- By Omar Ashour
Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the commander of Tripoli’s Military Council who spearheaded the attack on Muammar al-Qaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Aziziya, is raising red flags in the West. Belhaj, whom I met and interviewed in March 2010 in Tripoli along with Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, is better known in the jihadi world as "Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq." He is the former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a jihad organization with historical links to al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Egyptian al-Jihad organization. Does his prominent role mean that jihadists are set to exploit the fall of Qaddafi’s regime?
Established in 1990 and officially dismantled in 2010, the LIFG was modeled along the lines of the Egyptian al-Jihad: secretive, elitist, and exclusively paramilitary. The group led a three-year, low-level insurgency mainly based in eastern Libya and tried three times to assassinate Qaddafi in 1995 and 1996. By 1998, the LIFG was crushed in Libya. Most of its leaders and members fled and joined forces with the Taliban in Afghanistan. They even gave a religious oath of loyalty (bay’a) to Mullah Omar. After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, Belhaj and most of the LIFG leaders fled that country as well, only to be arrested in 2004 by the CIA and then handed over to Qaddafi’s regime, following interrogations in Thailand and Hong Kong.
In 2010, Saif al-Islam was trying to apply the Egyptian model of "deradicalization" on the LIFG and then sell it to the West. Like the Egyptian Islamic group, six of the LIFG leaders authored a 416-page document delegitimating armed opposition to Qaddafi’s regime and other rulers by theological and ideological argumentations, regardless of their standards of oppression. The book, which was titled, Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Enforcement of Morality, and Judgment of People, was paraded, along with its authors, by Saif al-Islam in front of Western diplomats and experts. Al-Tuhami Khaled, who was at the time the head of Libya’s Internal Security, publicly described the whole process as "heretics repenting."
I met with Belhaj in one of these so-called "reconciliation" conferences. When I asked him about the status of the LIFG, he replied that it had been dismantled. When I asked about the future, he was not sure. He had been released less than two hours before from the notorious Abu Salim prison, where many of his followers chanted earlier to journalists’ cameras, "Teach us our leader; teach us how to build our futures." And by "our leader" they meant Qaddafi, not Belhaj.
"The tyrant fled, and we will be after him," said a victorious Belhaj to the media following the storming of Bab al-Aziziya. But neither arrogance nor vengeance dominated his tone. He repeatedly called for enhancing security, protecting property, ending vendettas, and building a new Libya. The moderate tone was generally consistent with what most of the LIFG leaders have stated in the last six months, whether in eastern or western Libya. The experiences of the LIFG leaders in armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, and Algeria have forced them to mature politically, recalculate strategically, moderate behaviorally, modify their ideological beliefs, and change the title of the organization to the "Islamic Movement for Change."
However, enforcing the moderate behavior and rhetoric of the less-experienced followers in the newly open Libyan environment will be a challenge for the leadership. In 2010, both Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, the principal ideologue of the LIFG, complained to me about younger members and other jihadists challenging their authority. This occurred within repressive prison conditions that were supported by the pressures and the inducements of Qaddafi’s Internal Security. In the current and drastically different lawless war zone that has placed small and midsize arms in the hands of virtually everyone, the conditions change significantly, and so do the loyalties and the hierarchies.
The other challenge for the LIFG is transforming from a militia to a political party. A former member of the group relayed his concerns stating, "They don’t have the experience. They were trained as fighters and theologians, not politicians. So when it comes to democracy, constitution, and elections, they’ve got nothing to say."
In the aftermath of Qaddafi, interactions between the National Transitional Council (NTC) and armed Islamist organizations can take three trajectories: reintegration, inclusion, or clash. The experience of South Africa and reintegration of the African National Congress (ANC) fighters comes to mind as a relatively successful case, providing some useful lessons. Reintegration in the military and security apparatuses will depend on their actual size and contributions, and of course, on the political will and calculations of the NTC. This path would not only be problematic for the NTC’s Western partners, but also for the security and intelligence personnel, who will have to deal with the former "terrorists" as colleagues.
The second trajectory is political inclusion. This will also face some hurdles. Among those is the willingness of the mid-rank and the grassroots to participate in a democratic political process after being indoctrinated for decades with the idea that democracy is inherently anti-Islamic. But signs of successful jihadist transformation come from neighboring Egypt. The Islamic Group, a much larger armed Islamist organization whose leaders authored a big section of the anti-democratic literature, successfully dismantled its armed wing and finally formed a politically party (the Construction and Development). This can be a model to follow for Libyan armed Islamist militias, if their leadership so chooses.
The third scenario is probably the worst for Libya — the clash. A civil war, even a mini one, to oust Islamists would be as disastrous for Libyans and their neighbors as was the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. Unfortunately this scenario is not unlikely. A detailed study on resistance to authoritarianism by Columbia University has shown that the probability of a country relapsing into civil war following a successful anti-dictatorship armed campaign is 43 percent. The study arrives at this figure after surveying 323 cases of armed and unarmed opposition campaigns between 1900 and 2006. Most of the lucky countries that escaped that civil war fate went through a successful disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process and, in parallel, a serious attempt at democratization. Both processes will be critical in determining the future of Libya and its Islamists in the aftermath of Qaddafi.
The NTC with the support of NATO has a good chance of avoiding an Iraq-like or an Algeria-like scenario in Libya. The pillars of their policies toward the multiple armed Islamist groups following the end of the conflict should be rapid disarmament and political inclusiveness. The disarmament process should be rewarding, and a wide variety of benefits and selective inducements could be proffered in return. In the event that mediation is necessary, interactions between credible scholars and independent sheiks, and the heads of the armed groups should be facilitated by the NTC to provide legitimacy for its policies. In all cases, the NTC is likely to meet resistance, and its objectives should then be focused on minimizing and delegitimizing that resistance.
Omar Ashour is the director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, and a visiting fellow in the Brookings Doha Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.