Were the United States, France, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — the NATO-led coalition that set out to overthrow Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime — snookered by al-Qaida? A preposterous scenario with some disturbing factual elements.

In the early 1990s, when James Woolsey was the director of the CIA, Gadhafi appealed to his U.S. interlocutors for assistance against “Islamist extremists” in the Benghazi region.

Today, Woolsey is one of the leaders of a campaign to expose a clandestine Islamist plot to bring Shariah law to America, which he describes as more threatening than Communist subversion during the Cold War.


The investigative reporter behind uncovering the gigantic Libyan con is Brazilian-born Emilio (Pepe) Escobar, a reporter for the online Asia Times. From North Africa to the Middle East to Pakistan, he is well known for breaking stories in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

In a piece Escobar wrote for The Maldon Institute, a private investigative organization that publishes “information on matters ignored or misrepresented by the media,” he says “the story of how an al-Qaida asset turned out to be the top Libyan military commander in still war-torn Tripoli is bound to shatter — once again — that wilderness of mirrors that is the ‘war on terror,’ as well as deeply compromising the carefully constructed propaganda of NATO’s ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Libya.”

His name, says Escobar, is Abdelhakim Belhaj. Few in the West and across the world have ever heard of him. Gadhafi’s fortress of Bab-al-Aziziyah, originally his army headquarters when he seized power in 1969, was “essentially invaded and conquered 10 days ago by Belhaj’s men — who were “at the forefront of a militia of Berbers from the mountains southwest of Tripoli.”

The militia, this account says, is the so-called Tripoli Brigade, secretly trained for two months by U.S. Special Forces. This turned out to be the rebels’ most effective militia in six months of tribal/civil war.

Abdelhakim Belhaj, also known as Abu Abdullah al-Sadek, is a Libyan jihadi, Escobar’s account claims. Born in May 1966, he honed his skills with the mujahedin in the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

Belhaj is the founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and its de facto emir — with Khaled Chrif and Sami Saadi as his deputies. After the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, the LIFG kept two training camps in Afghanistan, one of them, 19 miles north of Kabul — run by Abu Yahya (a high-ranking member of al-Qaida) — was “strictly for al-Qaida-linked jihadis.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Belhaj, still according to this account, moved to Pakistan and then to Iraq, where he befriended Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — all this before al-Qaida in Iraq pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The LIFG, writes Escobar, has been on the CIA’s radar since 9/11. And in 2003, Belhaj was arrested in Malaysia and transferred, rendition-style, to a secret Bangkok prison and tortured.

In 2004, according to the same account, U.S. intelligence decided to send him “as a gift to Libyan intelligence — until he was freed by the Gadhafi regime in March 2010, along with “211 terrorists, in a public relations coup advertised with great fanfare.”

“The orchestrator was no less than Saif Islam al-Gadhafi — the modernizing/London School of Economics face of the regime,” says Escobar. LIFG’s leaders — Belhaj and his deputies Chrif and Saadi — issued a 417-page confession dubbed ‘corrective studies’ in which they declared the jihad against Gadhafi over (and illegal), before they were finally set free.”

In 2007, Zawahiri (bin Laden’s deputy) officially announced the merger of LIFG and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. “So, for all practical purposes since then,” says this version of events, “LIFG/AQIM have been one and the same — and Belhaj was/is its emir.”

Before year’s end in 2007, LIFG was calling for jihad against Gadhafi and also against the United States and Western “infidels.”

Every intelligence agency in the United States, Europe and the Arab world knows where Belhaj is coming from,” writes Escobar. Belhaj has made sure in Libya that he and his militia will only settle for Shariah law.

The assassination of rebel military commander Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis — by the rebels themselves — seems to point to Belhaj “or at least people very close to him.”

Younis, before he defected from the regime, was in charge of Libya’s Special Forces as they battled the LIFG in Cyrenaica near Benghazi between 1990 and 1995. It was in 1993 that Gadhafi asked this reporter to tell the CIA director that he wanted to work with the United States against Islamist extremists in Cyrenaica.

Escobar reports that all the top military commanders working with NATO are LIFG, from Belhaj in Tripoli to Ismael as-Salabi in Benghazi and Abdelhakim al-Assadi in Derna. The key asset sitting at the core of the pro-NATO Transitional National Council is, according to this source, Ali Salabi. It was Salabi who negotiated with Gadhafi’s son Saif the “end” of LIFG’s jihad, “thus assuring the bright future of these born-again ‘freedom fighters.'”

Escobar concludes that “it does not require a crystal ball to picture the consequences of LIFG/AQIM — having conquered military power and being among the war ‘winners’ — not remotely interested in relinquishing control just to please NATO. Meanwhile, amid the fog of war, it is unclear whether Gadhafi is planning to trap the Tripoli brigade in urban warfare or to force the bulk of rebel militias to enter the huge Warfalla tribal areas.”

Gadhafi’s favorite wife belongs to the Warfalla, Libya’s largest tribe, with up to one million people and 54 sub-tribes.

“The inside word in Brussels,” writes Escobar, “is that NATO expects Gadhafi to fight for months, if not years; thus the bounty on his head and the desperate return to NATO’s plan A, which was always to take him out.”

Libya, according to this prediction, may now be facing the specter of a twin-headed guerrilla Hydra; Gadhafi forces against a weak TNC central government and NATO boots on the ground; and the LIFG/AQIM nebula in a jihad against NATO.”

A harum-scarum scenario of NATO snookered by al-Qaida affiliates that can only please China.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI and the Washington Times. This column was syndicated by UPI.