Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Return of Extremists Ignites Libya

Return of Extremists Libya
Head’s of Tripoli military council Abdelhakim Belhaj speaks during a public debate at the Tripoli University (formerly known as Al-Fateh University) on October 27, 2011. MARCO LONGARI / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

With two governments fighting for power and legitimacy in Tripoli, Libya, the situation has backslid to what it was before the UNSMIL-sponsored Skhirat and Geneva agreements in 2015 and 2021, respectively.

The new scene forebodes risks of a potential civil war, especially after the return of extremist leaders from abroad and the continuous pointless dispute over oil revenues.

Because of the refusal of Abdul Hamid al-Dabaiba, head of the interim Unity Government, to hand over power, Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha’s Government of National Stability, appointed by the Libyan House of Representatives, still has no headquarters in the capital.

Such a conflict is not new to Libya. The same dispute happened years ago before the United Nations announced the Sarraj’s former Government of National Accord. With these conflicts regenerating time and time again, chaos will linger while the international community insists on managing the crisis peacefully instead of solving it.

Whoever controls the Central Bank and oil controls Tripoli. Bashagha, who failed to enter the capital, kept escaping forward, talking about his abstention from using force, which he is incapable of.

Absurdly, the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue held discussions that excluded Bashagha and Dabaiba. At the same time, the leaders of militias and armed formations of western and eastern Libya and representatives of the Presidential Council, the House of Representatives, and the High Council of State attended.

The centre played a significant role in forming the roadmap approved by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) that led to the interim gathering of Menfi’s Presidential Council and Dabaiba’s government.

The House of Representatives and the High Council of State are discussing in Cairo a constitutional basis for the presidential and parliamentary elections that were scheduled for the end of 2021. At the same time, Bashagha has been touring several regional capitals to convince them, in vain, to withdraw their recognition of Dabaiba’s government.

Since Dabaiba’s government refuses to admit armed militias’ dominance and evades the responsibility for their crimes, it was not strange to see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accusing Amnesty International of promoting atheism and homosexuality in Libya. That came as a response to a recent report by the NGO calling for accountability of the government’s Stability Support Apparatus (SSA).

American threats

Biden’s administration has gone back to using its usual threats and intimidation by imposing sanctions on “election obstructionists”.

Although it did not specify any names, the United States vowed to impose these sanctions in cooperation with international partners and regional allies, according to the regional spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Samuel Werberg. “There will be sanctions on those obstructing the Libyan political process and the holding of elections from the United Nations, the United States, its international partners and its allies in the region and outside the region,” Werberg said.

After he outlined his country’s strategy to support the choice of the Libyan people, he considered that “it is time for a unified Libyan government to face all the economic and social challenges that Libya is witnessing.”

On the other hand, there are real worries that Libya may once again host terrorist elements looking to establish their presence. It may be a haven for various terrorist groups from neighbouring countries, which will lead them into a conflict cycle that will be difficult to overcome in the foreseeable future.

Other assessments warn of “the outbreak of a new civil war, with what this means for years away from the elections, in light of the current political division.” These estimates also indicate the emergence of indications of elements of extremist organisations in the south of the country.

Other assessments warn of “a new civil war in light of the current political division that might lead to postponing elections for years.” These assessments also mentioned the emergence of extremist organisations in the country’s south.

In such a situation, it is surprising that the following scene takes place:

Abdul Hakim Belhaj, the former emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), has returned from Qatar on the anniversary of the fall of Tripoli, who was presented as its leader. Shaaban Hadiya, head of the Libya Dawn coalition, who is on the list of personae non gratae in more than 10 countries for being a terrorist, also returned.

Armed men believed to be from the Presidential Guard and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade accompanied Belhaj as he exited Mitiga International Airport, heading to his home in Tripoli.

Belhaj, who currently heads an unpopular political party, was welcomed by his relatives and friends upon arrival at the airport. Under the protection of Ayoub Abou-Ras, the commander of the presidential guard and a leader of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade.

God’s envoy

Belhaj, upon his return, presented himself as the envoy of Divine Providence to save Libya. “We will not allow the war to be repeated, and there must be sanctity for Libyan blood,” Belhaj said. “We are responsible before God, our people, and history not to miss the opportunity for rapprochement,” he added.

Video clips showed him giving a speech in front of dignitaries and sheikhs of southern Libya, from Sidi al-Sayeh, Ain Zara, Tajoura, to Zawiya.

Belhaj claimed that Libya is going through a critical historical stage in which it faces the threats of division and the return of wars.

However, the timing indicates Belhaj’s desire to play a political role in the current crisis between the two competing governments.

In an official statement, Belhaj tried to suggest that he was at the same distance from the Dabaiba and Bashagha’s governments. However, his return with Hadiya indicates, according to informed sources, the possibility of joining the camp of extremists supported by Dabaiba to remain in his position.

