There’s something real familiar about Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, the Libyan commander famous for taking Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli; I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe what the AP reported will jog my memory:
“Abdel-Hakim Belhaj is an emerging hero of the Libyan uprising, the man who led the Tripoli Brigade that swept into the capital and captured the fortified compound that was Moammar Gadhafi’s seat of power. He’s also the former leader of an Islamic militant group who says he was tortured by CIA agents at a secret prison.
Belhaj, the rebels’ commander in Tripoli, said Friday that the U.S. wrongly lumped him in with terrorists after Sept. 11, but that he holds no grudge. He said he shares the West’s goal of a free Libya.”
No, still can’t put my finger on it. He did share the West’s goal of a liberated (Soviet-free) Afghanistan back in the day:
Belhaj was a civil engineering student and Gadhafi opponent when he fled Libya and went to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. He later joined the U.S.-backed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, fighting alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaida.
The BBC described the circumstances of his rendition by the CIA and Britain’s MI6:
After the 11 September attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he and most of the LIFG leaders fled that country as well, only for Mr Belhaj to be arrested in 2004 in Thailand by the CIA and then handed over to Col Gaddafi’s government.
Wait a minute, that’s it! That’s what was so familiar about Belhaj’s words- opportunism, the hallmark of Islamism as much as suicide bombs, sectarianism or theocracy. Belhaj has the typical background of a high-profile Islamist – the revolving door identity of “freedom fighter” and “terrorist,” depending on whether the West benefits from the actions of said fill-in-the-blank “freedom fighter.” Since the actions of Belhaj and his allies are in harmony with Western interests in overthrowing Gadhafi, we can see which way this door has revolved at the moment – at least for now.
The Libyan Islamist’s opportunism isn’t unusual for fellow travelers. There is a whole history of Islamist collaboration with their enemies to take out their other enemies – a process summed up by the saying,”the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In fact, his opportunism is bound up with his personal history in Afghanistan, where thousands of Jihadist Muslims went to fight the Soviet occupation for a resistance movement paid for with American and Saudi money – the ostensible enemies of Islam. Among those who fought alongside Afghans against the Russians were Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden, among others.
There are other examples, too. One of the most important – and most undiscussed – is the collaboration between Hamas and Israel.
Don’t adjust your computer screen or rub your eyes. You read it right – Hamas and Israel. As Israeli writer Uri Avnery wrote during the Israeli assault on Gaza two years ago:
“Liquidate Hamas rule? That sounds like a chapter out of ‘The March of Folly’. After all, it is no secret that it was the Israeli government which set up Hamas to start with. When I once asked a former Shin-Bet chief, Yaakov Peri, about it, he answered enigmatically: ‘We did not create it, but we did not hinder its creation.’
For years, the occupation authorities favored the Islamic movement in the occupied territories. All other political activities were rigorously suppressed, but their activities in the mosques were permitted. The calculation was simple and naive: at the time, the PLO was considered the main enemy, Yasser Arafat was the current Satan. The Islamic movement was preaching against the PLO and Arafat, and was therefore viewed as an ally.
With the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, the Islamic movement officially renamed itself Hamas (Arabic initials of ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’) and joined the fight. Even then, the Shin-Bet took no action against them for almost a year, while Fatah members were executed or imprisoned in large numbers. Only after a year, were Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his colleagues also arrested.”
While this fact is unknown due to historical amnesia of the media outside of Israel, it’s pretty well-known inside the Jewish state to the point that it’s treated not as a shocking expose, but as an established and oft-repeated fact, as this piece in Ha’aretz about the assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin demonstrated:
Many blame Israel for Yassin’s emergence as a political leader. In the early 1980s, he was identified as a religious leader seemingly uninterested in politics, and regarded by the military occupation in Gaza as an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was so preferred by the military that the army sent him to Tel Hashomer for treatment for his paralysis, from which he had suffered since childhood, apparently the result of an accident while playing some sport in his youth.”
Not to be outdone, Turkey – which has been ruled by an Islamist party since 2002 – once utilized the Islamist counterweight while battling Kurdish separatists. A Kurdish fundamentalist group called Hezbollah (no relation to the Lebanese group) fought the communist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) with help from Ankara, which was engaged in the same battle. During a trial of military officers last January, one former colonel in the Turkish army confessed his role in creating Hezbollah:
“A retired Turkish army officer told an Istanbul court that he created the Turkish militant Islamic group Hezbollah as a supplementary force to fight and kill Kurdish separatists, Star newspaper reported.
Colonel Arif Dogan said he set up the group to fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Marxist Kurdish group that has been fighting the military since 1984 to carve out an independent state in southeast Turkey, Star said. Dogan said the organization he formed was originally called Hizbulkontra and that Huseyin Velioglu, who died in a police shootout in Istanbul in 2000, was made its leader, Star said.”
Just like Afghanistan and Palestine, Kurdish fundamentalists were willing to temporarily work with their far enemy in order to extinguish their closer one – a recurring pattern, the latest of which is Belhaj. Opportunism goes both ways; it should be remembered that Gadhafi – once reviled for his use of terrorism – became “rehabilitated” because he opened his country to foreign investment, surrendered his WMD stockpiles and became a destination for rendered suspects like Belhaj. His actions led to closer relations with both the Bush and Obama administrations. It’s reminiscent of the courting of Saddam Hussein – when he did what we wanted – and overthrew him when he didn’t follow orders anymore.
Despite all this, it should never be forgotten that the “colonel” was a tyrant, that Wikileaks revealed that Gadhafi continued to support sectarian, anti-Indian terrorist groups and that he was, well, for lack of a better word – a weirdo. At the same time, the Libyan leadership still harbored suspicions of the West, suspicions that may have been well-founded. But that’s all in the past now; the future isn’t “in the hands of its people” as Obama said, but in the hands of Islamists like Belhaj who will go back on his word as a “moderate” and attempt to impose theocracy in a soon to be civil war-ridden wasteland, much like Iraq after the 2003 occupation.