His name has been in the news a lot recently, but who exactly is Abdul Hakim Belhadj, the military commander of the Libyan rebels?
In March 2010, Al Jazeera broadcast a film of a meeting between Belhadj after his release from prison in Libya under the initiative of the Gaddafi Charity Foundation following the intervention of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. More than 700 of the “leaders” of the Libyan Fighting Group have been released in stages, even though they were accused of joining Al-Qaeda; some were also accused of fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. In the film, Abdul Hakim Belhadj praises the mediation of Dr Saif al-Islam for his release.
In an interview at the time, Saif al-Islam told reporters that the men who had been released “were no longer a danger to society” so he has no problem about their release. A year or so later, Belhadj was entering Tripoli at the head of a rebel army searching for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and his father. So who is Abdul Hakim Belhadj?
Born in 1966 in the Libyan capital Tripoli, Abdul Hakim Khuaelide, or Abdul Hakim Belhadj as he became known, is a son of the Islamic movement in the country. He graduated from the school of engineering and was one of the most prominent young men involved in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union in the late nineteen-eighties. Belhadj was a “Mujahid”, travelling with his Shaikh, Abdullah Azzam, and other luminaries of jihad in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and Sudan.
As a young man, Abdul Hakim Belhadj was known for his affiliation with the Islamic movement and founded the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which spearheaded the opposition to the rule of Colonel Gaddafi. The group was committed to the overthrow of the Libyan dictator despite the brutal repression by Gaddafi’s totalitarian regime in the east of the country.
Abdul Hakim Belhadj had settled in the city of Benghazi in eastern Libya in 1993; this was where the Senussi movement had its headquarters. Taking advantage of the hatred that the local people had for Gaddafi and his regime, Belhadj started to recruit young people for his political project and instructed them to become part of the revolutionary committees which developed the training and weapons needed for an armed uprising. After two years of working underground, the Libyan authorities discovered their training ground, leading to it being bombed by the government’s aircraft. This was the beginning of the insurgency against the regime.
After two years of armed conflict, Gaddafi’s forced killed one of the most prominent leaders of the group, Sheikh Fathi Salah Suleiman. Many of the Islamic Fighting Group’s fighters fled to Britain, which was happy to grant them asylum and use them as a political card against the Gaddafi regime.
Following the events of 9/11 the United States and its allies in the Middle East stepped up their rhetoric against Islamists in general, and ex-fighters from Afghanistan in particular. Belhadj was captured by US intelligence agents in February 2004, while trying to leave Malaysia for Sudan. Papers found in Tripoli have revealed that he was “rendered” first to Thailand and then back to Libya after a tip-off from Britain’s MI6. After interrogation in Bangkok by, Belhadj told the New York Times, “two people he said were CIA agents”, he was handed over to the Gaddafi regime which regarded Belhadj as one of its most prominent opponents; he was high up on the list of wanted men from the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood movements. Back in Libya, reports the NYT, “he was thrown into solitary confinement for six years, three of them without a shower, one without a glimpse of the sun”. According to the Guardian newspaper, Belhadj has “demanded an apology from London and Washington and said he was considering suing over his rendition to Tripoli and subsequent torture” by the Gaddafi regime.
That Shaikh Abdul Hakim Belhadj paid the price for his opposition to Gaddafi with his body and his freedom is without question; he spent a number of years in the infamous Abu Salim Prison. However, the efforts of another Libyan opposition leader, Shaikh Ali Salaabi, ensured that Belhadj’s role was not over, despite the hardship.
Salaabi took advantage of the relative level of openness in Libya during the last few years of Gaddafi’s rule to promote a reconciliation project with the support of the dictator’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and some of his fellow liberals and Islamists living in London. Colonel Gaddafi was persuaded that the political direction of the Islamic Fighting Group was safe and that there was a need to turn the page on the past and move forward by releasing the Islamists.
Abdul Hakim Belhadj was one of the most balanced members of the Group; he believed that the confrontation with the Libyan regime in 1995 was premature and instigated by the Libyan security forces. Nevertheless, all members of the “free Libya” project understood that the overthrow of Gaddafi would only be achieved through force of arms.
While he was in prison, Belhadj was allowed to meet with colleagues and lead comprehensive dialogue about the intellectual foundations of the fighting group and review many of its concepts. His supporter and companion in this process was Shaikh Salaabi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a Libyan opposition figure.
The consultation ended with the formation of a committee entrusted with the dialogue discussing all relevant issues; it included representatives from the security services, the Gaddafi Foundation led by Saif al-Islam, Dr Salaabi himself and representatives of the fighting group. Belhadj wrote a book called “Corrective Studies” which promoted a moderate Islamic approach; it was endorsed by mainstream scholars such as Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Shaikh Diddu, Ahmed Raissouni and others.
Abdul Hakim Belhadj was criticized for this by some Salafis and relatives of the fighters of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and was accused of giving up on the quest for revenge for his comrades who were killed by the regime. His release in March 2010, along with 214 others from Abu Salim Prison, was the first time that something like that had happened in Libya’s history. There was a great deal of media coverage of the event that was to change the course of contemporary Libyan history and lay the basis for ideological reviews in a number of other Arab countries.
With the historic transformation of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the Jihadist Salafist movement escalated its attacks against Abdel Hakim Belhadj, accusing him of betraying the cause, deviation from the right path and even atheism.
In 2007, al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat would oppose Abdul Hakim Belhadj and his path of intellectual revision. Al-Zawahiri believed that this would reduce the effect of the “political vacuum” facing the youth of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group caused by Belhadj moving closer to the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood. Belhadj’s release, believed al-Qaeda, was a painful blow to radical Salafi ideology in Libya and the efforts to confront Gaddafi.
The Arab Spring in neighbouring countries gave rise to demonstrations in Libya by Belhadj supported by Islamists and liberals calling for freedom and the rule of law and equality. The peaceful demonstrations were met with great violence by the regime. Scores of demonstrators fell in Benghazi, the stronghold of the revolution, turning the quiet city into the nemesis of the colonel and his collaborators; but 2011 was quite different from 1995. Abdel-Hakim Belhadj and his companions carried arms and he was later appointed by the Interim Libyan Council to lead the most decisive battles against Gaddafi. The biggest of all was the fight for Tripoli, prompting the greatest military uprising faced by an Arab dictator in the modern era.
After days of violent confrontation, Abdul Hakim Belhadj was able to stand in Gaddafi’s compound in the Libyan capital and declare the end of tyranny in the country. He had fulfilled the promise that he made two weeks earlier and brought about the end of the regime, protecting thousands of civilians in the process. As the man “in charge of the military committee responsible for keeping order in Tripoli”, Abdul Hakim Balhadj has come a long way from his days in a Gaddafi prison cell. For that, he has told the New York Times, he “is a grateful ally of the United States and Nato”.
Source: The Kuwaiti National Network