Co-authored by Kathleen Soucy
A Tunisian investigator leveled explosive new allegations last week against Abdelhakim Belhadj, a prominent Libyan political figure, implicating him in the assassinations of left-leaning Tunisian opposition leaders Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi.
The Tunisian salafi jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) is presumed responsible for these murders, and Belhadj has, in turn, been accused of sheltering AST head Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi in the aftermath of the killings. This is bad publicity for Belhadj, a former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) commander who has attempted to publicly dissociate himself from the al-Qaeda network for the past several years. If these new allegations prove true, it suggests that Belhadj continues to align himself with salafi jihadism, and it would also reveal much about AST’s international alliances.
Last Tuesday, Taieb Laguili, an attorney and investigator with a Tunisian non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to researching the murders of Belaïd and Brahmi, implicated Belhadj in both assassinations, claiming the existence of intelligence linking Belhadj to AST’s leadership. He argued that Tunisia’s interior ministry had previously confirmed Belhadj’s links with a terrorist organization and a group of Tunisian and Libyan smugglers, and that “documents divulged that LIFG intended to finance and arm Tunisian salafist elements for the purpose of connecting religious extremist currents under the same banner to create an Islamic state in North Africa.”
Belhadj has denied any connection to Belaïd’s murder, and any connection to AST. But Laguili believes that Belhadj, in addition to offering shelter to AST leadership, has been responsible for training AST members. Tunisia’s director general of public security has also asserted that a number of AST members frequently go to Libya for training.
What makes these allegations particularly explosive is Belhadj’s role in LIFG’s 2009 “revisions,” which yielded a 420-page document distancing the group from al-Qaeda. Analysts have debated how seriously to take these revisions since LIFG also promised to end its fight against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, a position it abandoned as Libya’s rebellion gained steam in 2011.
Laguili now says that Belhadj has maintained a longstanding relationship with Abu Iyadh, a man wanted in his native Tunisia and currently believed to be in Libya, possibly under Belhadj’s protection. Laguili is not alone in this accusation: on September 6, the newspaper Elkasbah contended that the reason Abu Iyadh chose Libya is “his closeness to Abdelhakim Belhadj.” Mohamed Habib Amri, arrested on August 7, reportedly told authorities that the two men had a joint plan “to liquidate personalities and hit institutions of the Tunisian state.”
Allegations and proof are, of course, two different matters. Individuals like Belhadj and groups like AST are secretive, so uncertainty abounds. But conventional wisdom among analysts has consistently downplayed Belhadj’s continuing links to salafi jihadism and AST’s international connections, making Laguili’s claims worth noting.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross directs the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization (CSTR) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Kathleen Soucy, a graduate student at the Institut québécois des hautes études internationales, is currently an intern at CSTR.