Barack Obama may not believe in fundamentalist Islam, but most of the people helped by his foreign policy do.
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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.
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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.”
The Times also reproduced Belhaj’s insistence that LIFG “never had any link with al-Qaeda, and that could never be.”
Such coverage makes one wonder if the New York Times reads the New York Times. The newspaper of record reported in July that many LIFG members have “combat experience in Iraq or Afghanistan” — although it failed to mention whom it was they were fighting. In 2007 Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, announced LIFG had joined al-Qaeda and called on the group to topple Qaddafi. This news was apparently not fit to print.
Instead, the newspaper portrayed Belhaj as too big a man to hold a little thing like days of torture against the Great Satan. “I do not want revenge,” Belhaj said. He later contradicted himself somewhat, saying, “If one day there is a legal way, I would like to see my torturers brought to court.”
Could this be part of Obama’s rationale for supporting the rebels? Could he have hoped this story would create a means of prosecuting those responsible for America’s anti-terrorism policies following 9/11, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, perhaps before the International Criminal Court? The policy would have the added benefit of reversing the one clear benefit of the Iraq invasion, Libya’s forsaking of WMDs, and allow Obama to blame any subsequent “turn” toward al-Qaeda on George W. Bush.
Regardless of why Obama started another war to aid Islamic radicals, the official line is that democracy is just around the corner, and Jefferson is about to have his final triumph on the shores of Tripoli. An unnamed State Department official calmed fears of an Islamist takeover by telling the press, “The last few months, we’ve had the T.N.C. saying all the right things, and making the right moves.”
Presumably, that includes installing Belhaj as head of the nation’s security apparatus.
The new commander, too, states there is nothing to fear. He will fold his fighters into the official police or army, just as soon as the rebels win and establish one.
Although some question his background, Belhaj insists his LIFG “had a different agenda” than al-Qaeda; “global fighting was not our goal.”
LIFG only wanted to wage jihad inside Libya. Thanks to Barack Obama, it finally got its chance.