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 is 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 on Friday that the US wrongly lumped him in with terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but that 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 said. “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 vowed to fight “all the deviant groups that call for democracy or fight for the sake of it.”
Though Belhaj and many others who resisted Qaddafi for decades considered their fight an Islamic cause, both secular and religious Libyans took part in the uprising that led to Qaddafi’s downfall. Secular Libyans and the West are hoping Belhaj’s actions match what he told the Libyan people minutes after arriving at Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound on Aug. 23.
“You are facing a historic moment; a responsibility in front of God and the world, to protect and preserve the security of your country. To have justice, equality and welfare,” he told al-Jazeera. “We have to unite and join the ranks to build the country.”
Belhaj has the support of the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC) leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil.
Trading his army fatigues for a business suit, Belhaj accompanied Abdul-Jalil on a trip to Qatar, where on Monday they urged NATO representatives and Western officials to extend NATO operations to protect civilians from the remnants of Qaddafi’s regime that continue to fight.
The next day in the rebels’ temporary capital of Benghazi, 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 familiar with the group. Some branches have had connections with al-Qaeda in Sudan, Afghanistan or Pakistan, but others dropped any relationship with al-Qaeda entirely. Belhaj led a faction that disavowed al-Qaeda and declared its commitment to establishing a democracy in Libya, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, 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, 45, played down his Islamist ties.
“We never have and never will support what they call terrorism,” he said.
Belhaj 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.
Belhaj’s 1996 statement revealed differences with al-Qaeda on the issue of targeting civilians. Though he decried neighboring Algeria’s regime as “infidel,” he heavily criticized Islamic militants there for “massacres of civilians, women, children and elders.”