Qatar’s support for a former jihadist leader who is now the top rebel commander in Tripoli, Libya, is causing unease among Libyan rebels who worry that the revolution that ended Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s four-decade rule is being hijacked by Islamists.
Rebel sources say that Qatar has provided shipments of weapons to Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the rebels’ top military commander in Tripoli. He founded the now-disbanded Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which was listed as a foreign terrorist group by the State Department.
Multiple rebel sources who spoke to The Washington Times on background said containers packed with weapons have been delivered to Mr. Belhaj in recent weeks. Some of these shipments have originated in Qatar.
Earlier this month, rebels from the western city of Zintan intercepted a container that on inspection was found to be packed with weapons. Mr. Belhaj’s supporters earlier had insisted it contained food and milk.
“We are very sorry the Qataris have taken the decision to support Belhaj’s brigade. This will backfire on our Qatari friends,” said Mohamed Benrasali, a rebel official in Tripoli.
“It is because of [Belhaj’s] background that everyone is suspicious,” he added.
The Qatari Embassy in Washington did not respond to calls or email requesting comment.
In 2004, Mr. Belhaj was thought to have links to al Qaeda and was arrested by the CIA in Thailand. He was handed over to the Gadhafi regime for interrogation and held in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison, where he says he was tortured.
Mr. Belhaj denies that his group had ties to al Qaeda.
But Mr. Belhaj’s past is a worry for Mazigh Buzakhar, a Tripoli-based activist who is struggling to win recognition for the minority Amazigh community in Libya’s new constitution.
“Instead of legitimizing Mr. Belhaj, Qatar should deal directly with the NTC [National Transitional Council],” he said.
Not everyone is worried about Qatar’s actions.
Shahrazad Kablan, who helped set up Libyan TV in Qatar, said she doesn’t think Qatari support for Mr. Belhaj will lead to the kingdom putting all its support behind the Islamists.
“Qatar does not share that ideology,” she said.
Meanwhile, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Marco Rubio of Florida met Thursday with rebel leaders in Tripoli — the highest-profile U.S. delegation to visit Libya since the overthrow of Col. Gadhafi.
Also Thursday, the rebels moved closer to bringing all of Libya under their control by capturing the airport in Sirte, Col. Gadhafi’s birthplace and his tribal stronghold.
And the international police agency Interpol issued a “red notice” for another of Col. Gadhafi’s sons, Saadi Gadhafi, who is living in Niger, where he fled this month.
Nigerien Prime Minister Brigi Rafini said Mr. Gadhafi would not be extradited.
Col. Gadhafi’s whereabouts are unknown.
Qatar was among the first countries to recognize the rebels’ council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
Early in the uprising, which began in February, it helped the rebels sell oil, and its air force participated in enforcing a U.N. no-fly zone over Libya.
Qatari flags fly in Libyan cities as a sign of appreciation for its support.
However, this support from an absolute monarchy for a democratic uprising has raised some eyebrows.
“There is still an enormous amount of gratitude toward Qatar,” said Nizar Mhani, a Britain-based doctor who spent seven months in Libya, where he co-founded the Free Generation Movement in support of the rebels. “Questions are cropping up: Why was Qatar so extraordinarily helpful?”
A Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it is obvious that Qatar is jockeying for a bigger role in the region.
“They are trying to announce themselves on the world stage,” he said.
Qatar’s actions, in part, have been influenced by Sheik Ali Salabi, a prominent Libyan Islamic scholar who lives in the Qatari capital, Doha. He frequently travels to Libya and has delivered personally some of the Qatari aid to fighters on the front lines.
Mr. Salabi has close ties to Mr. Belhaj. The sheik’s brother, Ismail, is the commander of a powerful rebel brigade in eastern Libya.
The Salabi brothers have been critical of some of the rebel leaders. Ali Salabi described them as “radical secularists” backed by the West. He has been especially critical of acting prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, and has warned that the NTC is leading Libya into a “new era of tyranny” that would be worse than that of the Gadhafi regime.
Writing in London’s Guardian newspaper this week, Mr. Belhaj warned outside powers not to “impose leaders” on Libya.
“What worries us is the attempt of some secular elements to isolate and exclude others. Libya’s Islamists have announced their commitment to democracy; despite this, some reject their participation and call for them to be marginalized,” he wrote.
“It is as though they want to push Islamists towards a nondemocratic option by alienating and marginalizing them. We will not allow this: All Libyans are partners in this revolution and all should be part of building the future of this country,” he added.
The Islamists do not have a big support base in Libya’s predominantly secular society.
Mr. Belhaj’s own popularity has plummeted in Tripoli because of his actions. He moves around the capital with large entourages that residents say are reminiscent of the days of the Gadhafi regime.
“He is not synonymous with the kind of rule that people want to see in Libya,” said Dr. Mhani.
A European diplomat, who spoke on background, said European officials have in private meetings with the rebel leadership sent “very strong messages that there should be no tolerance for extremist groups that might want to use Libya as a place where they could develop a presence.”
“We would like to see an inclusive transition toward democracy in Libya. Most certainly there will be a component of Islamist parties, because they are the reality of Libya’s political scene,” he added.
Delays by the NTC in forming a government also have fueled some rebels’ resentment of the council.
“We are trying to show maximum restraint and unity, but these politicians are testing our patience,” said Mr. Benrasali.