From Afghanistan to Benghazi: the journey of a former Libyan radical
Interview by Asmaa Elourfi for Magharebia in Benghazi – 15/07/11
Abdul Hakim Elhssadi was forced into exile by Moamer Kadhafi. After ending up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) member returned to his homeland. Now the man once accused of belonging to al-Qaeda is training young Libyan rebels. He sat down with Magharebia in Benghazi to talk about his alienation from extremist ideology and his hopes for Libya.
Magharebia: You were once called an extremist and alleged to have al-Qaeda ties. What is your position today?
Abdul Hakim Elhssadi: I am against their ideologies concerning killing and bombing. Islam is a religion of compassion and mercy. I firmly object to bombing and destruction and suffer for every drop of blood shed unjustly.
[File] After Kadhafi falls, ex-LIFG member Abdul Hakim Elhssadi says in Benghazi, "Libya will be a state of freedoms".
[Reuters/Ismail Zoitouny] LIFG members leave Abu Salim prison in Tripoli on March 24th, 2010.
[Reuters/Ammar Awad] Libyan rebels near Al-Qawalish on July 13, 2011. Some ex-LIFG members are training young fighters.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) is also against these ideologies. The group fights injustice and corruption in Libya. I repeat: I am against al-Qaeda and any ideology that promotes death and destruction.
May God forgive [al-Qaeda leader] Ayman al-Zawahiri for ordering killings and destruction. We are for dialogue. Islam forbids unjust killings.
Magharebia: You fought in Afghanistan. Tell us about that time.
Elhssadi: In 1995, Kadhafi forced us to either leave Libya or go to prison. Since there was an extradition agreement between Libya and Arab countries, I tried to go to Europe but could not get a visa. I went to Afghanistan because it was the only country that would receive people without official papers.
Al-Qaeda was already in Afghanistan. We Libyans did not join al-Qaeda. I settled there and got married to an Afghani woman and was working as a teacher at a school, like any person living out a normal life. Then came the American war against al-Qaeda.
We defended against the Northern Alliance and then were forced to go to Pakistan. Some of us fled to Iran and others went to an Arab country, but I stayed in Pakistan for a while and then was arrested by the Americans back in Afghanistan. The charity organisation headed by Kadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam returned us to Libya in 2002.
As for al-Qaeda; upon being founded by Osama bin Laden, it held that all problems that befall Muslims are caused by America. This is the belief of al-Qaeda.
As for we Libyans, our only concern is our homeland and do not have anything against the US.
Magharebia: Are you still involved with the Libyan Fighting Group?
Elhssadi: No, but I have a good personal relationship with them, especially their emir, Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq (Abdelhakim Belhaj).
But I reject their approach. I believe that change does not come with weapons. Rather, change comes with thought and dialogue. I am a teacher and a man of dialogue before I carry arms.
Magharebia: The LIFG revisions came out two years ago. The "corrective studies" rejected killing of civilians under the pretext of jihad. They also marked the final break between the Libyan Fighting Group and al-Qaeda. What is your position on this?
Elhssadi: They are now at odds because the Libyan Group was interested in Libya only, while al-Qaeda's interest is global. It sees America as the cause of its problems.
With regards to al-Qaeda, I sat with legitimate [Sharia] people in the LIFG and told them that change by force was incorrect. And after committing errors and shedding blood unlawfully, they realised they were wrong and stepped back. And this was my discourse from the beginning, since before the war.
Magharebia: With Libya now in crisis, you are helping train young people. What exactly are you teaching them?
Elhssadi: The first thing I am giving them is religious instructions, because Muslims, when fighting, are not allowed to retreat. The Almighty says, if you meet "disbelievers who have mobilised against you, do not turn back and flee". This is first, and the second thing is to preserve people’s honour. This is an Islamic duty: that they must defend and preserve people’s honour.
Magharebia: How can Libyan youth benefit from your experience in order to avoid falling into the nets of al-Qaeda and radical ideology?
Elhssadi: Libyan youth appeared on the battlefield. They do not belong to a group. They were oppressed and became marginalised and lived a life devoid of freedom.
There is no freedom of speech, and when the Libyan revolutionaries came together, they joined up with others from all segments, old and young. Everyone participated in the revolution. Libyan revolutionaries do not have any affiliation—not with al-Qaeda or another group.
Magharebia: How do you see Libya post-Kadhafi?
Elhssadi: By God, I see Libya after Kadhafi, according to what we heard from Haji Mustapha Abdul Jalil and some officials, that Libya will change completely, that Libya will be a civilised state, a constitutional state, and a state of freedoms. It will be much better than before. There is no comparison with the past because Libya was never a state previously. It will be better.
This is what we wish as Libyans.
Magharebia: Will the Libyan Fighting Group try to stand for elections after the crisis ends?
Elhssadi: I do not think so. Upon undertaking the revolution, most of the revolutionaries, including me, did not want a post. We, the people of Libya, are peaceful and do not belong to terrorist organisations —al-Qaeda or any other —nor do we subscribe to such an agenda.
We are revolutionaries and our people in Misrata, Jabal Nafusa, Derna, Benghazi and the rest of Libya, we are together on this: the most important thing is the fall of Kadhafi and his gang. This is the most important thing.
After that, God willing, Libya will change for the better and be the country we wish for.
Subscribe to our newsletter and get Magharebia's latest articles delivered to your inbox.