Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Abdelhakim Belhadj is the commander of the Libyan rebel Tripoli Military Council; he emerged as a leader during the Libyan rebels’ operation to liberate the Libyan capital from Gaddafi control. Belhadj is also a former Emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which was banned internationally as a terrorist organization following the 9/11 attacks.
The LIFG was founded in the 1990s by Libyan mujahedeen returning from Afghanistan and was reportedly previously led by Abu Laith al-Libi, a top Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan who is believed to have been a training camp leader and key link between Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Belhadj was born in 1966, and graduated from university with a degree in civil engineering. He is also believed to have two wives; one Moroccan wife and a second Sudanese wife. Belhadj immigrated to Afghanistan in 1988 to participate in the Afghan jihad against occupying Soviet forces. He is believed to have lived in a number of Islamic countries including Pakistan, Turkey and Sudan. Belhadj was arrested in Afghanistan and Malaysia in 2004, and was interrogated by the CIA in Thailand before he was extradited to Libya in the same year. He was released in Libya in 2008, and announced his renunciation of violence the following year.
Belhadj is known within Islamist circles as “Abu Abdullah Assadaq” and the Libyan uprising has seen his transformation from wanted man to hero of the Libyan revolution.
The LIFG is considered a key component in the revolution that brought down the Gaddafi regime. Approximately 800 members of the LIFG are believed to have participated in fighting alongside rebel forces, under the leadership of Abdelhakim Belhadj.
Libyan Islamists, especially over the past two decades, have been the subject to government suppression. An LIFG rebellion was crushed in Benghazi in 1995 and 1,800 LIFG members were imprisoned. They were only released after the group’s ideology was revised in 2008. In September 2009, the LIFG published a new jihadist “code”, a 417-page document entitled “Corrective Studies” which was published after more than two years of intense talks between incarcerated LIFG leaders and Libyan officials, including Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
The Gaddafi regime released ten leaders of the LIFG (alongside 214 affiliates of other Islamist trends) on 23 March 2010. Belhadj was amongst those released, and he has been described as the Emir of the LIFG. In addition to this, other senior LIFG members were released, including LIFG theorist Abu Mundhir al Saadi, and LIFG military commander Khalid al-Sharif.
In March 2011, members of the LIFG reportedly announced that they had placed themselves under the leadership of the Libyan rebel National Transitional Council, and that the group had changed its name from the LIFG to the Libyan Islamic Movement.