Who is Abdel Hakim Belhaj?:
Abdel Hakim Belhaj is one of Libya's new strongmen and a potential new leader for the country following the death of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. Libya's power vacuum has not been filled yet, but no matter what happens, Abdel Hakim Belhaj will play a key role.
Political Role in New Libya:
The power of the gun
Abdel Hakim Belhaj (b. 1966 in Tripoli) was the commander of the Tripoli Military Council, one of the major rebel groups that in 2011 brought down Qaddafi's regime. A former militant Islamist, Belhaj took control of large parts of the capital Tripoli.
The de-facto power in Libya is wielded by militia commanders like Belhaj. Refusing to disarm, the militias will use their military power as a political card in the elections taking place 2012-13. However, the presence of dozens of heavily armed groups and growing tension over division of power generate serious concerns of fresh violence.
Is Belhaj a war-lord, an Islamist, or a democrat?
More is known about Belhaj's past than his present plans. Belhaj is associated with Al Watan, an Islamist party that failed to enter parliament in 2012 parliamentary elections. However, while switching his military uniform for a business suit, Belhaj retains the loyalty of thousands of armed men that fought under his command.
Belhaj's rivals accuse him of plotting to impose strict Islamist rule, but it is still too early to tell.
Belhaj is believed to be backed by Qatar, which had provided Libyan rebels with weapons and fuel. If true, being wedded to Qatar's growing regional role might give Belhaj addition clout on Libya's fragmented political scene. If not a candidate for top positions himself, I certainly see Belhaj as one of the kingmakers in the new Libya.
Anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan (1988-92)
Belhaj's career as an international Islamist fighter began in 1988, when he went to seek glory in Afghanistan by joining the armed resistance against Soviet occupation. The experience would define his political outlook for the next 20 years.
Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) (1993-98)
Upon returning to Libya in 1992, Belhaj was eager for a fight against Qaddafi's secular dictatorship. He became one of the leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a militant organization which in 1993 launched a sporadic guerrilla campaign against the government.
However, the LIFG was eventually crushed by the security forces, and in 1998 Belhaj was forced to leave his country once again.
Into the Taliban's fold (1998-2001)
In what is probably the most controversial episode in his life, Belhaj and other leading LIFG members moved back to Afghanistan, then ruled by the ultra-conservative Taliban government. LIFG was branded a terrorist organization by the United Nations owing to its alleged links to Al Qaeda, an allegation Belhaj has always denied.
Fugitive life and imprisonment (2001-10)
Belhaj went into hiding following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but was eventually arrested in Malaysia in 2004. The British and U.S. intelligence services extradited him to Libya, as part of the rapprochement between Qaddafi and the West.
In 2009, Belhaj and other jailed LIFG members formally renounced violence perpetrated in the name of religion, and were freed from jail the next year. For this major revision of LIFG's ideological origins, he was promptly denounced by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Libyan Revolution 2011:
Tripoli Military Council
But reconciliation with Qaddafi was short-lived. In Spring 2011, Belhaj joined the NATO-backed rebellion against the regime, and was one of the militia leaders who in August that year drove the government forces out of Tripoli.
Belhaj's fighters, estimated at 25,000, took over several strategic locations in the capital.