Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Look At Abd Al-Hakim Belhadj’s Transformation From Jihadi to Libyan Revolutionary

By Murad Batal al-Shishani
                                        Abd al-Hakim Belhadj
“Demonstrating the continuation of the battle against the apostate regime of [Mu’ammar] al-Qaddafi through deliberate and planned action, and with the emphasis on the principle of strategic action, [we carried out an operation] against the tyrant Qaddafi in the city of Barak…last month, which had almost achieved the dream that long-awaited by our oppressed and the wretched poor people for more than twenty-seven years. The people will always wait for the day to punish the tyrant Qaddafi for the crimes he committed.” [1]
The above statement was made by a Libyan Islamist fighter called Abd al-Hakim Belhadj in early 1997. Belhadj was claiming responsibility for an assassination attempt on Qaddafi by his now defunct organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Belhadj is now the leader of the newly established Tripoli Military Council, which was instrumental in the final toppling of the Qaddafi regime.
At the time of this writing, Belhadj is pursuing the now former Libyan dictator and remaining loyalist regime members after anti-Qaddafi forces gained control of much of the Libyan capital in late August. Belhadj recently rose to prominence in the Libyan conflict after it was reported that he led the assault on the heavily fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound, which acted as a command and control headquarters for the now deposed regime.
Abd al-Hakim Belhadj should not be confused with another Islamist Libyan veteran of Afghanistan with a similar name hailing from Derna called Abdel Hakim al-Hasadi whom the New York Times incorrectly reported as being one and the same in a report that was later retracted (New York Times, August 31; for a profile of Abdel Hakim al-Hasadi, see Militant Leadership Monitor, April 2011).
A.K.A. Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq
Since his appearance as military leader of Libyan opposition forces, he has been at the center of news coverage. Belhadj, who is better known among Islamists by his nom de guerre ‘Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq’ is the leader and one of the core founders of LIFG, which was founded in the early 1990s by a group of Libyan ‘Afghan-Arabs.’
Belhadj, 45, was raised in Tripoli’s Souk al-Juma’a area. He graduated from Tripoli University with a degree in civil engineering. He is also believed to have two wives; one Moroccan and the second Sudanese. Belhadj traveled to Afghanistan via Saudi Arabia in 1988 to participate in the end of the anti-Soviet jihad against the Red Army and its Marxist Afghan proxies (Asharq al-Awsat, August 25).
The LIFG, relying on returnees from Afghanistan, began to engage in open confrontation with the Qaddafi regime in 1995. By the end of the decade, the Libyan authorities largely crushed the movement. Belhadj then returned to Afghanistan after being on the run in an array of Islamic countries. At this point the LIFG was proscribed internationally as a terrorist organization in the context of the post-9/11 period. He alleges he was a victim of torture and rendition by the CIA after he was detained at Bangkok’s Don Muang International Airport when he was en route from Malaysia to London to seek asylum. He claims he was held in a CIA ‘black site’ at the Bangkok terminal where he was kept in brutal conditions, abetted by Thai authorities. He had migrated from Afghanistan to Malaysia in 2004, perhaps encouraged by Malaysia’s lax immigration policy for nationals from Muslim majority countries.
Belhadj was extradited to Libya in the same year and ended up in the notorious Abu Salim prison (Asia Times Online, September 21). He was released before the start of the war in Libya, supposedly as a gesture of goodwill toward the Islamists that Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi was trying to reconcile with on behalf of his father’s regime. Following his release, Belhadj announced his renunciation of violence. Belhadj says that he wants an official apology from the British government for the role its intelligence services played in his rendition when his travel itinerary was passed from British to American intelligence (Reuters, September 19).
Belhadj and his Islamist brothers-in-arms have consistently downplayed suggestions that the Libyan revolution could be overtaken by jihadis. The LIFG was once one of the largest Arab jihadi groups, but from the early beginning the LIFG rejected al-Qaeda's concept of a borderless, global jihad and focused narrowly on establishing an Islamic state in Libya. Paris, as the National Transitional Council’s most ardent Western backer, does not appear to be phased by Belhadj’s background. General Benoit Puga, Special Chief of Staff to President Nicholas Sarkozy, reportedly met Belhadj and was not troubled by his LIFG past (Ennahar, August 31).
Into Revolution
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in Libya, former LIFG members formed the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC) in 2010, which has operations in London. They renounced violence and launched a peaceful political opposition campaign against the Qaddafi regime. LIMC literature – published on their website – suggests that there are vast differences with al-Qaeda’s literature. [2]
Anis al-Sharif, a key member of the political committee of the LIMC and currently spokesperson of the Libyan Military Council, told Jamestown that the Islamists in the 2011 revolution chose not to confront the Qaddafi regime under a separate jihadi banner. [3] Al-Sharif stated that the Islamist commanders and fighters were part of a unified revolution that aimed to create a civil society that respects Libyan identity based on a separation of powers and an independent judiciary system.
According to al-Sharif, these fighters resorted to armed struggle as the only legitimate option left to them to confront Qaddafi’s vast atrocities against the Libyan people. “That comes in line with Libyan jihadi “Muraja’at” [4], who emphasizes that although they were written in different circumstances, LIMC members believe in them genuinely.
The recent developments of the Libyan jihadi movement and its leader Belhadj seem to indicate a sort of metamorphosis from militant group with strictly jihadi aims into a political group, which might inspire other national jihadi groups across the Arab world. At this time, al-Qaeda’s weakened core and its franchises are attempting to localize jihad by attracting local militants in various regions. This could serve as a counter-argument to al-Qaeda’s rhetoric. The Libyan jihadis fighting under the leadership of the NTC are not willing to take on this inspirational role as they are more interested in state-building of their homeland, according to al-Sharif.
It is likely that Abd al-Hakim Belhadj will play a political role in the future of Libya. In regard to a possible role for Belhadj in Tripoli, al-Anis told Jamestown: “all options are open and we do not know yet how things will go as we are still in a transition level.” It is possible that Belhadj could now serve as an example of jihadi transformation – more than the “Muraja’at” (revisions) under the coercion of Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi were able to do. Concurrently, Belhadj must brace for being the target of al-Qaeda’s criticism in light of his denunciation of any link to al-Qaeda in recent interviews. In a recent interview, Belhadj stated what he purports as the conflation of al-Qaeda, the LIFG and himself: “Regarding what people say about ties with al-Qaeda: We have never been in a relationship with them or joined them in any kind of activity, because we could never come to an understanding of [philosophies]” (al-Jazeera, September 20).
-This article was published in Personalities Behind The Insurgency, Volume: 2, Issue: 9, 29/09/2011
Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic Movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to several publications in both Arabic and English. He is also author of the book “The Islamic Movement in Chechnya and the Chechen-Russian Conflict 1990-2000”, Amman, 2001 (in Arabic), and “Iraqi Resistance: National Liberation vs. Terrorism: A Quantitative Study,” November 2005 Iraqi Studies Series, Issue 5, Gulf Research Center-Dubai.
1. For the 1997 statement made by Abdel Hakim Belhaj, see “Statement Number 8 of [Libyan] Islamic Fighting Group” (Arabic):
2. To view the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change website, see (Arabic):
3. Author telephone interview with Anis al-Sharif, September 18, 2011
4. In September 2009, the LIFG published a 417-page document entitled “Corrective Studies in Jihad, Hisbah and judging people,” which was published after more than two years of intense talks between incarcerated LIFG leaders and Libyan officials, including Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi

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