Are Libya's Islamists scary?

Reminders that the Bush administration collaborated with Libya's Qaddafi regime on the detention and interrogation of Islamists makes some afraid. They shouldn't be.

By , Staff writer

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    Abdel Hakim Belhadj, Libyan rebels' representatives, arrives for a meeting of chiefs of staff of countries militarily involved in Libya, in Doha in this Aug. 29 photo. Belhadj, is a senior Islamist rebel in charge of controlling Tripoli since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
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Abdel Hakim Belhadj is the man Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) has put in charge of military affairs in Tripoli, the capital. He's one of the few rebel leaders with a military background untainted by service to Qaddafi, and his anti-regime credentials are impeccable: He led a failed insurgency against Qaddafi, the man blamed for ordering the Lockerbie bombing and other terrorist attacks on US interests abroad, in the 1990s.

But his background has some worried about the future of the new Libya. A former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, he was one of a few dozen Islamist fighters who fled Qaddafi's regime for Afghanistan in the late 1990s, and who were picked up with US and British assistance around the globe after the 9/11 attacks and "rendered" into Libya custody for interrogation, some of which involved torture. Mr. Belhadj was shipped to Qaddafi's Libya by the CIA from Malaysia, via Bangkok, in 2004.

Mr. Belhadj (also know as Abdullah al-Sadiq) says he was tortured while in US custody in Bangkok and spent six years in prison, at least part of that time in solitary confinement in Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim prison. That the CIA sent him and other ex-LIFG fighters like Abdel Hakim Hasadi to Libya for interrogation is taken as evidence by some that they are and were a threat to the US.

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But is there any evidence of this?

While Libyan Islamists found haven in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and some linked up with Al Qaeda – senior Al Qaeda planner Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, killed by the US in Pakistan last month, was ex-LIFG – most fled Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 attacks, wanting nothing to do with the fight Al Qaeda had picked with the US. The group's leaders in exile in Afghanistan also took issue with what they say was Al Qaeda's high-handed treatment of the Afghan Taliban by the Arab fighters. If the US had evidence that men like Belhadj had participated in attacks on US interests, it hasn't shared it, and probably wouldn't have sent them to Libya if they had had any such evidence.

The Libyan group officials say they felt it was in Afghanistan to build its strength to a point where it could finally go home and change the country. Al Qaeda's grandiose and utopian desire for a global caliphate didn't appeal to them, as they were largely focused on the struggle against Qaddafi and a desire to bring religious law to Libya. Nor did Al Qaeda's excesses in murdering civilians resonate with the Libyans. In reading about the group's history, leaders like Belhadj come across as practical in their focus on matters at home.

Does this mean they're all sweetness and light? No. Belhadj and many others like them would clearly like Islam to be a central focus in the new Libya. He is reported to have argued for Islam to be described as "the" source of legislation in a draft constitution written by the NTC, though he lost out to others who wanted the more typical phrasing for Arab countries of "a source of legislation."

Is Islam going to play a greater role in Libya's politics than it did under Qaddafi? Almost certainly, if Libya's people are allowed a voice in choosing their own laws and leaders. As in Egypt, Islam is the most powerful cultural force in society, and Islamist groups, peaceful and otherwise, were viciously suppressed by Qaddafi.

That may be disconcerting to some in the West. But the alternative to these sentiments being politically expressed is dictatorship, which was what led to the creation of violent Islamist groups like the LIFG in the first place.

Mr. Hasadi, ex-LIFG and a rebel commander in the eastern city of Derna, told me in March that 9/11 was a "tragedy" and that "we completely reject attacks on civilians." He did, however, support attacks on US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that amounted to legitimate resistance against occupying forces.

“It feels a little funny,” he said then, recounting the dissonant moment when he realized NATO was fighting on his side. “We all saw the [French] planes on Al Jazeera when they started [bombing Qaddafi’s positions]. We were cheering them. We really have to thank [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and Obama.”

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