Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who leads the rebel forces in Tripoli, was a founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and is believed to have been close to bloodthirsty head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
For U.S. intelligence services, the man who led the rebel assault on Tripoli, and is now the de facto military governor of the capital, is an old acquaintance. The CIA had tracked down the accused jihadist, and eventually captured him in Malaysia in 2003. The agency is believed to have then transferred him, in total silence, to a "top secret" prison in Bangkok.
At that time, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, identified under the name of Abu Abdallah al-Sadek, born May 1, 1966, was already known for his long history as a jihad operative. This career began in 1988 in Afghanistan, like many other Islamist activists.
However if the CIA wanted him, it's first because he was one of the founders, and even the "emir" of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a small highly radical organization, which prior to Sept. 11 had two secret training camps in Afghanistan. The CIA was extremely interested in one of them, Shahid Cheikh Abu Yahya, about 19 miles north of Kabul, where the LIFG welcomed volunteers who had links with Al Qaeda.
Osama Bin Laden's organization had many Libyans among its leading members, including Abu al-Laith al-Libi, one of Al-Qaeda's military chiefs who was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. In 2007, the LIFG was given the seal of approval by Ayman al Zawahiri, then Al-Qaeda's number two, and current successor of Bin Laden at the helm of the network. The LIFG then called on Libyans to rebel against Gaddafi, the U.S. and the other "infidels' of the West.
After Afghanistan, Belhadj traveled to Pakistan and Iraq. In Iraq, where the Libyans are the second most numerous group of Islamist volunteers after the Saudis, he was said to be close to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda's chief in that country until his death in 2006. In Bangkok, in 2004, after having long been questioned and possibly tortured by the CIA, he was handed over to the Libyan secret services.
From jail to uprising
In 2009, the Libyan regime, under the direction of Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi's son and heir apparent, initiated an unexpected policy of reconciliation with the LIFG. The leaders of the group then published a 417-page document called "the corrective studies' (in French "les études correctrices'), in which they stated that holy war against Gaddafi was outlawed, since it was only allowed in Muslim countries that had been invaded (Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine).
The document may have been a way to avoid further torture. Nevertheless, it eventually allowed Belhadj to get out of prison -- and he didn't keep his word for long. Indeed, he joined the rebel forces and took the lead of the movement in western Libya to lead them to victory in Tripoli.
Has Belhadj distanced himself from Al-Qaeda? It's a thorny question when considering that the man has already perjured himself twice. It's difficult not to see him involved in the recent murder of former Ministry of Interior Abdul Fatah Younis who had rejoined the rebels. According to a Libyan expert, the explanation is rather clear. "Younis used to lead the special forces and he conducted a merciless battle against the LIFG between 1990 and 1995 in eastern Libya."
It is thus no accident that former members of the LIFG now hold the most important military jobs: Belhadj in Tripoli, Ismail al-Salabi in Benghazi, Abdel Hakim al-Assadi in Derna. Among the members of the Libyan National Transitional Council, one can find Ali Salabi. In 2009, on behalf of Saif al-Islam, he was the one who handled negotiations on the release of LIFG prisoners in exchange for them renoucing armed operations. Events in Libya have come full circle indeed!