AbdelHakim Belhaj (or Abdul Hakim Belhadj) is the military leader in Tripoli who led the campaign on the Libyan capital, including the attack on the iconic bab al-azizziya. That night of liberation saw him drawing parallels between the fight in Tripoli and the conquest of Mecca while surrounded by several others celebrating around him. He has since held more formal press conferences where he outlined the objectives of uniting the military factions in Tripoli under a single command, taking weapons out of the hands of militias, as well as rejecting the existence of any extremists within the ranks of the revolutionary army.
Belhaj was born in 1966 and completed his education gaining a diploma in civil engineering. Straight after graduation he travelled to Afghanistan in 1988 to participate in the Jihad there, andreturned to Libya in 1994. He was then a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which opposed the rule of Moammar Gaddafi for more than a decade. After confrontation with the Gaddafi regime which led to the killing of the then leader of the group Abdul Rahman al-Hattab, Belhaj managed to leave Libya and returned to Afghanistan in 1995.
Contrary to what has been widely reported recently – upon his return to Afghanistan he was with the group of Libyan fighters which refused to join with Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida movement. This group included several other leading figures from the LIFG, whom subsequently elected Belhaj as the leader of the movement.
[ Here it is important to note that the claims of connection between the LIFG and al-Qaida originally emanated from the Libyan government, whom along with many other regimes took the opportunity of the American "War of Terror" to link domestic opposition to the international bogeymen as represented by Osama bin Laden and co. as a way to curry favour with the Bush administration through developing security and intelligence links on the basis of fighting "terrorism". Later statements by Ayman al-Zawahiri announcing that the LIFG had joined al-Qaeda were rejected by LIFG leadership at the time. Therefore the current reports which claim that Belhaj represents al-Qaida in Libya are inaccurate and largely appear to be attempts to de-legitimise the popular uprising against the Gaddafi regime]
As a result of the 9/11 attacks this group left Afghanistan and dispersed amongst several countries, with Belhaj ending up in Malaysia where he was detained and transferred for interrogation in Thailand by American forces during a period when numerous other personalities were also similarly detained and questioned. According to a Human Rights Watch report Belhaj claimed to have been tortured by the CIA during this time.
Once the Americans realised that the group had no connection to Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, they were instead rendered to the Libyan regime of Moammar Gaddafi (rather than Guantanamo) in the same year where they ended up in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. This is of no surprise since Western intelligence agencies (of the same nations now supporting the revolution) praise the information they received from the Libyan regime regarding Islamic opposition and so were not adverse to delivering them any Libyans they kidnapped from elsewhere.
[UPDATE: For an overview of the extensive links between the Gaddafi regime's intelligence services and both the CIA and MI6 currently being uncovered , read this piece in the New York Times, and this piece from the Independent]
In 2008 Saif al-Islam initiated and and convened a set of meetings between the Libyan regime and its facilitators including Ali al-Salabi (a leading Islamic scholar in Libya who lent support to the Libyan uprising from the start) and Noman Benotman (a former member of the LIFG who was reportedly expelled from the movement in 2002 due to suspicions of his activities whilst in London and of links with the Libyan regime, and has since become another in a long line of self-styled analysts of Islamic movements that apparently embellish accounts of their past experiences to burnish their credentials) on the one hand with the leaders of the LIFG on the other. The meetings resulted in the renouncement of certain ideas which were published in a book entitled Corrective Studies on the Doctrine of Jihad, Hesba, and Rulings (available online in Arabic) which sought to dispel amongst other things the notion that the killings of civilians was in any way Islamically permitted. Given that the group’s leaders had previously refused to work with al-Qaeda it appears some of the book was written simply to satisfy the Libyan regimes desire to demonstrate its ability to rehabilitate “terrorists” as part of Saif al-Islam’s charm offensive in the West, and to end the suffering of its members in jail in exchange.
Belhaj and several other members of the LIFG were subsequently released from Abu Salim prison in 2010, and at the beginning of the Libyan uprising he and others from the movement joined the Libyan revolution under the leadership of the National Transitional Council, and has characterised the revolution as a popular uprising involving the whole of Libya.
