From Terror Group Founder to Libyan Rebel Military Commander


Though a recent congressional report said the alliance was viewed by terror analysts at the time as "having political rather than operational relevance," a leaked 2008 State Department cable and a separate report by the Counter Terrorism Center at West Point noted that an inordinate number of anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq came from Libya and the LIFG.

Hitting Americans, the fighters believed, was just another way to hit Gadhafi, the cable says.

"Many [Libyan] easterners feared the U.S. would not allow [the] regime to fall and therefore viewed direct confrontation with the [Government of Libya] in the near-term as a fool's errand. At the same time, sending young Libyans to fight in Iraq was 'an embarrassment' to [Gadhafi]," says the cable, posted on the website WikiLeaks. "Fighting against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq represented a way for frustrated young radicals to strike a blow against both [Gadhafi] and against his perceived American backers."

READ: Libyan Rebel Strongholds Now, al Qaeda Wellspring Then

Still, other U.S. government documents describe the al Qaeda alliance announcement as a point of fracture within LIFG as many of their fighters were strictly anti-Gadhafi and did not view themselves as part of al Qaeda's global jihad against the West.

For his part, Belhaj waited in jail until 2009 when he and hundreds of other LIFG fighters were freed after negotiations with Gadhafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi. As part of the deal to earn their freedom, Belhaj and other leaders penned a lengthy treatise denouncing political violence and terrorism, including al Qaeda.

An LIFG contingent in Britain went further, claiming the alliance with al Qaeda was a "personal decision [by one LIFG commander] that is at variance with the basic status of the group... The group is not, has never been, and never will be linked to the al Qaeda organization."

During a press conference following the release, Saif al-Islam said the men "no longer constituted a threat to Libyan society and would be reintegrated into their communities," according to the State Department's Country Report on Terrorism 2010.

DOWNLOAD: U.S. State Department's Country Report on Terrorism 2010

In a state-owned newspaper, after his release Belhaj reportedly praised Saif al-Islam for his intervention and told a Singapore-based think tank that he planned to live "under the law of the country."

Aujali said that former Islamist fighters like Belhaj must be seen in a different light now that the Gadhafi regime is gone.

"We should look differently at these organizations that dared oppose Gadhafi during his rule," Aujali said. "We should accept [Belhaj] for the person that he is today and we should deal with him on that basis -- as someone who is opposed to Gadhafi... People evolve and change."

A U.S. official told ABC News it appeared the faction of LIFG that survived in the rebel movement "seems, from their statements and support for establishing a democracy in Libya... to not support al Qaeda."

"We'll definitely be watching to see whether this is for real or just for show," the official said.

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