Major news out of Libya as Abdelhakim Belhadj, the former head of the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and a major player in the U.S.-backed overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, has reportedly joined the Islamic State and is leading its forces there. This according to The Blaze National Security journalist Sara Carter on Twitter, and Fox News’ Catherine Herridge in a Fox News report.
Belhadj’s ties to al Qaeda were controversial during the run up to U.S. airstrikes in support of the Libyan rebels, but this did not prevent him from maintaining a high profile at the time, including being made head of the Tripoli Military Council, a position he held until resigning to run for office in May 2012. Belhadj has a reputation for involvement in the international jihad has well, playing a role in the 2004 Madrid training bombings, and accused by investigators of being involved in the murder of two Tunisian politicians at behest of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Islamic State fighters landed in Libya back in November 2014, and have been at work establishing training camps in the Libyan city of Derna before launching a terror offensive which included an attack on a Libyan hotel, attacks on oil field workers, and the execution of 21 Copts in a graphic video which made international headlines.
If Belhadj has gone over to Islamic State, it will represent a major boost to Islamic State’s efforts to co-opt and bring in Libya’s existing jihadist forces under their banner, which now reportedly includes as many as 3,000 fighters. Belhadj’s forces play a significant role in the Islamist “Libyan Dawn” coalition (which includes the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda’s Ansar al-Sharia), which currently holds Tripoli, and which claims to be the rightful government in opposition to the U.N. recognized government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni.
Libyan Dawn supporters have repeatedly blamed Anti-Islamist general Khalifa al Haftar for the terror attacks of the Islamic State, including on the hotel residence of the Libyan Dawn prime minister, so there is reason to believe that if a binary choice develops between Belhadj and Haftar (who was recently made commander in chief of the Al-Thinni government forces), the Islamist factions will chooses Belhadj.
This would represent a major coup for the Islamic State, whose global strategy requires the incorporation of pre-established jihadist groups to bolsters their claim to caliphate status and take additional territory, thus reinforcing their religious and legal authority, and attracting additional recruits.