Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 29, 2011

Victim of CIA extraordinary rendition is now commander in Tripoli

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Abdul Hakim Belhadj: Military Leader in Tripoli and Victim of illegal American Rendition

The military commander who led the revolutionary forces into Tripoli, and took the iconic bab al-azizziya was Abdul Hakim Belhadj (alternatively spelled AbdelHakim Belhaj). He is now the military leader in Tripoli, who on the night of liberation drew parallels between the fight in Tripoli and the conquest of Mecca while surrounded by several others celebrating around him. He has since held more formal press conferences where he outlined the objectives of uniting the military factions in Tripoli under a single command, taking weapons out of the hands of militias, as well as rejecting the existence of any extremists within the ranks of the revolutionary army.

Abdul Hakim Belhadj (also known as Abdullah al-Sadiq) was also previously the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which fought against the Gaddafi regime for more than a decade. According to a piece written by Nawaf al-Qudaimi, he had fought in Afghanistan from 1988, but returned to Libya in 1994. After confrontation with the Gaddafi regime which led to the killing of the then leader of the group Abdul Rahman al-Hattab, Belhadj managed to leave Libya and returned to Afghanistan in 1995. Upon his return to Afghanistan he was with the group of Libyan fighters which refused to join with Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida movement. This group included several other leading figures from the LIFG, whom subsequently elected Belhadj as the leader of the movement.

As a result of the 9/11 attacks this group left Afghanistan and dispersed amongst several countries, with Belhadj ending up in Malaysia where he was detained and transferred for interrogation* in Thailand by American forces during a period when numerous other personalities were also similarly detained and questioned. Once the Americans realised that the group had no connection to Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, they were instead rendered to the Libyan regime of Moammar Gaddafi (rather than Guantanamo) in the same year where they ended up in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. This is of no surprise since Western intelligence agencies (of the same nations now supporting the revolution) praise the information they received from the Libyan regime regarding Islamic opposition and so were not adverse to delivering them any Libyans they kidnapped from elsewhere.

In 2008 Saif al-Islam initiated and and convened a set of meetings between the Libyan regime and its facilitators including Ali al-Salabi (a leading Islamic scholar in Libya who lent support to the Libyan uprising from the start) and Noman Benotman (a former member of the LIFG who was reportedly expelled from the movement in 2002 due to suspicions of his activities whilst in London and of links with the Libyan regime, and has since become another in a long line of self-styled analysts of Islamic movements that apparently embellish accounts of their past experiences to burnish their credentials)  on the one hand with the leaders of the LIFG on the other. The meetings resulted in the renouncement of certain ideas which were published in a book entitled Corrective Studies on the Doctrine of Jihad, Hesba, and Rulings (available online in Arabic) which sought to dispel amongst other things the notion that the killings of civilians was in any way Islamically permitted. Given that the group’s leaders had previously refused to work with al-Qaeda it appears some of the book was written simply to satisfy the Libyan regimes desire to demonstrate its ability to rehabilitate “terrorists” as part of Saif al-Islam’s charm offensive in the West, and to end the suffering of its members in jail in exchange.

Belhadj and several other members of the LIFG were subsequently released from Abu Salim prison in 2010, and at the beginning of the Libyan uprising he and others from the movement joined the Libyan revolution under the leadership of the National Transitional Council, and has characterised the revolution as a popular uprising involving the whole of Libya.

This explains how Belhadj, a victim of the American rendition program, has ended up as the military commander of Tripoli. While other members of the NTC hold press conferences in Qatar, or give warmly received speeches at the Arab league (a collection of representatives from regimes who lack integrity and which enjoys zero credibility on the Arab, or for that matter, any, street), Belhadj has been leading those alongside him forward to the liberation of Tripoli. Though some of the opposition abroad felt betrayed by the group’s dialogue with the regime which appeared to endorse it, and it remains to be seen how independent figures such as Belhadj will remain given the diplomatic and financial pressures that are being borne down upon the NTC by NATO, it cannot be doubted that they do represent a legitimate voice from within the society.

At this point it is worth reflecting on how this “terrorist” who was illegally detained, interrogated and then rendered to the Libyans (and no doubt subsequently tortured by them) is now considered by some as the hero of the revolution in the context that this uprising has been military backed and now feted by both politicians and media which further highlights what was discussed on these pages recently – that the politics of ‘terrorism’, laws relating to ‘terrorism’ and media coverage on ‘terrorism’ is all based exclusively on the political agenda and one in which Western interests drive the language used.

The reality is that Belhadj is one of the most authentic faces of the Libyan revolution. His opposition to the Gaddafi regime began more than 20 years ago, and unlike several of the NTC members who up until and beyond the start of the uprisings were either members of the regime themselves or living far away in the West, he has been at the forefront of the struggle both literally and figuratively. This is not to dismiss the role of others but rather to emphasis that it will be natural for people to look to those such as Belhadj as their leadership who sacrificed with them against Gaddafi on the front lines. When he states that there is no extremism in the ranks of the revolutionaries – he means those who would sanction the killing of civilians for political goals (something which America and her NATO allies would not be able to honestly claim for themselves), and not the British government definition which labels anyone who believes in the application of Islamic Shari’a law and the establishment of a State to apply them as an extremist. There is little doubt that according to Western understanding Belhadj along with many others in Libya and beyond in both Tunisia and Egypt would be considered extreme, an indictment of the West’s rhetoric and policy towards Islam and Islamic revival.

