Abdel Hakim Belhaj is an Islamist whom Western spy agencies thought so dangerous that as recently as 2004, the governments of the U.S. and Britain conspired with the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to capture him in Kuala Lumpur and secretly fly him back to his homeland, Libya, where he was imprisoned and tortured for six years. Now, as those same Western powers ponder whether the country they helped liberate from Gaddafi's grasp will be a peaceful and stable place, Belhaj may hold some of the answers.
With a furrowed brow and a dense black beard, Belhaj wears the expression of a man who is perpetually angry, or skeptical, or both that is, until he cracks one of his wide, wry smiles, exposing the humor within the fighter. He is the military commander of Tripoli, a position he acquired in the chaos of the revolution because his Islamist fighters were crucial in taking the Libyan capital in early September. This makes him one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Gaddafi forces that now control most of the country. Belhaj's rise to prominence, his adherence to the precepts of political Islam and his unhappy history with the U.S. he says he was tortured by the CIA is a combination that alarms many Westerners who are unsure about Libya's new masters and about the direction they intend to steer the country. "Just because the revolution is not Islamist doesn't mean the Islamists will not capitalize in post-Gaddafi Libya," says David Schenker, director of Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Belhaj, 45, says the West needn't fear him: he would like to hear an apology for his torture, but he has no intention of taking revenge. And he insists his view of Islam doesn't put him in conflict with the countries that treated him as a terrorist. "Who says that Islam is against the West, and who says Islam is against other religions?" he asks rhetorically as we chat in a plush, brightly lit meeting room in Tripoli's Radisson Hotel. The religions coexisted for hundreds of years and even helped each other, he says.
If that sounds like a too-convenient reading of history, Belhaj points out that long before the West helped to topple the Libyan tyrant, it gave sanctuary to his victims. "When we were oppressed by Gaddafi, we sought refuge in Europe to find safety," he says.
The threat of an Islamist revival, and the prospect of a Libyan revolution hijacked by extremists, seems very real to Western policymakers and analysts rattled by an unpredictable Arab Spring whose protagonists have been at times ardent secularists and at others committed Islamists. For years, Islamist groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), of which Belhaj is a former member, worked underground to challenge Gaddafi's rule. (The LIFG was later dissolved under a government deradicalization program.) In the final months of desert warfare against Gaddafi's forces, some of the rebels' fiercest fighting brigades consisted of men whose passionate faith meant they were not afraid to die. The Islamic expression of faith Allahu akbar (God is great) has become the Libyans' universal cry of rebel solidarity. And the mantra that Gaddafi "doesn't know Islam" is a common motivational rhetoric used by rebel commanders to boost morale on bloody and sometimes hopeless desert front lines.
And yet in the war against Gaddafi, the West and Libya's Islamists found themselves for the first time since the Afghan war against the Soviet Union lining up on the same side. That created an alliance that was in stark contrast to the bitter conflicts between Western and Muslim forces in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan that have marked much of the past decade. "The fact that Gaddafi used [the West] as a common enemy, well, the saying 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend' holds very true here," says Jalal al-Gallal, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council (NTC). As a consequence of NATO support, he adds, "you see that people are really quite friendly."