[ An updated version of this article can be read here]
The military commander who led the revolutionary forces into Tripoli, and took the iconic bab al-azizziya was Abdul Hakim Belhadj (alternatively spelled AbdelHakim Belhaj). He is now the military leader in Tripoli, who on the night of liberation drew 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.
Abdul Hakim Belhadj (also known as Abdullah al-Sadiq) was also previously the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which fought against the Gaddafi regime for more than a decade. According to a piece written by Nawaf al-Qudaimi, he had fought in Afghanistan from 1988, but returned to Libya in 1994. After confrontation with the Gaddafi regime which led to the killing of the then leader of the group Abdul Rahman al-Hattab, Belhadj managed to leave Libya and returned to Afghanistan in 1995. 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 Belhadj as the leader of the movement.
As a result of the 9/11 attacks this group left Afghanistan and dispersed amongst several countries, with Belhadj 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. 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.
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.
Belhadj 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 Belhadj, a victim of the American rendition program, has ended up as the military commander of Tripoli. While other members of the NTC hold press conferences in Qatar, or give 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), Belhadj has been leading those alongside him forward to the liberation of Tripoli. Though some of the opposition abroad felt betrayed by the group’s dialogue with the regime which appeared to endorse it, and it remains to be seen how independent figures such as Belhadj will remain given the diplomatic and financial pressures that are being borne down upon the NTC by NATO, it cannot be doubted that they do represent a legitimate voice from within the society.
At this point 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) 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 what was discussed on these pages recently – 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.
The reality is that Belhadj 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 Belhadj 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 Belhadj 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. This conflation has gone beyond even groups which took up arms against the state, to include any Islamic opposition. 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 events develop in Syria and elsewhere, it is questionable how long the ever sliding grip will be able to maintain its grasp.
* UPDATE – According to a Human Rights Watch report, he explicitly claims to have been tortured by the CIA themselves in Thailand
Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He has a PhD from the London School of Economics Government department, and also blogs at rezapankhurst.net.