This explains how Belhaj, a victim of the American rendition program, has ended up as the military commander of Tripoli.
Belhaj has been leading those alongside him forward to the liberation of Tripoli at the same time other prominent members of the NTC have been holding press conferences in Qatar and giving warmly received speeches at the Arab league (a collection of representatives from regimes who lack integrity and which enjoys zero credibility on the Arab, or for that matter, any, street). Though some of the opposition abroad felt betrayed by the group’s dialogue with the regime which appeared to endorse it, it has become clear that the reconciliation was a result of the conditions the members had faced in jail and so was clearly authored under compulsion. Though some of the more extreme tenets relating to issues of excommunication of members of the faith may well have been well intentioned, but clearly the acceptance of the legitimacy of the Libyan state was a pragmatic decision rather than the result of any conviction in it. It therefore cannot be doubted that they do represent a legitimate voice from within the society that maintains support amongst sections of the people. It does however remain to be seen how independent figures such as Belhaj will remain given the diplomatic and financial pressures that are being borne down upon the NTC by NATO.
It is worth reflecting on how this “terrorist” who was illegally detained, interrogated and then rendered to the Libyans (and no doubt subsequently tortured by them after the Americans) is now considered by some as the hero of the revolution in the context that this uprising has been military backed and now feted by both politicians and media which further highlights that the politics of ‘terrorism’, laws relating to ‘terrorism’ and media coverage on ‘terrorism’ is all based exclusively on the political agenda and one in which Western interests drive the language used. A good example is the hypocrisy of American Senators who visited Libya in 2009 where they discussed weapons deals for the Gaddafi regime, such as Joe Lieberman who is recorded as calling “Libya an important ally in the war on terrorism, noting that common enemies sometimes make better friends”, a statement of huge irony in hindsight.
The reality is that Belhaj is one of the most authentic faces of the Libyan revolution. His opposition to the Gaddafi regime began more than 20 years ago, and unlike several of the NTC members who up until and beyond the start of the uprisings were either members of the regime themselves or living far away in the West, he has been at the forefront of the struggle both literally and figuratively.
This is not to dismiss the role of others but rather to emphasis that it will be natural for people to look to those such as Belhaj as their leadership who sacrificed with them against Gaddafi on the front lines. When he states that there is no extremism in the ranks of the revolutionaries – he means those who would sanction the killing of civilians for political goals (something which America and her NATO allies would not be able to honestly claim for themselves), and not the British government definition which labels anyone who believes in the application of Islamic Shari’a law and the establishment of a State to apply them as an extremist. There is little doubt that according to Western understanding Belhaj along with many others in Libya and beyond in both Tunisia and Egypt would be considered extreme, an indictment of the West’s rhetoric and policy towards Islam and Islamic revival.
This further exposes the simplistic narrative regarding Islam, Islamic movements, and so-called “Jihadi” movements. The lack of differentiation between the mostly irredentist groups who sought to overthrow their governments (almost invariably one form or another of unaccountable oppressive police states) whether in Egypt, Libya or elsewhere and al-Qaida, is inaccurate but expected from both the American government and its allies in the Arab world and beyond. Post 9/11 the rhetoric of the “War (of) Terror” has been used to justify all manner of abuses against a spectrum of opposition in order to maintain the status quo which served the US “strategic interests” in the region. In this way any kind of localised armed opposition struggle has during this period often been linked to international terrorism to de-legitimise their grievances and garner support (political, financial and more) from the “international community” to maintain the oppressive state security apparatus which characterises all the Middle East governments.
This conflation has gone beyond even groups which took up arms against the state, to include any Islamic opposition who sought to uproot the various assortments of dictatorship, monarchies and illiberal democracies across the Greater Middle East . Hence support for a roll call of dictators from Karimov, Mubarak, Abdullah, Hussain and Gaddafi was a given up until the beginning of this year when events of the ground have forced the hand of the West to try their best to back the winning horses to maintain some form of control over the forthcoming changes to the political setup.
As the World watches events develop in Syria and elsewhere, it is questionable how long the ever sliding grip will be able to maintain its grasp.