Barack Obama may not believe in fundamentalist Islam, but most of the people helped by his foreign policy do.
The most recent beneficiary of Obama’s “success” in Libya is a former CIA detainee with links to al-Qaeda. The National Transitional Council (NTC) — the governing body representing “the rebels” in Libya — elected Abdel Hakim Belhaj commander of the Tripoli Military Council last weekend. The council vested Belhaj, who also goes by the name Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq, with authority to keep order in the nation’s capital and to exercise command of 8,000 troops, the country’s largest fighting force. In a nation on the brink of collapse, with no organized army or political infrastructure, this is no small power.
The post rewarded his heroism in battle. The New York Times recounts how the east Libyan burst onto the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, personally leading a cadre of disciplined fighters in a raid on Muammar Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound. However, his fighting men were not exactly strangers to warfare. Belhaj has ample experience coordinating and co-founding the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which the State Department designated a foreign terrorist organization in December 2004.
LIFG was the creation of the “Afghan” Libyans, who traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets alongside fellow mujahideen including Osama bin Laden. After returning home, they waged a series of deadly attacks throughout the 1990s in an effort to topple the Qaddafi government. In the process, its members enjoyed ties with both al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. By decade’s end, the organization was largely defeated and its leadership imprisoned. Yet in the last year, it has come roaring back to life.
Belhaj admits that he met Osama bin Laden twice, once in the 1980s in Afghanistan, and again in 1998, shortly after Osama launched his worldwide jihad against the United States. He presents both meetings as virtually accidental, insisting he had no sympathy for the man nor his global operation.
Despite his protests of innocence, U.S. intelligence took an interest in his activities after 9/11. This curiosity intensified after Qaddafi brokered an agreement with the United States to end his WMD program. Belhaj claims in 2004 he was detained in Kuala Lumpur, then sent via extraordinary rendition to Malaysia, where he says CIA agents tortured him for days. He asserts that after they determined that he was no immediate threat to the United States, the operatives turned him over to Qaddafi, who kept him in solitary confinement for six years.
In prison, he found an unlikely ally: Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who offered to release LIFG members and give them generous federal benefits if they would write a tract condemning Islam’s theological justification for violence. In late 2009, LIFG members produced the 417-page book Corrective Studies, which abruptly reversed their position and labeled jihad a violation of Islam. They renamed LIFG the “Libyan Islamic Movement for Change” and renounced the use of violence to overthrow Libya’s government.
Many at the time questioned their sincerity. Some would insist Belhaj’s role directing the violent anti-Qaddafi revolution proves he lied about at least one of his beliefs — but not the New York Times, which slavishly quoted his self-defense. “The revolution started peacefully,” Belhaj claimed, “but the regime’s crackdown forced it to become violent.”