Abdel-Hakim Belhaj is an emerging hero of the Libyan uprising, the man who led the Tripoli Brigade that swept into the capital and captured the fortified compound that was Muammar Qaddafi’s seat of power.
He’s also the former leader of an Islamic militant group who says he was tortured by CIA agents at a secret prison.
Belhaj, the rebels’ Commander in Tripoli, said the US wrongly lumped him in with terrorists after September 11, but he holds no grudge. He said he shares the West’s goal of a free Libya. “We call and hope for a civil country that is ruled by the law which we were not allowed to enjoy under Qaddafi,” he told The Associated Press. “The identity of the country will be left up to the people to choose.”
He was not always so inclusive. In a 1996 statement he wrote as leader of the now-dissolved Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Belhaj wrote a statement vowing to fight “all the deviant groups that call for democracy or fight for the sake of it.”
Belhaj has the support of the leader of the rebels’ National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. Trading his army fatigues for a business suit, Belhaj accompanied Abdul-Jalil on a trip to Qatar where they urged NATO representatives and Western officials to extend NATO operations to protect civilians from the remnants of Qaddafi’s regime.
The next day, Abdul-Jalil pointed to that conference as evidence that Belhaj is someone the council can trust. “He doesn’t pose a threat to the world’s safety,” he said.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was not a monolithic entity, explained one US official. Some branches have had connections with al-Qaida in Sudan, Afghanistan or Pakistan, but others dropped any relationship with al-Qaeda entirely. Belhaj led a faction that disavowed al-Qaida and declared its commitment to establishing a democracy in Libya, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
But US officials are “watching to see whether or not this is for real, or just for show,” the official said.
In an interview at his headquarters at the sprawling military airport in central Tripoli, Belhaj played down his Islamist ties. “We never have and never will support what they call terrorism,” he said.
Belhaj, 45, is a soft-spoken man with a thick black beard. He is father of two boys. He was a civil engineering student and Qaddafi opponent when he fled Libya and went to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. He later joined the US-backed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, fighting alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaeda.
He returned to Libya in the 1990s and led the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in fierce confrontations with Qaddafi’s regime. He said that after fleeing Libya in the mid-1990s, he moved from country to country until 2004, when he was picked up and rendition to Thailand, where he claims he was tortured by the CIA.
The Libya government freed Belhaj and 33 other members of the Islamic Fighting Group in March 2010. He agreed to renounce violence as part of an initiative by Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam, who at the time was considered a reformist voice.
Soon after the uprising against Qaddafi broke out in mid-February, Belhaj began training fighters in the western mountains.
Islamic militants have raised concerns within and outside Libya. The July assassination of NTC military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis was linked to an Islamic extremist group led by Obaida bin Jarrah, though motives are not known.
Source: The Associated Press - AP