[Marxism] Profile of Libyan jihadist commander

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Sep 2 06:43:52 MDT 2011

NY Times September 1, 2011
In Libya, Former Enemy Is Recast in Role of Ally

TRIPOLI, Libya — Abdel Hakim Belhaj had a wry smile about the oddity of 
his situation.

Yes, he said, he was detained by Malaysian officials in 2004 on arrival 
at the Kuala Lumpur airport, where 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.

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 

“Definitely it was very hard, very difficult,” he said. “Now we are in 
Libya, and we want to look forward to a peaceful future. I do not want 

As the United States and other Western powers embrace and help finance 
the new government taking shape in Libya, they could face a particularly 
awkward relationship 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.

Steven Lee Myers and Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington.

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