Abdulhakim Bel­hadj’s Journey from Extremism to Political Life

Abdulhakim Belhadj, center, gives instructions to his troops in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, on Aug. 22, 2011. (Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images)
Abdulhakim Belhadj, center, gives instructions to his troops in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, on Aug. 22, 2011. (Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images)
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Abdulhakim Bel­hadj’s Journey from Extremism to Political Life

Abdulhakim Belhadj, center, gives instructions to his troops in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, on Aug. 22, 2011. (Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images)
Abdulhakim Belhadj, center, gives instructions to his troops in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, on Aug. 22, 2011. (Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images)

Abdulhakim Bel­hadj has shed his combat fatigues for gray sport jackets and crisp white shirts. He has given up his AK-47 rifle for an election ballot.

“My thinking of that time is not a reflection of the way I think now,” the compact 51-year-old said, referring to his fighting days in Libya.

But in a war-divided nation, penetrated by ISIS and struggling to forge a new identity, Libyans have not forgotten who Belhadj once was.

They remember that he fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. They remember that he led the Libyan Fighting Group (LIFG), an obscure, al-Qaeda-linked militia that the United States branded a terrorist organization. Belhadj was considered so dangerous that he was arrested and interrogated at a secret CIA rendition site in Asia after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Later, he was tortured in a Libyan prison.

Today, as key players in the contest between Islamists and their rivals for the soul of the new Libya, Belhadj and his comrades represent a rare instance of former militias associated with al-Qaeda achieving not just legitimacy but the ability to shape the course of a nation.

“These guys are very involved in the political landscape of running things in Tripoli,” said Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group. The worry for some, she said, is: “Have they really shed their extremist upbringing?”

The trajectory they followed is a winding — and uniquely Arab — one. The group dates to the battlefields of the Cold War and blossomed under the oppression of Libya’s autocratic leader, Moammar Gaddafi. During the Arab Spring, Belhadj and his comrades played crucial roles in the revolt that led to the strongman’s ouster and killing, six years ago next month.

Now, as he navigates Libya’s regional and tribal schisms, Bel­hadj enjoys power, influence and wealth. But he remains a widely feared and controversial figure, viewed as a warlord and a terrorist mastermind, even as his supporters paint him as a misunderstood idealist.

“Belhadj represents a threat now and will do so in the future,” said Abdullah Belhaq, a spokesman for Libya’s eastern-based parliament. “He is followed by a number of armed militias, and they will always be against the establishment of a state, to safeguard their interests.”

I first met Belhadj, a civil engineer by training, in May 2010 in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. He and several LIFG leaders had recently been released from prison under an extremist-rehabilitation program conceived by Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. In exchange, they vowed to renounce violence and work to discredit al-Qaeda.

Many Libyans and Western diplomats were skeptical. Belhadj and his comrades were among scores of Libyans who had traveled to Afghanistan to fight the occupying Soviet forces. They met bin Laden in a training camp, an LIFG co-founder, Sami al-Saadi, told me at the time. He was impressed, he said, by bin Laden’s “devoutness.”

Belhadj returned to Libya in the early 1990s. There, he launched the LIFG to overthrow Moammar Gaddafi and transform Libya into an Islamic emirate. A low-level insurgency followed, as well as three failed attempts to assassinate the dictator. By then, Belhadj was known by his nom de guerre, Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq.

Gaddafi’s regime crushed the LIFG, and by the late 1990s Belhadj and his comrades had fled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they forged alliances with leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, according to Libyan authorities and analysts. Belhadj, while acknowledging the links, denied he was close to either group.

In the months before the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden urged the LIFG to join his efforts to target the United States and its allies. Belhadj balked. His group’s sole mission, he said recently, was to topple Gaddafi, not attack the West — “and I told it to the al-Qaeda leaders.” But the LIFG split over that choice, and some senior members joined bin Laden.

In late 2001, with the Taliban decimated and bin Laden on the run, many LIFG commanders fled the region. Three years later, Belhadj and his pregnant wife were arrested in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and taken to a CIA site in Thailand. Saadi and others were arrested elsewhere in Asia.

They were handed over to the Libyan government. Gaddafi, once a sponsor of terrorism, had become a counterterrorism ally of the West.

For six years, the LIFG leaders were held in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. “I was beaten, hung from walls by my arms and deprived of food and sunlight,” Belhadj recalled. He has sued the British government for allegedly playing a role in returning him to Libya.

Human Rights Watch investigators, citing documents unearthed in Libya, corroborated Belhadj’s accounts of the CIA rendition and torture in Abu Salim.

Encouraged by moderate Islamist preachers and the younger Gaddafi, Belhadj and his comrades crafted a 400-page manifesto denouncing al-Qaeda’s beliefs and attacks on Western civilians.

Still, waging “jihad” against US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was “a sacred act,” they maintained. “When America invades a country, the insurgency is legal,” Belhadj told me in 2010.

A year later, a violent uprising, echoing similar ones sweeping the Arab world, began. Belhadj and his comrades, with their anti-Gaddafi credentials, were catapulted into leadership roles.

