THE ROVING EYE How al-Qaeda got to rule in Tripoli
By Pepe Escobar
His name is Abdelhakim Belhaj. Some in the Middle East might have, but few in
the West and across the world would have heard of him.
Time to catch up. Because the story of how an al-Qaeda asset turned out to be
the top Libyan military commander in still war-torn Tripoli is bound to shatter
- once again - that wilderness of mirrors that is the "war on terror", as well
as deeply compromising the carefully constructed propaganda of the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) "humanitarian" intervention in Libya.
Muammar Gaddafi's fortress of Bab-al-Aziziyah was essentially invaded and
conquered last week by Belhaj's men - who were at
the forefront of a militia of Berbers from the mountains southwest of Tripoli.
The militia is the so-called Tripoli Brigade, trained in secret for two months
by US Special Forces. This turned out to be the rebels' most effective militia
in six months of tribal/civil war.
Already last Tuesday, Belhaj was gloating on how the battle was won, with
Gaddafi forces escaping "like rats" (note that's the same metaphor used by
Gaddafi himself to designate the rebels).
Abdelhakim Belhaj, aka Abu Abdallah al-Sadek, is a Libyan jihadi. Born in May
1966, he honed his skills with the mujahideen in the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in
He's the founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and its de facto emir
- with Khaled Chrif and Sami Saadi as his deputies. After the Taliban took
power in Kabul in 1996, the LIFG kept two training camps in Afghanistan; one of
them, 30 kilometers north of Kabul - run by Abu Yahya - was strictly for
After 9/11, Belhaj moved to Pakistan and also to Iraq, where he befriended none
other than ultra-nasty Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - all this before al-Qaeda in Iraq
pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and
turbo-charged its gruesome practices.
In Iraq, Libyans happened to be the largest foreign Sunni jihadi contingent,
only losing to the Saudis. Moreover, Libyan jihadis have always been superstars
in the top echelons of "historic" al-Qaeda - from Abu Faraj al-Libi (military
commander until his arrest in 2005, now lingering as one of 16 high-value
detainees in the US detention center at Guantanamo) to Abu al-Laith al-Libi
(another military commander, killed in Pakistan in early 2008).
Time for an extraordinary rendition
The LIFG had been on the US Central Intelligence Agency's radars since 9/11. In
2003, Belhaj was finally arrested in Malaysia - and then transferred,
extraordinary rendition-style, to a secret Bangkok prison, and duly tortured.
In 2004, the Americans decided to send him as a gift to Libyan intelligence -
until he was freed by the Gaddafi regime in March 2010, along with other 211
"terrorists", in a public relations coup advertised with great fanfare.
The orchestrator was no less than Saif Islam al-Gaddafi - the
modernizing/London School of Economics face of the regime. LIFG's leaders -
Belhaj and his deputies Chrif and Saadi - issued a 417-page confession dubbed
"corrective studies" in which they declared the jihad against Gaddafi over (and
illegal), before they were finally set free.
A fascinating account of the whole process can be seen in a report called
"Combating Terrorism in Libya through Dialogue and Reintegration".  Note
that the authors, Singapore-based terrorism "experts" who were wined and dined
by the regime, express the "deepest appreciation to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and
the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation for making this
Crucially, still in 2007, then al-Qaeda's number two, Zawahiri, officially
announced the merger between the LIFG and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb
(AQIM). So, for all practical purposes, since then, LIFG/AQIM have been one and
the same - and Belhaj was/is its emir.
In 2007, LIFG was calling for a jihad against Gaddafi but also against the US
and assorted Western "infidels".
Fast forward to last February when, a free man, Belhaj decided to go back into
jihad mode and align his forces with the engineered uprising in Cyrenaica.
Every intelligence agency in the US, Europe and the Arab world knows where he's
coming from. He's already made sure in Libya that himself and his militia will
only settle for sharia law.
There's nothing "pro-democracy" about it - by any stretch of the imagination.
And yet such an asset could not be dropped from NATO's war just because he was
not very fond of "infidels".
The late July killing of rebel military commander General Abdel Fattah Younis -
by the rebels themselves - seems to point to Belhaj or at least people very
close to him.
It's essential to know that Younis - before he defected from the regime - had
been in charge of Libya's special forces fiercely fighting the LIFG in
Cyrenaica from 1990 to 1995.
The Transitional National Council (TNC), according to one of its members, Ali
Tarhouni, has been spinning Younis was killed by a shady brigade known as
Obaida ibn Jarrah (one of the Prophet Mohammed's companions). Yet the brigade
now seems to have dissolved into thin air.
Shut up or I'll cut your head off
Hardly by accident, all the top military rebel commanders are LIFG, from Belhaj
in Tripoli to one Ismael as-Salabi in Benghazi and one Abdelhakim al-Assadi in
Derna, not to mention a key asset, Ali Salabi, sitting at the core of the TNC.
It was Salabi who negotiated with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi the "end" of LIFG's
jihad, thus assuring the bright future of these born-again "freedom fighters".
It doesn't require a crystal ball to picture the consequences of LIFG/AQIM -
having conquered military power and being among the war "winners" - not
remotely interested in relinquishing control just to please NATO's whims.
Meanwhile, amid the fog of war, it's unclear whether Gaddafi is planning to
trap the Tripoli brigade in urban warfare; or to force the bulk of rebel
militias to enter the huge Warfallah tribal areas.
Gaddafi's wife belongs to the Warfallah, Libya's largest tribe, with up to 1
million people and 54 sub-tribes. The inside word in Brussels is that NATO
expects Gaddafi to fight for months if not years; thus the Texas George W
Bush-style bounty on his head and the desperate return to NATO's plan A, which
was always to take him out.
Libya may now be facing the specter of a twin-headed guerrilla Hydra; Gaddafi
forces against a weak TNC central government and NATO boots on the ground; and
the LIFG/AQIM nebula in a jihad against NATO (if they are sidelined from
Gaddafi may be a dictatorial relic of the past, but you don't monopolize power
for four decades for nothing, and without your intelligence services learning a
thing or two.
From the beginning, Gaddafi said this was a foreign-backed/al-Qaeda operation;
he was right (although he forgot to say this was above all neo-Napoleonic
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's war, but that's another story).
He also said this was a prelude for a foreign occupation whose target was to
privatize and take over Libya's natural resources. He may - again – turn out to
The Singapore "experts" who praised the Gaddafi regime's decision to free the
LIFG's jihadis qualified it as "a necessary strategy to mitigate the threat
posed to Libya".
Now, LIFG/AQIM is finally poised to exercise its options as an "indigenous
Ten years after 9/11, it's hard not to imagine a certain decomposed skull in
the bottom of the Arabian Sea boldly grinning to kingdom come.