One of the most extraordinary stories coming out of the unfolding Arab uprisings is that of Abdelhakim Belhaj, a key figure in the military forces supporting the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) and leader of the so-called Tripoli Military Council (TMC). Belhaj is reported to have led some 600 men—many of whom supposedly, like him, gained military experience during the Afghan war—in the crucial assault on Moammar al-Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli.
Belhaj reportedly accompanied NTC President Mustafa Abdel Jalil to key meetings in France and Qatar to help organize foreign support during the uprising. He also oversaw Abdel Jalil’s chaotic and rapturous entry into the Libyan capital as the leader of the de facto new Libyan government. Belhaj is therefore, in every way, a key figure in the NTC military alliance, if not its political leadership.
What is remarkable is that Belhaj’s history suggests that he has been not only an Islamist, but a Salafist-Jihadist with ties to the Afghan mujahideen, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an extreme Muslim organization fighting to overthrow Qaddafi.
In 2004, when the West was cooperating with Qaddafi following the invasion of Iraq, Belhaj was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, at the behest of Western intelligence services and subjected to “special rendition” to Libya followed by a lengthy incarceration and torture. He was released last year as part of a “de-radicalization” program overseen by Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam. Belhaj is not the only member of the LIFG to have emerged as part of the NTC coalition. Others include Ismail al-Salabi, Abdelhakim al-Hasidi and Ali Salabi.
Qaddafi always claimed that the core of the uprising against him was “al Qaeda,” and although the LIFG was never a member of any formal al Qaeda coalition, it clearly was on the extreme Salafist-Jihadist, “takfiri” end of the Islamist spectrum. In the West, opponents of the limited military intervention, from both the left and the right, are claiming that al Qaeda now rules in Tripoli and that the West has been “conned” into supporting the worst kind of Muslim radicals.
Belhaj for his part claims to be a transformed man, a Libyan patriot and a loyal member of a large and diverse coalition. Thus far, most of what he and his fellow former LIFG colleagues have said and done seems to lend credence to those claims.
This raises a fascinating and novel narrative in the Arab uprisings: Former extremists and Salafist-Jihadists are maybe being transformed into religiously conservative but patriotic members of broad coalitions that are nationalistic and willing to engage in compromises and power-sharing arrangements. Indeed, so far they appear to be not only loyal members of the NTC, but have also generally subordinated themselves to its political leadership. Belhaj seems either to be accepting the authority of a broader political leadership or making his own decisions that seem to reflect a genuinely transformed worldview.
All is not sweetness and light, however. There are worrying reports that attempts to discipline Belhaj’s Tripoli Military Council by NTC chair Mahmoud Jibril were rejected by the TMC spokesman, Anees al-Sharif, who said, “We will not accept Jibril’s authority over us.” But one should not overestimate the impact of inevitable moments of friction within a diverse coalition in which lines of authority are still being drawn.
Whether or not Belhaj and his colleagues have really been transformed as they claim and seem to have been, or whether they are simply strategically positioning themselves and are still guided by their old ideology, remains to be determined. But if their metamorphosis is real, this may presage a new and important Arab political narrative whereby extreme Islamists can become part of diverse nationalist coalitions.
As Omar Ashour of the University of Exeter has pointed out, this renunciation of violence would echo that of Egypt’s Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, reflecting a willingness of hitherto extremist groups to join political systems that are more pluralistic than such groups’ previous ideologies would have allowed. There is reason to hope that this development is part of a pattern whereby once violent jihadists are participating in national transformations by embracing political competition rather than a violent imposition of their worldview.
A decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Arab uprising—with their demands for democracy, elections and pluralistic systems—along with other factors, may at long last be dealing a death blow to al Qaeda-style violent Islamism. This offers former Jihadists a transformed ideology and perspective, and a new model for political engagement.
If the emerging narrative of the transformation of Abdelhakim Belhaj proves accurate, it will be among the more encouraging outcomes of this period of Arab uprisings, reflecting how these have contributed to tempering some of the most extreme forms of Muslim radicalism.