This further exposes the simplistic narrative regarding Islam, Islamic movements, and so-called “Jihadi” movements. The lack of differentiation between the mostly irredentist groups who sought to overthrow their governments (almost invariably one form or another of unaccountable oppressive police states) whether in Egypt, Libya or elsewhere and al-Qaida, is inaccurate but expected from both the American government and its allies in the Arab world and beyond. Post 9/11 the rhetoric of the “War (of) Terror” has been used to justify all manner of abuses against a spectrum of opposition in order to maintain the status quo which served the US “strategic interests” in the region. This conflation has gone beyond even groups which took up arms against the state, to include any Islamic opposition. Hence support for a roll call of dictators from Karimov, Mubarak, Abdullah, Hussain and Gaddafi was a given up until the beginning of this year when events of the ground have forced the hand of the West to try their best to back the winning horses to maintain some form of control over the forthcoming changes to the political setup. As events develop in Syria and elsewhere, it is questionable how long the ever sliding grip will be able to maintain its grasp.

* UPDATE – According to a Human Rights Watch report, he explicitly claims to have been tortured by the CIA themselves in Thailand

Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He has a PhD from the London School of Economics Government department, and also blogs at rezapankhurst.net.


  1. Kadafi often said he was fighting Islamic fundamentalist forces like Al Queda.
    Here’s an interesting discussion by a former US CIA official on what the US
    has lost in terms of intelligence operations as a result of the Arab Spring.
    This guy says the Kadafi government provided valuable intelligence about
    Al-Queda to the United States which, he now complains, has been lost.
    This was broadcast today on PRI’s THE WORLD. No transcript so far:

    Arab Spring ‘Intelligence Disaster’ for the US
    By The World ⋅ August 29, 2011 ⋅ Post a comment

    Michael Scheuer (Courtesy of non-intervention.com)

    The so-called “Arab Spring” has seen the toppling of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and, now, Libya. The US has, by and large, hailed the popular uprisings in those countries and in the Middle East. But the former head of the CIA unit in charge of pursuing Osama bin Laden says the Arab Spring has created an “intelligence disaster” for the US. Michael Scheuer is at home in Northern Virginia.

    Audio: Play | Download

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — August 29, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

  2. This story has now circled the globe several times, and been given prominence by everyone from Liberation in Paris to far fight sites in the US. They bring us the news that “the new military governor of Tripoli is an al-Qaeda asset” (slight composite here). Its primary source appears to be Pepe Escobar writing in the Asia Times, and popping up on Russian Television, assuring viewers of his impeccable but unnamed sources.He is a little more cautious, labelling Belhadj as the “de facto military commander of Tripoli” ( a title open to many claimants, one suspects ). I move in restricted circles, so am not familiar with him or his credibility : I am sure that there are others here who are better placed to make that judgement. There are also multiple competing claims for the title of he “who led the revolutionary forces into Tripoli”. Yesterday much of the British left seemed eager to to accord this title to the Qatari special forces; The Irish times has sought to claim it for one of their own:
    “THE IRISH-LIBYAN who led the main rebel brigade into Tripoli estimates it will take at least six weeks to ensure full control over the city.”
    So, hey, why shouldn’t al-Quaeda get in on the act?

    This just serves to underline how the “fog of peace” can be even worse than its predecessor, especially in a situation like this with so many contending actors.I think we could use a “truth-keeping force” .

    Comment by BrianO — August 29, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

  3. It is important to note that Escobar told RT that he is “95 percent sure” that Belhadj is a CIA asset, offering no evidence.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 29, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

  4. The confused nature of the relationship between the LIFG and British MI6 is further expanded on here.
    But do we judge groups claiming to be revolutionary on these sorts of associations, its a tricky one, the CIA played a role (how big we could debate) in the founding of of the Provisional IRA, who would later get military hardware from anywhere they could including Libya. While I never saw the Provies as a threat to Britain, many socialists believed they were and gave them unconditional support.
    Time will tell how much the west will control/or fail to control the new Libya. I actually think the outcome in Libya, Syria, Yeman and even Egypt is more about the internal dynamic of the popular forces. If those among us are right that this was a regional challange to the world system, then the revolutionary potentially is alive and kicking. If instead these are localized/limited struggles for “democratization” (and while imperialist interferance in the region had created the conditions for the dictatorships, this may not figure large in the average person’s list of problems to be addressed) then the outcome in a couple of years may not be that different than the system that prevailed before the risings. I err on the pessemistic. That doesn’t mean that groups may not seek real change, but like the rebels in Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish American war, they may by force of circumstance end up exchanging one boss for another.

    Comment by Harry Monro — August 29, 2011 @ 11:29 pm

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