Belhadj became the commander of the Tripoli Brigade, a rebel militia, and on Aug. 22, 2011, he and his men entered the Bab al-Aziziya compound, Gaddafi’s fortress and nerve center.

For the past several months, they had helped lead the battle against Gaddafi’s forces, aided by NATO airstrikes. On this day, they were close to seizing control of Tripoli, and Gaddafi had fled east.

Belhadj was named the leader of the Tripoli Military Council, the committee in charge of keeping order in the capital after Gaddafi was killed by rebels less than two months later. He would also join the rebels’ Supreme Security Council. Other LIFG members joined Islamist movements and ran religious youth camps, advocating strict Islamic sharia laws.

Saadi founded a political party. Khalid al-Sharif, the deputy emir of the LIFG, was appointed deputy defense minister in two post-Gaddafi governments.

In 2014, Belhadj and other LIFG members backed Libya Dawn, a collection of armed militias that briefly seized control of Tripoli and proclaimed their own government. Their actions split public opinion.

Even though he holds no official position in government, his well-armed loyalists wield power in the capital. But because he has moved out of the public spotlight and kept his political and business dealings secret, he remains an enigma to many Libyans.

While some Libyans now view Belhadj as a businessman, others beg to differ. They believe “he’s just pretending to be all about business but he’s still calling all the shots,” said Gazzini, of the International Crisis Group.

Belhaq described Belhadj as exercising immense power largely through ill-gotten money, noting that within two years of his release from prison he owned an airline company. “Where did he get these billions from?” the eastern parliamentary spokesman said.

Belhadj resigned from the Tripoli Military Council to launch his own political party, al-Watan, or “Homeland.” He believes in democracy, he said, and ran unsuccessfully in national parliamentary elections in 2012. He insists he no longer controls a militia. He supports the UN-backed government, he said, because “we don’t want to be out of the international community.”

The Washington Post



Netanyahu Dissolved His War Cabinet. How Will That Affect Ceasefire Efforts?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Sheba Tel-HaShomer Medical Center, in Ramat Gan on June 8, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Sheba Tel-HaShomer Medical Center, in Ramat Gan on June 8, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
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Netanyahu Dissolved His War Cabinet. How Will That Affect Ceasefire Efforts?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Sheba Tel-HaShomer Medical Center, in Ramat Gan on June 8, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Sheba Tel-HaShomer Medical Center, in Ramat Gan on June 8, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disbanded his war cabinet Monday, a move that consolidates his influence over the Israel-Hamas war and likely diminishes the odds of a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip anytime soon.

Netanyahu announced the step days after his chief political rival, Benny Gantz, withdrew from the three-member war cabinet. Gantz, a retired general and member of parliament, was widely seen as a more moderate voice.

Major war policies will now be solely approved by Netanyahu's security cabinet — a larger body that is dominated by hard-liners who oppose the US-backed ceasefire proposal and want to press ahead with the war.

Netanyahu is expected to consult on some decisions with close allies in ad-hoc meetings, said an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

These closed-door meetings could blunt some of the influence of the hard-liners. But Netanyahu himself has shown little enthusiasm for the ceasefire plan and his reliance on the full security cabinet could give him cover to prolong a decision.

Here’s key background about the war cabinet, and what disbanding it means for ceasefire prospects:

Why did Gantz join and then quit the war cabinet? The war cabinet was formed after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel when Gantz, an opposition party leader, joined with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in a show of unity.

At the time, Gantz demanded that a small decision-making body steer the war in a bid to sideline far-right members of Netanyahu’s government.

But Gantz left the cabinet earlier this month after months of mounting tensions over Israel’s strategy in Gaza.

He said he was fed up with a lack of progress bringing home the dozens of Israeli hostages held by Hamas. He accused Netanyahu of drawing out the war to avoid new elections and a corruption trial. He called on Netanyahu to endorse a plan that — among other points — would rescue the captives and end Hamas rule in Gaza.

When Netanyahu did not express support for the plan, Gantz announced his departure. He said that “fateful strategic decisions” in the cabinet were being “met with hesitancy and procrastination due to political considerations.”

How will Israel's wartime policies likely be changed? The disbanding of the war cabinet only further distances Netanyahu from centrist politicians more open to a ceasefire deal with Hamas.

Months of ceasefire talks have failed to find common ground between Hamas and Israeli leaders. Both Israel and Hamas have been reluctant to fully endorse a US-backed plan that would return hostages, clear the way for an end to the war, and commence a rebuilding effort of the decimated territory.

Netanyahu will now rely on the members of his security cabinet, some of whom oppose ceasefire deals and have voiced support for reoccupying Gaza.

After Gantz's departure, Israel's ultranationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, demanded inclusion in a renewed war cabinet. Monday's move could help keep Ben-Gvir at a distance, but it cannot sideline him altogether.

The move also gives Netanyahu leeway to draw out the war to stay in power. Netanyahu's critics accuse him of delaying because an end to the war would mean an investigation into the government's failures on Oct. 7 and raise the likelihood of new elections when the prime minister's popularity is low.

“It means that he will make all the decisions himself, or with people that he trusts who don’t challenge him,” said Gideon Rahat, chairman of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “And his interest is in having a slow-attrition war.”