Q&A: Top NTC commander Abdel Hakim Belhadj

Former prisoner of Gaddafi, arrested by the CIA in 2004, is now one of the most powerful men in the new Libya.

Abdel Hakim Belhadj
Abdul Hakim Belhadj was taken from Thailand to Tripoli where he was tortured by Gaddafi’s agents [Al Jazeera]

Tripoli, Libya – Sitting in a lavish apartment in the wing of a 5-star Tripoli hotel once inhabited by Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif, Abdel Hakim Belhadj looked a bit out of place in his drab, beige and brown military fatigues.

These again, incongruities of this sort are becoming common for the 45-year-old revolutionary who emerged from the darkest of Gaddafi’s torture chambers to become the leader of Tripoli’s Military Council, and, by some accounts, the most powerful man in the new Libya.

And sharp swings of fate are hardly new for Belhadj, a war-hardened fighter who was born in Tripoli’s Souq al-Jumaa district and studied engineering at al-Fateh University.

In the 1980s, he fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets and later returned to Libya to form the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which fought a guerrilla war in Libya’s hinterlands for three years and allegedly tried to assassinate Gaddafi three times in the mid-1990s.

To escape Gaddafi’s wrath, he led a life on the run, spending time in Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran before returning to Afghanistan. According to an arrest warrant issued in 2002, Belhadj forged close ties with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Escaping his base in Jalalabad when the US moved into Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, he was eventually arrested with his wife by the CIA in Bangkok in 2004. He was then extradited to Libya, where he was imprisoned and tortured in the notorious Abu Salim prison for seven years.

Released in 2010, as part of a plan championed by the same Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Belhadj eventually became the top rebel commander in Libya and was largely credited for masterminding the fall of Tripoli on August 23.

Belhadj spoke to Al Jazeera’s David Poort about torture, tragedy and what he plans to say to Muammar Gaddafi.

David Poort: What happened to you after your arrest in 2004?

Belhadj: When I was arrested I was first subjected to barbaric treatment at the hands of CIA agents at Bangkok airport. The same treatment was given to my wife, who was pregnant at the time. Later, in Libya, I was subjected to many types of physical and mental torture. [Appears uncomfortable] Let’s not get into the details.

DP: Colonel Ahmed Bani said there is a “human tragedy” unfolding in Bani Walid. What is your assessment?

Belhadj: We have sent additional weapons and troops to Bani Walid, answering calls from our fighters at the frontline. Our commanders there said they had a shortage of equipment and weapons, so over the past days we have been trying to accommodate their requests.

We’ve also sent more ambulances and other aid vehicles. Hopefully, this will have a positive effect on the situation so that Bani Walid may be liberated soon.

DP: What is the latest from Sirte?

Belhadj: The same goes for the situation in Sirte. People from there are witnessing a very fierce conflict and they are paying a heavy price. Casualty numbers are very high. Even so, the situation in Sirte is better than it is in Bani Walid.

DP: Do you know the location of Gaddafi and his sons?

Belhadj: We are receiving conflicting reports on this. But the heavy resistance from the remaining Gaddafi troops confirms to me that they are among them. We know there are still a lot of loyalist fighters active in Bani Walid. If we find Gaddafi or his family members we will treat them fairly and give them a fair trial. We will protect their human rights, because that is what this revolution is all about; that is what we have risen up for.

DP: Are your troops disciplined enough not to shoot Gaddafi on sight?

Belhadj: [Joking: I hope they do] This revolution has set high standards regarding the justice system. All accused will be subjected to the same laws, regardless of their status or the crimes they committed.

I trust my troops to do the right thing, but also I trust that Gaddafi won’t surrender easily. Our troops will deal with him according to military standards, as a soldier. However, we believe that he will not let himself be arrested. I think he would rather kill himself.

DP: What would you say to Gaddafi if they catch him alive?

Belhadj: I would only ask him: “Did you ever expect yourself to be in this position?” [Smiles]

DP: There are still neighbourhoods in Tripoli known to be largely loyal to Gaddafi. Are you worried about this?

Belhadj: Tripoli has been liberated and we have now moved to the second phase, which is securing all neighbourhoods of the capital. This is important because we need people to return to their normal life, to go back to work, and children to go back to school.

DP: Western countries have voiced concern about Islamist elements within the revolutionary forces.

We do not know how long this battle will continue but I don’t think this will be over by the end of this month.”

Abdel Hakim Belhadj

Belhadj: Regarding the Islamist elements among the revolutionaries, I can only say that Libya is an Islamic country and that all our traditions and behaviour is built on Islam. Libyans are generally moderate Muslims, with moderate ways of practice and understandings of religion.

You can find some extreme elements that are different from the mainstream, but this does not in any way represent the majority of the Libyan people. I would like to remind you again that the Islamic elements in the revolution are not considered to be a danger to our country or to our neighbours.

DP: What about your own alleged ties with al-Qaeda?

Regarding what people say about ties with al-Qaeda: We have never been in a relationship with them or joined them in any kind of activity, because we could never come to an understanding of [philosophies].

Even the Western intelligence agencies have found no connection between the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and al-Qaeda. The confusion stems from us being active at the same time and place as them. We never sympathised with them or supported their activities. We were against their ideas and actions.

DP: What will be your role in the new Libya when the fighting is over?

Belhadj: I’ll be what the Libyan people will ask me to be. My future role is still to be decided upon in the coming period. I don’t care whether my role will be political or military. [Joking: Maybe I could become a journalist.] At this time, we are still fighting a war for liberty that was forced upon us by the previous government. We did not choose to wear this uniform and carry these weapons.

Our main challenge is to build our dream, a civilised country where every civilian can get all of his civil rights. To achieve this, we need all Libyan people to participate. We do not know how long this battle will continue but I don’t think this will be over by the end of this month.

Follow David Poort on Twitter: @DavidPoort

Source: Al Jazeera