As reports of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s demise flood the world’s media following weeks of violent stand-off between revolutionary forces and pro-Gaddafi fighters, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, the commander of the new military council in Tripoli and the public face of the victorious Islamic rebel brigades, is jockeying for power in post-Gaddafi Libya.
On 13 September, he addressed supporters in Martyr’s Square (formerly known as Green Square) in central Tripoli calling for the new regime to be purged of former loyalists to Muammar Gaddafi and for it to be based squarely upon Islam.
When the Libyan revolution erupted in February, Belhadj was one of two Islamist members of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and a militia leader. He emerged as one of the key military officers leading the assault on Tripoli in late August.
Belhadj is also loudly threatening to sue security services in Britain and the United States. He claims the CIA arrested him in Malaysia in 2004 on a tip-off from Britain’s MI6, transferred him to Bangkok where he was interrogated and tortured and then ‘rendered’ to the security services in Libya, which had issued an international arrest warrant for him in 2002.
Journalists have found documents in the abandoned offices of Gaddafi’s former foreign affairs minister Moussa Koussa, which appear to corroborate Belhadj’s story.
Born in Souk al-Juma in Tripoli in 1966, Belhadj became a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). As an engineering student in Tripoli he was opposed to the Gaddafi regime and was attracted to political Islam.
In the 1980s, he left Libya for Afghanistan where he fought as a mujahideen against Soviet forces. There, with other Libyans, he formed the LIFG to confront the Gaddafi regime but rejected the millenarian jihadism that produced Al Qaeda.
The NTC and the Islamic rebels are accusing each other of hijacking the revolution.Elected leader of the new organisation, he returned to Libya in the early 1990s and settled in Benghazi where he recruited some clandestine fighters.
Despite at least three assassination attempts on Gaddafi, the regime prevailed.
Belhadj and other leaders fled, many of them finding sanctuary in Britain. He eventually went to Malaysia, where he was arrested in 2004 whilst trying to leave for Sudan. After his forcible return to Libya, he was held in appalling conditions at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.
He was eventually approached by representatives of Gaddafi’s second son, Saif al-Islam, who wanted to ‘rehabilitate’ Islamist prisoners to show Libya’s effectiveness in countering extremism.
Saif al-Islam was aided in this endeavour by Ali Salabi, an Islamist who wanted to build bridges with the regime, and Noman Benotman, a former LIFG member.
This led to the release of hundreds of former LIFG militants in 2009 and 2010, including Belhadj, who was freed in March 2010 and moved to Cyrenaica in eastern Libya.
Belhadj’s power lies as the head of the Islamist rebels that seized Tripoli, but he has had little hold over rebels in Misrata, where elders and tribal leaders have more sway, and in Tarhunah, where rebels are more nationalist than ideological.
The NTC and the Islamic rebels are accusing each other of hijacking the revolution. Units such as the LIFG are flexing their political muscle, but with few educated beyond school level they stand little chance of getting senior posts. Belhadj himself dropped out of university.
Benotman, now a senior analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, warned against putting such politicised fighters into security and military establishments, saying it could “destabilise the nature and the culture of these very sensitive institutions”.
But a place will have to be found for them in the new Libya, and one option would be to form a political party. “They have to appeal to the Libyans through a transparent, political, democratic process,” says Benotman.
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