Libya rebel commander plays down Islamist past

September 2, 2011 - 1:40 PM
Mideast Libya

Libyan rebels' Tripoli military commander Abdel Hakim Belhaj, center, uses his cell phone after an interview with the Associated Press inTripoli, Libya, in this Wednesday Aug. 31, 2011 file photo. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of an Islamic militant group that sent fighters to Iraq and Afghanistan, insisted Friday that the new Libya will shun extremism and won't become a breeding ground for terrorism. Belhaj, said he was detained in 2004 in Malaysia and sent to a secret prison in Thailand where he claimed he was tortured by CIA agents. Then he was sent to Libya and jailed for seven years by Moammar Gadhafi's regime. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — The rebels' military commander in Tripoli once led an Islamic militant group and claims he was tortured by CIA agents at a secret prison seven years ago, but said Friday that he holds no grudges against the West and shares its desire for a new Libyan government free of religious extremism.

"We never have and never will support what they call terrorism," Abdel Hakim Belhaj told The Associated Press.

Belhaj was a leader in the now dissolved Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which sent fighters to Iraq and Afghanistan and was deemed a terror group by the U.S. He said he was detained in 2004 in Malaysia and sent to a secret prison in Thailand where CIA agents tortured him. Then he was sent to Libya and sentenced to death by Moammar Gadhafi's regime before being pardoned last year.

Belhaj, 45, quickly joined the rebellion that broke out against Gadhafi in mid-February and led a brigade of trained fighters in a march to the capital from the western mountains. Now he's a prominent figure in the Libyan opposition movement, seeking to allay concerns about his past.

In an interview at his headquarters at the sprawling military airport in central Tripoli, Belhaj played down his Islamist ties. He said he refused to join al-Qaida because he disagreed with its ideology of global jihad, or holy war, and wanted to focus on ridding Libya of Gadhafi.

He lauded the West for supporting the rebels through NATO airstrikes and diplomatic efforts. "The U.N. Security Council and the whole world stood by us in the cause and have helped us to get rid of Gadhafi," he said.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, known as LIFG, is not a monolithic entity, explained one U.S. official familiar with the group. Some branches have had connections with al-Qaida in Sudan, Afghanistan or Pakistan, but others dropped any relationship with al-Qaida entirely.

Belhaj leads a faction that disavowed al-Qaida and declared its commitment to establishing a democracy in Libya, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.

But U.S. officials are "watching to see whether or not this is for real, or just for show," the official said.

Belhaj joined other Arabs in fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He returned to Libya in the 1990s to join the rest of the Islamic Fighting Group in fierce confrontations with Gadhafi's regime. When he fled Libya in the mid-1990s, he moved from one country to the other until he fell in the hands of the CIA.

He said agents blindfolded him, hung him from the wall and beat him on his back in Thailand. But he insisted he holds no grudges.

"Revenge doesn't motivate me personally," he said.

The Libya government freed Belhaj and 33 other members of the Islamic Fighting Group in March 2010. He agreed to renounce violence as part of an initiative by Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, who at the time was considered a reformist voice in the regime.

Gadhafi, in courting the West in recent years, has insisted al-Qaida would gain influence in Libya unless he remained in power.

Belhaj dismissed those concerns.

"Libya is a moderate Muslim country," he said. "We call and hope for a civil country that is ruled by the law, which we were not allowed to enjoy under Gadhafi. The religious identity of the country will be left up to the people to choose."

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Michael was reporting in Cairo. AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier contributed from Washington.