhaj said. “The revolution started peacefully, but the regime’s crackdown forced it to become violent.”
Mr. Belhaj conceded that Islamists had no role in creating the revolution against Colonel Qaddafi’s rule; it was instead a popular uprising. “The February 17th revolution is the Libyan people’s revolution and no one can claim it, neither secularists nor Islamists,” he said. “The Libyan people have different views, and all those views have to be involved and respected.”
Forty-two years of Qaddafi rule in Libya had, he said, taught him an important lesson: “No one can make Libya suffer any more under any one ideology or any one regime.” His pledge to disband fighters under his command once Libya has a new government was repeated to NATO officials at a meeting in Qatar this week.
Some council members said privately that allowing Mr. Belhaj to become chairman of the military council in Tripoli was done partly to take advantage of his military expertise, but also to make sure the rebels’ political leaders had him under their direct control.
Many also say that Mr. Belhaj’s history as an Islamist is understandable because until this year, Islamist groups were the only ones able to struggle against Colonel Qaddafi’s particularly repressive rule.
After Mr. Belhaj and a small group of Libyan comrades returned from the jihad against the Soviets, they formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and had a secret base in the Green Mountain area of eastern Libya, until it was discovered and bombed, and many of its followers rounded up.
Mr. Belhaj escaped Libya in the late 1990s and, like many antigovernment exiles, was forced to move frequently as Libya used its oil resources as a way to pressure host countries.
“We focused on Libya and Libya only,” he said. “Our goal was to help our people. We didn’t participate in or support any action outside of Libya. We never had any link with Al Qaeda, and that could never be. We had a different agenda; global fighting was not our goal.”
He said that America’s reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks led to his group’s classification as terrorist.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the rapprochement between Libya and Western countries led to the apprehension of several anti-Qaddafi activists, who were returned to Libya by the United States.
While Mr. Belhaj insisted that he was not interested in revenge, it is not a period of his life that he has altogether forgotten. “If one day there is a legal way, I would like to see my torturers brought to court,” he said.