The leader of the newly established Tripoli Military Council is Abdelhakim Belhadj, the former head of the terrorist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which was banned internationally as a terrorist organization after the 9/11 attacks.
The Arab newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat which ran an article about him yesterday under the headline “From Holy warrior to hero of a revolution,” says Belhadj took over command of LIFG from Abu Laith al-Libi, a top Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan. Known within Islamist circles by his alias “Abu Abdullah Assadaq," Belhadj has a reputation as a very experienced mujaheddin commander, who fought alongside Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
After the fall of the Taliban, Belhadj left Afghanistan for Iran and then onto various other Muslim countries, until he was later arrested in Malaysia by the CIA. After questioning, he suffered rendition to Libya, where he was jailed by Gaddafi in 2004 along with 1,800 other members of the LIFG. Despite his close cooperation with Al Qaeda, Belhadj refused Bin Laden's appeals to let the LIFG become part of its organization because of differences over tactics and in 2010, he was released on the promise that he had renounced violence.
Abdelhakim Belhadj reportedly led the assault on Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziyah compound and is gaining ground amongst rebel fighters.as one of the most popular leaders and figureheads of the Libyan revolution. His appointment reflects the growing influence of Islamists generally among radicalized militiamen. Reporters have remarked upon the increasing number of beards being grown by fighters and videos frequently testify to their prominence and ubiquity in events.
The Islamic combatants have gained notoriety for being some of the best and most daring fighters during the revolution. Belhadj's own militia is estimated to have 800-1,000 fighters, but their members individually have also become leaders of many other militias. Particularly worrying is that they are very influential in the leadership of the strongest militia, the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, which is led by the cleric Ismail al-Sallabi and has a strong presence both in the east, the Western Mountains and Misrata. Members of the Martyrs Brigade were initially pinpointed as possible suspects in the assassination of the rebels' chief commander, General Younes.
However, Belhadj's group is not the only Islamic militia operating. There are many different ones. Also implicated in Younes' death is another influential, radical Islamic militia called the Abu Ubaidah bin Jarrah Brigade. They are fervently opposed to NATO intervention and refuse to fight under the command ex-Gaddafi men in the NTC, which they call the NATO/NTC “infidels.” Amazingly and somewhat strangely, they are in charge of much of the "internal security" for the liberated areas and it was their people who were sent by the NTC to arrest General Younes.
CNN reported that the Islamic extremists got a huge boost this weak when 600 Islamist extremists were released from prison by the rebels. They are mostly Salafists, a radical puritanical group, whose members in Egypt have been responsible for inciting violent, sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians.
Screenshot from Youtube
Al-Qaida-fighter Abdul Hakim Belhadj is now Military Commander of Tripoli.
Interviewed by CNN, a former commander in the LIFG, who has become a campaigner against extremism, Noman Benotman, said "This is potentially a very dangerous development. Nobody knows what these released prisoners are going to do next. Will they take part in the fighting and if they do will they join pre-existing rebel brigades or form a separate fighting force?"
Many of those imprisoned fought in Iraq, contributing to its collapse into chaos. They, therefore, have the knowledge and skills, which could be used to reproduce a similar situation in Libya or to exploit one, should it develop. According to Benotman there are also many other types of radical Islamist groups, whose younger members may be working with foreign militants and may even have set up training camps.
But, most worrisome is that they will be able to train with some of the best and most sophisticated weapons, which are in plentiful supply. The Los Angeles Times reported an expert, who pointed out that there are 523 arms bunkers known about and until now the rebels have only been able to put a minimum number of guards on a small minority of them.
The UK Guardian reported yesterday that all of Gaddafi's stockpiles of mustard gas, which were being monitored by NATO, have now disappeared. Furthermore, it quotes Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who was in Libya in the spring and reported seeing thousands of shoulder-launched Soviet Sam-7 anti-aircraft missiles in unguarded ammunition dumps around the country. He said there is also a great threat from all other munitions, “like tank shells and artillery shells which can easily be turned into car bombs." Bouckaert even found stocks of napalm!
The potential for an Islamist insurgency shouldn't be underestimated, nor the destruction it could bring. In neighboring Algeria during the 1990s, a fundamentalist group, the GIA, started an uprising which cost 250,000 lives. Like the LIFG, many of the GIA were “Afghans”-those who had fought in Afghanistan and like the LIFG, they did not belong directly to the Al Qaeda group, but had worked with it. Later a group of Salafists, like those just released from prison in Libya, split from the GIA and formed “Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.”
Yemen, where the local Al Qaeda is strong, is a country awash with weapons, with at least 3 guns for every 1 person. Libya is fast becoming something similar. Controlling this now is going to be virtually impossible and is causing grave concerns for the West, who are afraid that sophisticated weapons could be sold to Islamic extremists in many countries. They are demanding that the NTC does something quickly and its even possible that special forces will get involved.
Commenting on the NTC's ability to control the flow of arms, former head of the State Department's Office of Conventional Arms Threat Reduction, Christian Kessler said "My guess is that the closest thing they have to inventory on ammo is, 'Nuts, we're getting low, find some more.'" "We need to assume that X percent of the inventory will leak," and added, "Where it leaks to, how badly it leaks, those are guesses." Many rebels themselves are looting the arsenals for personal weapons or guns to sell. One can be sure that extremists also haven't let the opportunities pass them by.
Abdelhakim Belhadj and his group have renounced terrorism. The LIFG has renamed itself the Islamic Movement for Change (IMC) and says it accepts democracy within an Islamic state. Benotman hopes they may even be a force to halt the rise of violent fundamentalist groups.
There is no doubt now that Islamist groups are going to play a very influential role in post-war Libya. The Wall Street Journal reported that at the press conference on Friday, Belhadj said that the Tripoli Military Council “was the first step in a process to bring the fighters into a new national army.” He looks like becoming one its senior commanders.
The IMC has sworn loyalty to the TNC under the so-called Union of Revolutionary Forces. We can only hope it stays that way. However, the very fact that a former leader of the terrorist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is now head of the Tripoli Military Council, is a warning of just how real the threat of Islamist extremism is.