Belhadj has emerged as a powerful military figure in the new Libya, an Islamist fighter whose past dalliance with global jihad has raised concerns that the fall of Moammar Gaddafi’s regime could allow radical Islam to gain a foothold on these North African Mediterranean shores.
He fought with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan against Soviet rule in the 1980s but asserts that he also set up schools and provided humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people. He says he twice refused invitations to find common cause with al-Qaeda.
“When al-Qaeda was formed in 1989, I was there in Afghanistan, but I didn’t join or agree to participate in their acts,” he said, dressed in military fatigues with a pistol on his belt, his black beard neatly trimmed. “We were never interested in global jihad; our concern is Libya and the Libyan people.”
After the fall of the communist regime in Kabul, Belhadj joined other Libyans who had fought in Afghanistan to found the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organization dedicated to the overthrow of the corrupt, oppressive and anti-Islamist Gaddafi regime.
The group asserted responsibility for an assassination attempt on Gaddafi in 1996 and fought sporadic clashes with security forces in subsequent years.
Several members were thought to have al-Qaeda affiliations, but others were clearly uncomfortable with the global jihadist group, and another former leader, Noman Benotman, later made his feelings known publicly in an open letter to Osama bin Laden.
“When the Taliban took over in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda announced their international front against Jewish and Christian people, Mr. bin Laden invited us to join the celebration,” Belhadj said. “We refused to join, and we were trying to convince him not to take this path.”
Nevertheless, the LIFG was banned by the United Nations and listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization. Belhadj was arrested in Malaysia in 2004 and transferred to Thailand, where he was briefly interrogated and, he says, tortured by the CIA.
“I was injected, and strung up by hands, and cold water and ice was put all over my body,” he said.
After a few days, the CIA decided he was not worth keeping and transferred him to Gaddafi’s Libya with his pregnant wife. She was kept in jail there for two months, something that clearly still rankles Belhadj. He says he spent six years in jail in Tripoli, three of which were in solitary confinement without a single shower. For a year, he says, he was not allowed to see his newborn son.
Gaddafi, like many other Arab autocrats, portrayed himself as a bulwark against Islamist extremists but granted an amnesty to hundreds of Islamists between 2008 and 2010, when Belhadj was freed. He soon joined the revolution against the Libyan leader.
Today, he is a central figure in the hunt for Gaddafi, a search being conducted with the help of NATO.
There is talk in Tripoli of tensions between the civilian leadership of the rebel national council and its military leadership, between pro-Western leaders and more Islamist elements such as Belhadj.
But he brushes aside this talk, insisting that he is committed to democracy and building a new Libya free of the oppression that characterized Gaddafi’s rule.
“We are sons of today, not of the past,” he said. “We are working for the security of Libya and the security of the whole world.”
On Tuesday, U.S. officials acknowledged that there were concerns about Islamist influence in the Libyan revolution but played down the links with al-Qaeda.
“Some members of LIFG in the past had connections with al- Qaeda in Sudan, Afghanistan or Pakistan, and others dropped their relationship with al-Qaeda entirely,” said a senior U.S. official who closely tracks Islamist terrorist organizations but insisted on anonymity in discussing sensitive files about terrorist organizations.
“It seems from their statements and support for establishing a democracy in Libya that this faction of LIFG does not support al-Qaeda. We’ll definitely be watching to see whether this is for real or just for show.”