09.02.11

Libya’s Powerful Islamist Leader

Babak Dehghanpisheh speaks with Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the Libyan rebel leader, Islamist, and longtime Gaddafi opponent who tells The Daily Beast about meeting Osama bin Laden.

Even some Libyans are worried by Abdel Hakim Belhaj. It’s not that his revolutionary credentials are anything less than impeccable. When victorious rebel forces blasted through the gates at Muammar Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli, the 45-year-old commander who led the charge was none other than Belhaj. As a battle-hardened veteran, he had organized and trained many of those rebel fighters in Libya’s western mountains. And now the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC) has accepted him as head of the newly created Tripoli Military Council, with control of some 8,000 troops, the biggest fighting force in Libya.

The trouble is that Belhaj’s record as a Gaddafi adversary just might be too impressive. Belhaj is a founding member and former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which is listed by both the U.S. State Department and the British Home Office as an international terrorist organization. Several past or present LIFG members have held prominent positions in al Qaeda, including operations chief Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was recently killed in a CIA drone attack. The LIFG is hardly Libya’s only militant Islamist force, but it’s easily the biggest and very possibly the most dangerous.

Belhaj himself makes no secret of having met Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s, back when they were both fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Even so, he denies any sympathy for al Qaeda’s aims. “Meeting with a person with a specific ideology doesn’t mean I agree with that ideology,” Belhaj told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t go to Afghanistan to fight with bin Laden. I went to Afghanistan to support the Afghans and fight with them.”

But Belhaj’s claims of innocence haven’t quelled the world’s fears about what he and his fellow Islamists might do. No one is sure how strong they are or whether they’re plotting to seize power. “It’s a big ask for politicians in the West to believe they’ve completely changed their political attitudes,” said British MP Rory Stewart. Perhaps best known for having served as a coalition governor of two Iraqi provinces in 2003, Stewart visited Tripoli last week on a quick fact-finding trip. “They now sound much more moderate,” he continued, “but I remain concerned.”

There’s no need to worry, Belhaj insists: “Our goal is to have a free civilian government. It’s something we’ve never had in more than 40 years.” Maybe so, but there have been signs that some Libyan hardliners have other ideas. For one thing, there was the assassination of the rebel army’s chief of staff, Abdel Fattah Younes in late July; the killers, who remain at large, are widely believed to have been Islamists within the rebels’ ranks. Adding to the disquiet, Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has publicly urged Libyans to turn their guns and grenade launchers against NATO.

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Military commander Abdel Hakim Belhaj in Tripoli, Libya on August 31, 2011. (Sarah Elliot for Newsweek)

Although no one seems to be answering that call so far, weapons from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals are nevertheless raising alarms. According to Algeria’s foreign minister, Mourad Medelci, they’re being snapped up by al Qaeda’s North African branch, which has been battling the Algerian government for years. “It’s not just a worry or a feeling,” Medelci told the French radio network Europe 1 last week. “It’s a certainty.” His country’s relations with the rebels were already tense enough after Algiers announced last week that it was granting asylum to Gaddafi’s wife, Safia, and three of their children.

Algeria and the Libyan dictator were long united by their shared distrust of militant Islam. Soon after seizing power in 1969, Gaddafi declared war on the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—and after eradicating that group, he  expanded his crackdown to wipe out other Islam-centered organizations and individuals he regarded as potential threats. To avoid being arrested or killed, many Islamists fled the country, but more Libyans kept enlisting in the anti-Gaddafi ranks in the name of Islam. Files examined by Newsweek and The Daily Beast at Tripoli’s notorious Internal Security headquarters last week include extensive records on thousands of detainees. The most common charge? Jihad. The most common sentence? Life imprisonment.

Abu Abdullah Sadeq—Belhaj’s nom de guerre—topped the Gaddafi regime’s most-wanted list for years. Along with hundreds of other Libyans, he sought refuge in jihadist camps in eastern Afghanistan in the 1980s. He returned home to Libya in 1994, eager to use his Afghan combat training against Gaddafi, and together with other Afghan vets he created the LIFG. “We wanted to tear down the regime,” says Belhaj. A stocky man with a well-trimmed beard, Belhaj rallied hundreds of fighters in 1995 to wage a bloody insurgency against Gaddafi’s forces in eastern Libya. The regime hit back hard: thousands of troops were sent to put down the revolt in the eastern coastal town of Darnah, and there were widespread arrests and killings of Islamists in Benghazi as well.

Driven from his homeland once again, Belhaj traveled widely, visiting Turkey, China, Malaysia, and Sudan before arriving in Afghanistan in 1998. There, he encountered bin Laden a second time—and the al Qaeda leader’s schemes had grown bigger than ever. Not long before, bin Laden had issued his infamous fatwa calling for the indiscriminate killing of Americans and Jews anywhere in the world, and he invited Belhaj to join the jihad. “He was very famous then,” Belhaj recalls. “I had a discussion with bin Laden about this organization and I was against his ideas. We did not support them logistically or ideologically. I told him that Allah has not told us to attack everybody.”

Belhaj’s claims of innocence haven’t quelled the world’s fears about what he and his fellow Islamists might do.

No matter what he may have thought of al Qaeda, Belhaj found himself in serious trouble after Gaddafi abruptly decided to make peace with the West in 2003. As a gesture of support, the State Department added the LIFG to its list of terrorist organizations, and the vast resources of America’s intelligence services were added to the Libyan regime’s efforts to track down the group’s members. It didn’t take long: Malaysian authorities captured Belhaj in Kuala Lumpur and conveyed him to the CIA in Thailand for interrogation. Belhaj claims he was tortured before his captors determined that he posed no direct threat to the United States and shipped him back to Libya.

The regime locked him away in Gaddafi’s Abu Salim prison, where Belhaj believed he might spend the rest of his life. But shortly after his imprisonment, Seif al Islam Gaddafi, the dictator’s second son, initiated talks with Belhaj and other Islamist leaders about a possible truce and prisoner release. The Internal Security documents seen by Newsweek  / The Daily Beast include a 2006 email exchange between a Libyan government operative and an LIFG member, setting up a meeting between the two sides. The negotiations eventually led to freedom for approximately 80 Islamist prisoners in 2008 and the 2010 release of approximately 200 other prisoners, Belhaj included.

Outside at last, Belhaj had no intention of allowing himself to be sent back behind bars. He told visitors that the LIFG had been dismantled and presented himself as a changed man—that is, until the uprising began early this year, and Belhaj finally saw his chance to topple the regime. Now that the rebels have won, he’s once again trying to look like a democratic centrist. Many Libyans nevertheless express skepticism that he and other Islamists are truly ready to abandon their radical ways. “Their claims of moderation will be tested once the situation calms down,” says NTC advisor Naeem Gheriany.

Other Libyans express confidence that democracy will prevail. “Islamists are 99 percent moderate,” says NTC member Alamin Belhaj (no relation to the rebel commander), a founding member of Libya’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. “I know most of them. There are very few who are extremist. These people are hated even among the normal people. Their ideology is not acceptable in the normal stream.”

Even in the best case, however, the transition to peacetime life is likely to prove difficult for Libya’s longtime militants, especially if their religious ideology gets short shrift from the country’s new government. But Abdul Hakim Belhaj insists he wants only peace now. “I want to tell the West that we don’t have any hatred toward them,” he says. “It was Gaddafi who had hatred toward the West and America and carried out operations against them.” Libyan politicians and their Western allies now have little choice but to wait and see whether jihadists like Belhaj will employ their lethal expertise to support the next government or bring it down.