Reports from Libya this week indicate that the recently appointed rebel commander of the NATO-backed Tripoli Military Council is none other than Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a founding member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an internationally designated terrorist organization.
The LIFG was established in the 90s by Libyan fighters returning from Afghanistan. According to a report from ABC News, the CIA first publically acknowledged its concern about the connection between LIFG and al-Qaeda in 2004 when then-director George Tenet told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the LIFG was among groups that represented an “immediate threat” that “benefited from al-Qaeda links.”
In 2007, the US State Department reported on links between Ziyad Hashem, an alleged member of the LIFG’s media committee, and the Tunisian Islamist Serhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, the suspected ringleader in the 2004 Madrid attacks.
While the current Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) ambassador to the US, Ali Aujali, claims the LIFG was never connected to al-Qaeda and did not support terror tactics, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahirir himself announced a formal alliance with the group in 2007. In his declaration, the then-deputy Zawahirir mentioned Belhadj personally, calling him “the Emir of the mujahideen, the patient and steadfast”.
Belhadji was arrested held numerous times internationally in 2004, first in Afghanistan and Malaysia, then later in Thailand where he was interrogated by the CIA before being sent to prison in Libya. According to a report from the Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat, Belhadj was among ten leaders of the LIFG who were released by the Qaddafi regime alongside 214 affiliates from other Islamist movements on March 23rd, 2010. It adds that approximately 800 members of the LIFG are fighting under the current command of Belhadj in Libya.
When the LIFG/al-Qaeda alliance got behind the present revolt in Libya they reportedly changed their name to the slightly more neutral Libyan Islamic Movement. Despite their history of international terror and insurgency, NTC ambassador Aujali is urging observers to see Belhadj and his fighters in a new light; as supporters of a peaceful and democratic future Libya.