The Escape

Belhaj fled Tripoli in 2017. An arrest warrant was issued for his arrest by the public prosecutor in 2019. Belhaj is the leader of the LIFG that rebelled against Colonel Moammar Gaddafi in the 1990’s. He spent time with Islamist militants in Afghanistan but said he was not an ally of the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Although he is a wanted criminal, the sources of the Libyan Public Prosecution Office in Tripoli said that he had permission issued months ago to enter for one time. Therefore, he is not on the watch list.

In an official letter sent by the public prosecutor to the intelligence service and the general investigations, he listed a series of accusations against Belhaj and four other Libyans, in addition to some Chadian opposition leaders. The letter also included communications related to the attack carried out by armed groups on the oil fields and ports, the attack on the Tamanhint base and the intervention in the fighting between some tribes at the time.

The letter was based on reports of incidents related to the murders, kidnappings and war crimes that affected many Libyans in the south by Chadian opposition factions. Moreover, several Libyans were reported for using members of the Sudanese and Chadian opposition in the fighting between the Libyan parties.

United Kingdom apology

Return of Extremists Libya
Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj reads the letter after a press conference on May 10, 2018, after receiving a letter of apology from the UK government, at the British Consulate in Istanbul. Former Libyan Islamist fighter turned politician Abdel Hakim Belhaj said he was grateful to the British government for its “courageous” apology over contributing to his ill treatment in his rendition to Libya. OZAN KOSE / AFP

In an unprecedented move, the United Kingdom apologised to Belhaj in May 2018, pledging to pay him compensation for the “appalling treatment” he suffered after being abducted by the CIA in Thailand in 2004 and handed to the Gaddafi regime following a tip-off from British intelligence.

In a letter to Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Bouchar, former Prime Minister Theresa May said: “On behalf of Her Majesty’s government, I apologise unreservedly.” She admitted that UK actions had contributed to the couple’s capture and suffering.

The House of Commons, in the presence of Bouchar, listened to May’s letter. Belhaj was at the British Consulate General in Istanbul to receive the apology letter. The British ambassador to Turkey, Sir Dominick Chilcott, handed the apology to Belhaj in front of the media.

Belhaj accused the UK government of providing the CIA with information that allowed him to be arrested in Thailand and then handed over to Tripoli. He and his wife were arrested in Bangkok by CIA agents in 2004. The couple was later deported to Tripoli, where he claimed that he was tortured and imprisoned for six months.

Surprisingly, the House of Commons voted in favour of removing the LIFG from the list of terrorist organisations and considering it an organisation that practised armed political opposition against the Gaddafi regime.

Giving up the military uniform

Belhaj wore civilian clothes instead of the camouflaged uniform that he wore when he claimed to be responsible for freeing Tripoli.

Two years ago, Global Watch Analysis warned that the Turkish government worked on Belhaj’s return to Tripoli to be Turkey’s future proconsul in Libya.

Belhaj was involved in transporting Syrian mercenaries from Turkey to Libya. He was also responsible in 2012 and 2013 for transferring terrorists and arms shipments from inside Libya to Syrian territory.

In 2020, Haftar’s National Army accused him of being involved in transporting Turkish weapons and Syrian mercenaries loyal to Ankara to the Libyan west via an airline he owns.

Belhaj, according to his account, had joined the Arab fighters in Afghanistan at the age of 22. He established a group of Libyan fighters there, which returned to Libya by the end of the war. This group carried out a failed attempt to assassinate Gaddafi in 1994, after which Belhaj fled to Sudan, where he met with Osama bin Laden and allied himself with Al-Qaeda.

In 2009, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the former president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, mediated for his release.

Splendid fortune

During the intellectual revisions of extremists in Libya that allowed him to get out of prison, Belhaj, in the presence of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, denied the jihadist ideology and affirmed his rejection of violence. But immediately after the outbreak of the 2011 uprising, he took up arms and headed the Feb. 17, Martyrs Brigade and declared himself the leader of the Tripoli Military Council.

In 2012, Belhaj appeared on the list of the wealthiest Libyans in the post-Gaddafi era. His fortune is estimated at more than 2 billion dollars, which came through the theft of public funds of cash and gold. In 2013, Belhaj founded his own airline, Libyan Wings, after which he monopolised flights in Tripoli.

After a British parliamentary report revealed his involvement in smuggling migrants in 2018, the Libyan judicial system issued a warrant against him for “committing war crimes and attacking Libyan facilities.”

There is no doubt about the importance and danger of Qatar’s role in supporting him and his transformation from terrorist to political action.

Denying that he entered the capital in an ambulance, Al-Jazeera presented him in 2011 as the one who liberated Tripoli as the leader of its military council after the revolutionaries managed to enter Gaddafi’s headquarters in Bab al-Aziziya.

Months before that, Belhaj was on television praising Gaddafi, “the leader of the revolution,” as he described him, and his son, Saif al-Islam. He said he was grateful to them for getting him out of prison, which he repeated many times in several other interviews.

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