Libya’s New Generals (II): Conflicting Loyalties

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A Libyan rebel rests in his truck after gaining positions against regime forces. (Photo: AFP - Filippo Monteforte)

Published Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The motives and goals of Libya's emerging political actors following the ouster of Gaddafi remain unclear. The assassination of Libyan rebels top commander Abdel Fattah Younes last month has further fueled this uncertainty. In this series, al-Akhbar takes a closer look at Libya’s new military leadership divided among those with foreign loyalties like Khalifa Haftar, Salafi credentials like Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and tribal allegiances like Suleiman Obaydi.

Part II: Abdel Hakim Belhaj: The Conqueror of Bab al-Azizia

The Libyan rebels’ speedy takeover of Muammar Gaddafi’s fortified compound known as Bab al-Azizia in Tripoli last week came as a surprise to many. More surprising was the identity of the rebel commander leading the battle, Abdel Hakim Belhaj.

Belhaj is former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), one of the fiercer radical Islamic groups of the 1990s. But the former detainee, who was released nearly a year ago from Abu-Slim prison in Tripoli, represents an important dimension of a revolution whose ties to radical Islam are highly contested.

Born in 1966, Belhaj studied architecture, but his diligent involvement in religous activities as a young man in the 1980s led him to become one of the most prominent ‘Arab Afghans’ who left Libya to fight against the former Soviet Union after the latter’s invasion of Afghanistan. As a jihadist in Afghanistan, Belhaj founded The Islamic Fighting Group in 1989, which fought alongside Afghani mujahideen. Belhaj brought his military experience to bear on his leadership of Libya’s rebels, aiding the recent attack to end Gaddafi's rule.

Belhaj’s participation in combat under the banner of jihad was not confined to his Afghan experience. Belhaj became an itinerant fighter who moved between more than twenty countries, namely Pakistan, Turkey, Sudan and Malaysia. In 1993, Belhaj moved to Benghazi in eastern Libya, hoping to apply a jihadist approach in his country, which suffered under the oppression of Gaddafi's revolutionary committees. Benghazi had poor relations with the regime for a long time, so Belhaj succeeded in recruiting Libyan youth to overthrow Gaddafi. The veteran commander planned to infiltrate the revolutionary committees, hoping to change the regime's institutions from within.

According to online news network Islameyat, the plan was to undergo training and obtain weapons to lead an armed uprising against the Gaddafi regime. However, Libyan security was able to locate the group’s military training camp in mountains east of Libya. The camp was run by Saleh al-Shuhaibi, a defected Libyan officer who had joined the LIFG. Soon after the camp’s discovery, the regime launched airstrikes on the camp, killing many and hunting down the rest. One of the dead was Sheikh Salah Fathi bin Suleiman, Belhaj’s LIFG deputy. Others were detained and taken to Libyan prisons.

Following these events, Belhaj was able to leave Libya and moved between Afghanistan and several other Islamic countries. In February 2004, the CIA arrested him in Malaysia, while he was preparing to leave for Sudan. He was transferred to Thailand for investigation, and once the CIA confirmed that Belhaj was not a member of al-Qaida, they handed him over to Libyan authorities. Belhaj had topped Gaddafi's list of most wanted Islamic ‘heretics' and was imprisoned upon his return.

Belhaj remained in Abu-Slim prison in Tripoli until March 2010, when he was released alongside opposition scholar Sheikh Ali al-Salabi and 213 other prisoners. The unprecedented move was precipitated by the prisoners' years of work on a book. Beginning in 2008, Belhaj and the other prisoners began a study aimed at revising jihadist ideology. The 414 page review was released under the title Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Accountability, and the Judgment of the People. The book describes a moderate Islamic route towards regime change, without concluding that military action is futile against tyrannical regimes. Gaddafi accepted the book as a sign of their rehabilitation and released the prisoners.

Corrective Studies rejected the salafi jihadist ideology, rendering Belhaj vulnerable to harsh criticism from other jihadist and Islamic groups. They accused him of betrayal and of ignoring the grievances of his incarcerated brothers. However, the former jihadist seized the golden opportunity as leader of the rebels’ military council and joined fellow Libyans from diverse personal and political backgrounds to fight against the injustice and hostility of a regime that suffocated the Libyan people for 42 years. He led the rebels through the revolution's fiercest battles against Gaddafi's forces in eastern and western Libya.

Yet, Belhaj is not the only Islamist in the new Libyan revolution: anywhere from 100 to 800 LIFG members joined. With the fall of Gaddafi's Bab-al-Aziziyah compound, Belhaj finally fulfilled his dream of spending the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan in Tripoli.

Part I: Khalifa Haftar: Washington’s Wager

This article is translated from the Arabic Edition.

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