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Meet Abdul Belhaj, the Al Qaeda-Connected Sharia Supporter Who Could Be Libya's Next Strongman

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"...undoubtedly one of the most popular leaders in a country where a constitution appears to be on its way in which 'Sharia law' will provide the principal source of legislation..."

Abdul Belhaj

Muammar Gaddafi may be gone for good, but Libya might be about to go straight out of the frying pan and into the fire. Reports from Libya suggest that the interim military leader of Tripoli, Abdul Belhaj, may be laying down his arms to form a new political party. Given Libya's problematic relationship with military leaders-turned-politicians, this alone should give readers pause, especially since the last military leader to do so was Gaddafi himself.

Unfortunately, the bigger concern with Belhadj isn't whether he'll be Gaddafi 2.0. It's whether he'll be worse than Gaddafi ever was. Some details from a report hosted by the website AnsaMed should give every American reason to worry about this man who could be Libya's next dictator:

Born in the Libyan capital in 1966 and with a degree in Engineering, Belhaj moved on to fighting at the side of the Afghan Mujahidin at the time of the Soviet invasion. On his return to his country, he set up an anti-Gaddafi Islamic group and then returned once again to Afghanistan, this time fighting under the Taleban. In 2002 the Gaddafi regime issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of having ''close ties'' with Al Qaeda and with Mullah Omar. Two years later he was captured in Thailand with the collaboration of the CIA and MI6 and sent back to the Gaddafi regime, following a period spent in Guantanamo, as one of the many subjects of 'rendition' much used by US intelligence.[...]

Belhaj defines himself as a ''normal citizen who fights for a shared cause,'' but he is undoubtedly one of the most popular leaders in a country where a constitution appears to be on its way in which 'Sharia law' will provide the principal source of legislation, as many members of the NTC expected. And he could indeed become the ''strong man'' that the polls say the Libyans are waiting for to take over in the post-Gaddafi order.

Now, to give Belhaj his due, he has indicated that the United States' aid during the conflict with Gaddafi has made him see himself as an ally of the United States and NATO, according to this report from Middle East Monitor. However, these varieties of diplomatic overtures are dubiously meaningful. According to the AnsaMed report, the only country that Belhaj is suspected to have deep-seated ties to is Qatar, a country which was revealed in leaked diplomatic cables from 2010 to be considered the "worst" on counterterrorism. Not exactly an inspiring connection.

More to the point, it's public knowledge that the CIA once handed Belhaj over to Qaddafi as part of the extraordinary rendition program - an act which would almost certainly check whatever positive feelings Belhaj has toward the United States. Moreover, his connections to Al Qaeda, as well as his ideological friendliness to Islamism, will arguably be far more helpful in governing Libya on a day-to-day basis than any good will toward the United States, suggesting that Belhaj's associations will necessarily transform him into a functionally anti-American dictator in the event that he takes power.

There is good news, though - Belhaj has missed the deadline to create his new political party, which means the United States will be given a bit of extra time to act to insure that a strongman like Belhaj can be either prevented from taking power, or at bare minimum, more easily controlled.

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