* Islamist rebel has long record of opposing Gaddafi
* Belhadj once spent time with Qaeda leaders
* Rebel once negotiated reconciliation with Gaddafi
By William Maclean
LONDON, Aug 26 (Reuters) - A senior Islamist rebel reported to have helped depose Muammar Gaddafi is a skilled guerrilla leader and veteran dissident who led a failed revolt in Libya in the 1990s and once spent time with al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, security experts say.
Abdel Hakim Belhadj, reported by Arab media to have been prominent in the assault on Tripoli, helps lead an Islamist group that has fought in close cooperation with the main rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), analysts say.
The Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (Al-Haraka Al-Islamiya Al Libiya Lit-Tahghir), is made up of former members of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that once plotted against Gaddafi from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Belhadj, in his late 40s and also known as Abu Abdullah al-Sadeq, is a highly skilled leader, said Noman Benotman, a former associate and fellow LIFG commander.
Benotman said he was concerned that some Western officials would seize on his presence in Tripoli to try to argue that militant Islamists were about to try to hijack the revolution.
In fact, Belhaj was capable of seeing the importance of suppporting the NTC, he said.
“The burden on him now must be very great. I hope and believe he is capable of taking very wise decisions and analysing correctly the struggle he has recently waged.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the NTC on Thursday that one of its commitments was now to take “a firm stand against violent extremism”, a remark seen by some analysts as a reference to Islamist fighters in its ranks.
There have been anxieties among Western officials about apparent rifts between rival factions, including Islamists possibly backed by interests in the Gulf, in NTC ranks.
These concerns rose after the still unexplained July 28 killing of the rebels’ military commander, Abdel Fattah Younes, a former top Gaddafi security official, after he was taken into custody by his own side for questioning.
But Anna Murison, an expert on Islamist militant violence at London-based Exclusive Analysis, said the prominence of former LIFG fighters in rebel units did not by itself suggest that al Qaeda’s regional arm, the Algerian-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), now had opportunities in Libya.
“To argue that this opens up the country to al Qaeda would be mistaken,” said Murison.
“I don’t see any connection between the two groups at all. There is no love lost between AQIM and the LIFG,” she said referring to years of tension between Libyan and Algerian militants that date back to a time of bloody strife in Algeria in the 1990s.
Belhadj, in common with many Arab dissidents who sought refuge in 1990s Afghanistan, had dealings with Osama bin Laden there, but opposed al Qaeda’s transnational anti-Western campaign including its Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Benotman said.
Instead, Belhadj spent his time in Afghanistan trying to rebuild LIFG networks back inside Libya in its campaign to replace Gaddafi with an Islamic state, Benotman said.
“He has more of a political mindset than a religious mindset,” he said. “He always managed to keep a distance between bin Laden and our struggle (in Libya).”
Camille Tawil, a historian of North African Islamist militancy, has said Belhadj sought refuge in Afghanistan in 1999 after Gaddafi’s security men had decimated LIFG networks.
The LIFG was careful not to emulate al Qaeda’s practice of acting as a “state within a state” in Afghanistan — a criticism often levelled privately against bin Laden by supporters of the ruling Taliban at that time, he wrote in a Jan 9, 2009 briefing for the Jamestown Foundation think-tank.
When al Qaeda in 2007 announced a merger with the LIFG, Belhadj and his fellow leaders — by then in Libyan prisons — rejected the move and in 2009 publicly renounced violence.
In an Aug. 3 briefing paper published by the British Quilliam think tank where he now works, Benotman said al Qaeda-style global jihadists were present in the rebellion but they were a minority.
In contrast, Belhadj’s Libyan Islamic Movement for Change accepted the idea of a new democratic Libya and “they have made it clear they will engage in and participate in any political process in the post-Gaddafi era.
“Because they accept the democratic system they cannot be considered ‘jihadists’ in the international understanding of the term. They are also opposed to more extreme jihadists such as those from al Qaeda,” he said.
After the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan, Belhadj fled to Iran and later south-east Asia where he is believed to have been arrested. He was handed over to Libya in 2004 in circumstances that remain unclear.
Under a programme of political reconciliation promoted by Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, Belhadj and other imprisoned LIFG leaders began talks with the government in 2007 that led to the release from prison of hundreds of LIFG members and other Islamists. Belhadj himself was freed on March 23, 2010.
Reporting by William Maclean