According to news reports this week, the emir of a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization is edging closer to securing a leadership role in Libya’s new government.
For President Obama, this situation stands to severely diminish perceptions of “prudence” bestowed upon his administration’s Arab Spring-related policies — even if the public knows little about this rising Libyan political star or the terror group previously helmed by him.
Abdel Hakim Belhaj is the co-founder and leader of the purportedly moribund Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Today, he is on the short list of candidates whom Libya observers are comfortably forecasting as key political stakeholders in Libya’s next government. Still, some monitors might call their predictions a tad tardy. And his rise to prominence is hardly a surprise to officials in Washington.
In December 2011, I produced a report for members of Congress which called attention to the trajectory of Belhaj’s role in the post-Qaddafi era. While his rise to political prominence may be a surprise for many outside America’s policy-making spheres, his historical pursuits should be alarming to all.
Established in Southwest Asia by Libyan jihadis who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, the LIFG and its members have been featured prominently in the “global jihad” spearheaded by Al Qaeda. After enjoying Usama bin Laden’s hospitality in Sudan following his and many LIFG members’ departure from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, Belhaj became the group’s emir.
Initially, the LIFG was focused narrowly on one goal: Overthrowing the “apostate” Qaddafi regime in Tripoli. However, the group’s vitriol increasingly incorporated shades of anti-Americanism once the Qaddafi regime crushed their revolt in Libya in the late 1990s, and particularly once the US began targeting Al Qaeda after its 1998 dual bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In an August 1998 letter regarding the U.S. response to these bombings, the LIFG pronounced, “the U.S.A. is not only an enemy of the Mujahid sheikh Usama Bin Laden and the Islamic movements, but it is an enemy of the Islamic nation.”
While relations between the LIFG and Al Qaeda were at times tenuous, various LIFG leaders assumed top-ranking positions within Al Qaeda. These transitions and the two groups’ operational proximities manifest many assumptions about the LIFG functioning as a franchise of Al Qaeda. But in analysis of terrorist movements, details matter, and the LIFG was not.
Much of the flawed history about the LIFG stems from a 2007 message featuring LIFG Shura Council member Abu Laith al-Libi (killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2008) and present day Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The message was widely misinterpreted as an announcement of the LIFG’s merger with Al Qaeda. But soon after its publication — and with little attention from the Western media — al-Zawahiri explained: “I did not say that [the LIFG] has joined Al Qaeda … However, I said that a group of the notables of the [LIFG] has joined the Qa’idat al-Jihad Group [aka Al Qaeda].”
Regardless of whether the LIFG formally merged with Al Qaeda -- in as much as Al Qaeda helped train and equip LIFG militants, with Belhaj as their leader -- LIFG members trained Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban recruits who fought US forces in Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 attacks. What is perhaps least discussed among officials is that one LIFG member’s combat prowess was so renowned that an Al Qaeda member traveled to Afghanistan to undergo training provided by him in preparation for a (later aborted) component of the 9/11 plot.
But it is not just the misapprehensions bolstered by inaccurate reporting on the aforementioned 2007 “merger” announcement that have hampered much analysis of this obscure group, or its leaders’ interests.
Reporting on the publication in 2009 of a 400-plus-page book of “retractions” written by various LIFG leaders jailed in Libya prompted much more problematic mischaracterizations. What’s more, such reporting no-doubt influenced decisions made by NATO officials who met with Belhaj in Qatar during Libya’s 2011 revolution.
Titled “Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Enforcement of Morality, and Judgment of People,” the book was widely depicted as a repudiation of Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism in general. But it appears that many journalists who covered the release of the LIFG’s revisions -- authored by Belhaj, LIFG Sharia committee leader Sami al-Saadi, and several other LIFG leaders jailed in Libya -- did not closely review the contents of this material.
For US officials, the LIFG’s “Corrective Studies” should have raised concerns. Its authors sought to “correct” the path of “true” defensive jihad, not abolish it altogether.
Echoing the rhetoric of such radical clerics as Muslim Brotherhood thought leader and Hamas’ so called spiritual guide Yusuf al-Qaradawi — clerics whose imprimaturs were provided for this work prior to its release — authors of the “Corrective Studies” pronounced jihad is an obligation for Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. They argued these places are occupied by foreign military powers and therefore must be liberated through resistance in the form of violent jihad.
Now that the LIFG has been “disbanded” — but really just re-branded — it is unclear if its leaders feel bound to the positions they espoused in this book.
Given his reported meetings with members of the Free Syria Army in Turkey late in 2011, it may be the case that Belhaj is again examining opportunities to extend his followers’ jihad beyond Libya.
It is one thing for Muslim Brotherhood political figures who are assuming control of Egypt to call for the releases of jailed terrorists and terror plot co-conspirators like Omar Abdel Rahman, the so called "Blind Sheikh" who was jailed in the US after being convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Or for these newly elected figures to posture intents to freeze Egypt’s relations with Israel, which previously proved critical to global counterterrorism efforts.
It is quite another thing for the leaders of Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organizations like Abdel Hakim Belhaj — who, in a letter published on the LIFG’s website in May 1997 lauded Omar Abd al-Rahman, and warned “the tyrant Americans about the wrath of the Muslims, who are fed up with the American oppression that wreaks havoc upon the earth” — to become government officials in a region which is a wellspring for terror groups that target US interests globally.
Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi recently took legal action against the government of Britain for its involvement in their renditions to Libya following their capture by CIA in 2004.
Once in a stronger position, it is unlikely “lawfare” will be the most confrontational tactic Belhaj will be tempted to employ against US and allied interests. And it seems safe to predict that Libya’s new leaders will be disinclined to brand members of many groups designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the US as terrorists or criminals with individuals like Belhaj serving in their midst.
Then again, it seems the Obama administration is equally averse to casting many such individuals in this light as we enter into the post-Arab Spring era. Hence Belhaj’s newfound status as a political player in post-Qaddafi Libya.
Under Qaddafi, the government of Libya was one of the world’s most prolific sponsors of terrorist groups based around the globe. If Belhaj and other Salifist jihadis are allowed to claim prominent roles in Libya’s new government, the post-Qaddafi era might very well retain certain features of the legacy left by a dictator whom Ronald Reagan once famously called the “mad dog of the Middle East.”
To borrow an expression former Secretary of State James Baker used to describe the Soviet bloc’s collapse, the Arab Spring has been a case of managing “one damn thing after another.” In the case of Libya, it certainly appears as though we may be trading one damn thing for another.
Michael S. Smith II is a principal and co-founder of Kronos Advisory, counter-terrorism adviser to members of the United States Congress, and a senior analyst with Wikistrat Ltd. Follow him on Twitter@MichaelSSmithII.