According to the Spanish daily ABC, a Libyan rebel commander who played a key role in overthrowing the rule of Muammar Qaddafi previously participated in the May 2010 attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza aboard the Turkish-owned vessel the Mavi Marmara. The operation famously culminated in a deadly clash between Israel Defense Force commandos and “activists” armed with iron rods and knives aboard the ship.
The paper’s source for the story is the rebel leader himself: Mahdi al-Harati, the commander of the so-called Tripoli Brigades, which are widely credited with having played a decisive role in the rebel conquest of the Libyan capital in August. After the seizure of Tripoli, al-Harati was named second-in-command to Abdul-Hakim Belhadj, the head of the newly formed Tripoli Military Council. Belhadj is the historical leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the Libyan affiliate of al-Qaeda.
According to his December 17 article, ABC correspondent Daniel Iriarte unexpectedly ran into al-Harati and two other Libyan associates of Belhadj in Syria, where the Spanish journalist was working on a story on the “Free Syrian Army,” the recently formed rebel force that aims to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The Libyans made no attempt to hide their identities, Iriarte reports, explaining to him that that they were in Syria “in order to evaluate the needs of our Syrian revolutionary brothers.” Altogether “a few dozen” Libyans were in Syria to support the anti-Assad insurgents, they said.
Prior to the Libyan rebellion against Qaddafi, al-Harati was living in exile in Ireland. He is reported to have returned to Libya in February, at the very outset of the uprising. On his own account, barely eight months earlier he participated in the “Free Gaza” flotilla aboard the Mavi Marmara. “I was wounded on the Mavi Marmara and spent nine days in an Israeli prison,” he told Iriarte.
Abdul-Hakim Belhadj’s al-Qaeda links were widely reported in the Western press following his emergence as the military governor of Tripoli in August. But the Spanish press has shown particular interest in Belhadj and the other members of his jihadist network. This is because Belhadj is known to have had contact to Serhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, the leader of the terror cell that carried out the March 2004 Madrid train bombings, which took the lives of 191 people. Spanish police investigators discovered telephone records that document contacts between Belhadj and Fakhet just weeks before the attacks.
Contrary to what some have claimed, Belhadj’s connection to the Madrid train bombers was not first “revealed” by former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar in a recent contribution in English for the business channel CNBC. The connection has long been a topic of discussion in the Spanish media.
In September, ABC conducted interviews in Tripoli with several associates of Belhadj from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The LIFG members confirmed that Belhadj had run a jihadist training camp in Afghanistan. One Tareq Muftah Durman noted that at the time Belhadj had “a direct line to Osama bin Laden.” Durman insisted, however, that the Libyan jihadists “never shared Osama’s strategy.”
— John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook.