Mitiga International Airport is located east of Tripoli near the main coastal highway overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Before the military coup of 1969 [led by Mu'ammar Qaddafi], the airport was known as the Wheelus Air Base and was home to US warplanes. Today, it is the headquarters of the Military Council in Tripoli - the armed forces loyal to the [Libyan] National Transitional Council [NTC] - which seized power in the Libyan capital and overthrew the regime of Mu’ammar Qaddafi.
Armed bearded men surround the offices of the airport and guard its facilities. Many people wait to enter and meet with the leader of the Tripoli rebels Abdelhakim Belhadj - dubbed “the Sheikh” by the insurgents. A mother accompanied by her daughter came to discuss the suffering of her wounded son and was met by two men in suits standing in front of the office’s entrance. Inside the office, three men dressed in military uniform are in the midst of a discussion. They give off the impression that they are rebel leaders.
Ever since the Libyan rebels entered Tripoli, there has been much speculation about Belhadj, his history and what he represents. Westerners who oppose the NATO intervention in Libya see [his leadership] as evidence that supporting the revolution was wrong. The Qaddafi regime had previously announced that it was fighting Al-Qaeda, and some feel that Belhadj’s presence at the entrance of Bab al-Azizia proves [that this was indeed the case].
But who is Abdelhakim Belhadj? And should the world fear him?
Belhadj is no one less than the Emir (leader) of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group [LIFG], a Libyan jihadist organization founded by Libyan volunteers who fought against the Soviet army in Afghanistan [during the 1980’s]. Belhadj and other Libyan-Afghanis returned to their country in 1992 after the Afghan Mujahideen entered Kabul. [Upon their return to Libya], they worked on establishing the LIFG, whose purpose was to overthrow the Qaddafi regime by [force of] arms. The group established bases in the Jabal al-Akhdar area in Eastern Libya, where Omar al-Mukhtar [a Libyan resistance leader] once fought against Italian [colonial] forces. Soon after [their establishment], the bases were discovered [by Qaddafi forces], bombed by warplanes and struck with Napalm missiles. After three failed attempts to assassinate Qaddafi, the fighters who survived [the attacks] fled back to Afghanistan.
US Intelligence Handed Belhadj Over to Qaddafi
The US forces occupying Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks attempted to disperse the LIFG [operatives present in the country]. CIA agents arrested Belhadj in Malaysia [in 2003]. He was [transferred to Bangkok] and tortured before being handed over to the Libyan authorities, who then detained him in the notorious Abu Salim prison for seven years.
Belhadj’s previous role [as a Mujahid] and the time he spent in Afghanistan explain his relationship with Al-Qaeda. During his war against [Osama] Bin Laden, Bush demanded that the LIFG and a large number of jihadist groups [declare that they were] “either with us or against us.” Part of the LIFG refused to take part in a war against a “faraway enemy,” reckoning that their [organization] should be limited to fighting tyranny in [its] country of origin [Libya]. Nu’man Bin-Othman, who lived in London at the time, was one of the principal figures who adopted this point of view. However, other [LIFG fighters] remained in the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan and were integrated into Al-Qaeda. [The LIFG] gave the organization some of its key leaders: Abu-Yahya al-Libi escaped from the Bagram prison in Afghanistan in 2005, causing a sensation. [However], the relationship remained far from clear, a fact evidenced when [Ayman] al-Zawahiri [the current leader of Al-Qaeda] claimed in 2007 that the LIFG had joined forces with his organization.
Within Libya, Belhadj's reputation faces another challenge beyond [his alleged close ties to Al-Qaeda]. A large number of critics have called him “the commander of Al-Jazeera” due to his sudden appearance on the Qatari TV news station during the battle for Tripoli. He has also been criticized for his relations with the Qatari Emirate.
Despite his busy schedule, the former Emir [Belhadj] agreed to be interviewed [by Al-Hayat] and also expressed a willingness to keep in touch [with the paper]. He came across as a modest and soft-spoken individual, presenting official documents to back up the claims he made. First, he defended [his reputation] by asserting that his role was not limited to the liberation of Tripoli. On February 18, he went to Misrata to meet with local youths, and headed downtown the next day to meet with the rebels. Afterwards, Belhadj added that he hid underground out of fear that the security forces were looking for him. This did indeed happen - [the security forces] arrested his father and brother. Belhadj said that he remained in hiding for a month and a half in different parts of Tripoli, during which time he worked to raise money and prepare safe houses. He was especially interested in speaking with young people who had military experience in order to find a way out of Tripoli.
Belhadj explained that he left Tripoli aboard a ship. At the end of April, he headed to Tunisia where he met with the [Libyan] rebels. He then moved to Benghazi to help organize the “February 17 Battalion,” headed by Fawzi Bu-Katif from Benghazi. On July 14, he received an order from the Transitional National Council’s Minister of Defense to move arms and ammunition to the Western regions [of Libya]. [In the West], he participated in the liberation of Tripoli after having fought in various battles. Belhadj says that the Libyans know [everything about] his history, adding that he did not “fall from the sky,” because his struggle dates back to the eighties.
