'We Are Simply Muslim': Libyan Rebel Chief Denies Al-Qaeda Ties

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Abdel Hakim Belhadj, commander of the Tripoli Military Council, looks on during an interview on September 1, 2011 in Tripoli, Libya.

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Le Monde.

Abdel Hakim Belhadj, 45, is one of the most powerful men of the new Libya. From this point on, the security of Tripoli depends on him. This former jihadist, arrested by the CIA and secretly handed over to the Gaddafi regime in 2004, is the commander-in-chief of the rebel forces in the Libyan capital.

This man, who expresses himself in a low, gravely voice, gives off an undeniable charisma. Stocky, his forehead lined with wrinkles, his face marked by a well-groomed, black beard, Belhadj is dressed in military fatigues. He has agreed to an interview with Le Monde, in which he retraces his past two decades jihad in Afghanistan to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, in order to answer the accusations of those who see in him the fingerprints of al-Qaeda.

Do you belong to al-Qaeda?
A lot of false information is circulating concerning this subject. Yes, I was a member of the Islamic Fighting Group whose area of operation was always and exclusively Libya. The goal of this organization was to deliver the Libyan people from the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. We never had any interest outside of our country. The Islamic combat group was never a part of al-Qaeda, neither from an ideological viewpoint, nor at an operational level, nor in its goals. It happened that we found ourselves in the same place at the same time as al-Qaeda: in Afghanistan, where we sometimes fought next to them when it was to liberate the country, but we were never at their service.

On the contrary, when Osama Bin Laden founded the Global Islamic Front to fight against the Jews and crusaders, in the autumn of 1998, we refused to become members of it. How could we want to kill all Christians? Or all Jews? That's absurd! And why not the Chinese or Japanese? Christians and Jews are the people of the Book, we have to protect them.

Your time in Afghanistan arouses some concerns...
I was forced into exile, I didn't have a choice! In Libya, we were living under a dictatorial regime that did not permit any sort of freedom of thought or expression. That's why I founded, with a group of young people, in the 1980s, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. We had no other choice but armed combat. The Gaddafi regime wanted to destroy us. I thus left my country for Saudi Arabia in 1988 and, from there, I went to Afghanistan. When the Afghan mujahideen took Kabul in 1992, I left the country.

And then?
Then I travelled. To Turkey, to Sudan, and other countries as well.

Have you ever been arrested and detained by the CIA?
In March 2004 I was arrested at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia at the request of Libyan intelligence agency. I was transferred to Bangkok where I was put back into custody of the CIA who has a secret prison at the airport. There, I was interrogated for several days. I can no longer remember how long, I lost consciousness many times. My wife, six months pregnant, was also arrested.

Were you tortured?
Yes, I was suspended from the ceiling, I was attached [to it], and I was plunged into ice water. After several days, they put me on an airplane for Libya where I was sentenced to death and detained in prison, initially for four and a half years at the secret service headquarters, headed by (former intelligence chief and foreign minister) Moussa Koussa, then later at the Abu Salim Prison.

Why did the Gaddafi regime liberate you?
In prison, we were able to reflect and discuss. We were taught a skill if we gave up armed conflict. We had the feeling that we should encourage the attempts at reform by Saif Al-Islam — son and heir apparent of Muammar Gaddafi — in Libya. This country had a long way to go; there was no justice. In 1996, 1,200 prisoners had been massacred at Abu Salim prison. We wanted to do our part and set an example of positive dialogue.

This is why several Islamists were liberated in small groups. Myself, I got out of prison in March 2010. I had not, however, renounced my ideals: a civil state with real freedoms, respecting the law and justice. We wanted a change, reforms. We had never fought for the sake of fighting.

With the revolution, you took up arms once again...
The February 17 revolution is not the product of any particular political current, of any ideology. It's the revolution of the Libyan people in their entirety. The youth were the first to peacefully protest. They were received by the regime with bullets, and that's what provoked the militarization of the revolution. Justice for their cause then struck the international community, which adopted resolution 1973. And I have to thank all of those who saved Benghazi from tanks and guns — from Muammar Gaddafi.

Do you want to have any responsibilities in the new Libya?
As far as I am concerned, I am under the authority of the Transitional National Council, its executive body, and its ministry of defense. I assure you that the fighters do not have any particular agenda. Have no doubts! There is nothing to fear, we are not al-Qaeda. I never was. I say this in complete freedom and peace, and not even from prison. We do not want to lead this society that is already Muslim.

Are you in favor of the establishment of an Islamic State in Libya, or of Sharia?
We are members of the Libyan society and we are simply Muslim. We do not distinguish the application of justice. All that we want is protection, security, and confidence for our country, our neighbors, and all countries with which we have relations.

In Libya, we have lived 42 years without a constitution, without law, without justice. That's what led to the fall of this dictatorial regime. We want a civil state that respects the law and rights, a state that applies justice. As far as the form of the regime and of the government, that is up to the Libyan people. We will give back our weapons; we are not here to establish a Taliban-like regime through a coup d'état.

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