Belhadj in Turkey
When asked about his visit to Turkey in November 2011 and the implications [of Turkish involvement] in the ongoing conflict in Syria, Belhadj insisted that he only visited Istanbul to check up on those being treated in Turkish hospitals for wounds suffered during the Libyan war. He says that he did not take any money or weapons with him [to Turkey], and that he did not hold any meetings with Syrians during his 48-hour stay.
When asked about his views on his previous experiences, Belhadj answered, “a man deals with things according to reality.” He says that [the NTC] did not turn its arms on the Libyan people, and that [the NTC] constituted an integral part and extension of the people in the country. [He adds that the NTC] carried the banner of jihad to persuade the people join it in overthrowing the Qaddafi regime. [According to Belhadj, the NTC] did not propose an integrated policy. He also claimed that armed conflict was [an efficient] way to effect change.
[Al-Hayat also spoke to] Anis al-Sharif, a member of the LIFG who spent many years as a refugee in England specializing in media affairs for this group.
Drawing on his previous experience in this jihadi group, [Sharif] pointed out that the LIFG’s problem was that it tried to change the regime by force. [He says] it failed to do so because it was [leading] a “factional project,” and that some people were concerned that change would only constitute [swapping out] the rule of one minority for the benefit of another. The Arab Spring proved that it was the people themselves who brought about this change, and that they therefore have the [primary] right to rule. Sharif also acknowledged that the LIFG had not been entirely wrong, and that peaceful means would not have been enough to bring about change in Libya. He contended that the tyrant [Qaddafi] had started the war, validating the route of armed conflict.
Arab Popular Revolutions
On the topic of the ongoing Arab revolutions, Belhadj reiterated the idea that what distinguishes [these revolutions] is their popular nature. When his organization used to amass in small groups, it failed. What [the NTC] now wants is to successfully complete the objectives of the Arab revolutions: Democracy, elections, the rule of law, institution-building and equality protected by a judicial system.
Hundreds of individuals associated with the LIFG were released from Libyan prisons in three waves between 2009 and 2011. Interestingly enough, the last group of 110 prisoners was released on February 16, 2011, the same day the revolution broke out in Benghazi. Among these prisoners was Abd’ al-Wahhab Qayid, the brother of Abu-Yahya al-Libi [who escaped from an American prison in Afghanistan in 2005]. While in prison [in Libya], the LIFG leadership reached the conclusion that its attempt to overthrow the Qaddafi regime through armed revolt had failed. [In their discussions, they] made reference to developments in the jihadi revolutions in neighboring Algeria or Egypt, always reaching the same conclusion: Arab regimes which are supported by world powers are too strong to be overthrown by guerrilla warfare or terrorism.
Two figures played a key role in the release of LIFG prisoners. The first is Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who was presented as the Qaddafi regime’s face of reform. The other is Sheikh Ali al-Salabi, commander of the “Libyan Brothers.” Shortly after their release, former LIFG prisoners created the “Islamic Movement for Change,” whose aim was to transform the Libyan political landscape through peaceful means. Today, the former LIFG combatants are cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood to form a new national political entity. Such cooperation has not been easy to accomplish due to the hostile relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist-Jihadist groups elsewhere.
I asked Anis al-Sharif whether he considered the foundations of the new movement to be “Islamo-democratic.” I expected him to reject the word “democracy,” as in the past, Salafist groups have considered it a heresy that was injected into Islam to divide [the Islamic community]. On the contrary, Sharif said that [the NTC] did not want to use the word “Islam” because it stirred fears in the hearts of various groups. [He says the NTC] preferred to launch a broad political front for national political activity, where Islam would remain a point of reference.
Almost all Libyans are Sunni Muslim, and 95% of them follow the Maliki doctrine [one of four schools of religious law within Sunni Islam]. Unlike the former [Libyan] commander’s exaggerated behavior and female body guards, [Libyan] society is largely conservative. There is [currently] no debate about the role of women in the public sector. Consumption of alcohol remains illegal. Unlike neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, there is no significant tourism sector that could [expose Libyans to the outside world]. Moreover, there is no split between the Islamists and secularists - as in Tunisia - and there is consensus on the fact that Sharia law should be used as a reference for the constitution.
Not everyone in Libya believes the new discourse of the former Islamic activists. One Libyan political observer - who asked to remain anonymous - asked, could [the revised discourse] be the result of changes within LIFG circles, or does it represent a genuine shift in religious sentiments? [The observer] said that the [LIFG] are not disclosing their actual views because they know that the people would object to them. He added that he has information on extensive contact between the Syrian opposition and certain groups within Libya. He asked who gave [these Libyan groups] the right to intervene in a foreign conflict.
Should Libya and the world fear Belhadj? The rules of the political game in Libya and the region changed in 2011. Today, the Islamists do not need to take up arms to demand their share of political [power], but this is exactly what Belhadj and his friends have done. They managed to “seize power within the context of a popular revolution, and with the help of NATO.”