Days after Gaddafi was buried, the flag of al Qaeda is flying in Libya and sharia law has been imposed. Now, many rebel fighters fear the rise of a hardline Islamist state - and will fight to the death to stop it
As the decomposing body of Muammar Gaddafi was being buried in the sands of the Sahara last week, a fighter returning home from the Libyan war was busy in his garden.
With a small spade, he dug a hole behind his house in Tripoli. Then, after kissing his beloved AK-47 automatic assault weapon, he wrapped the gun in plastic bags and placed the lot inside a pillow case, which he put in the ground and covered with earth.
The man - a 35-year-old former mobile phone salesman - had bought the weapon some years ago and hidden it in his garden until the call came that Tripoli's secret underground army should finally rise up and drive Gaddafi from power.
|Fear: Libyan rebels' Tripoli military commander Abdel Hakim Belhaj was the driving force behind the recent announcement that the country will introduce Sharia law
Yet this gun was not being discarded now that Libya's dictator was dead - dragged from his hiding place in a drainage pipe, begging for his life, before being beaten by rebel soldiers, sodomised with a rifle bayonet and shot in the head.
No, the AK-47, along with hundreds of thousands of Russian Kalashnikovs, German Heckler and Koch rifles and Israeli grenade launchers, plus other weapons, was being stored for a future date.
'I risked my life to get this gun,' Mansoor, the owner of the weapon, told me.
'I bought it from a Gaddafi soldier who was desperate for money. I will never be without a gun again - it is why I'm alive today. I will dig it up if there are any more problems.'
His gun may prove handy. For Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the most powerful military figure in the new Libya, is regarded by many here - including civilians who risked everything to rise up against Gaddafi - as a dangerous radical who threatens to ignite a whole new conflict over his Islamic extremism.
Indeed, many former rebel fighters talk openly about launching a new revolution if the country's political leaders on the National Transitional Council give in to pressure from Belhaj, head of the Military Council, to turn Libya into a fundamentalist Islamic state, modelled along the lines of the old Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Publicly, this bearded 45-year-old — who fought alongside extremists in Afghanistan, including Osama Bin Laden, in the Eighties, and was trained by military chiefs in Iran — has sought to quell Western fears that his ultimate aim is a hardline Islamic state.
'I didn't go to Afghanistan to fight with Bin Laden,' Belhaj told an Arab newspaper last week. 'Meeting a person with a specific ideology doesn't mean I agree with that ideology. I went to Afghanistan to support the Afghans and fight with them, that's all.'
But this is far from the truth. Throughout his life, until his supposed dramatic conversion in one of Gaddafi's torture cells, he has been committed to jihad — the overthrow by Holy War of Christian states and the creation of an Islamic world.
His past proclamations, dispensed in classical Arabic script, reveal a man who regards all Christians as infidels and that even speaking to a non-Muslim is a crime, while believing jihad is the duty of all Libyans.
Even worse, he's received messages of support from Ayman al-Zawahri, who became al Qaeda's leader after Bin Laden's death. The terror leader has warned Belhaj to protect the gains he and his supporters have made: 'Be careful of plots of the West and its henchmen. Don't allow them to steal your sacrifices.'
Burgeoning links between Libya and al Qaeda were highlighted this week with the chilling sight of the terror network's flag being flown from the courthouse in Benghazi, the spiritual home of the revolution in the east of Libya.
It bears Arabic script which declares 'there is no God but Allah', with a full moon underneath. There are also reports of extremists on the city's streets at night, waving the al Qaeda flag and chanting Islamic slogans.
On past form, Abdel Hakim Belhaj will not be discomfited by these developments: he was the driving force behind the recent announcement that the country will introduce Sharia law, a form of justice that includes floggings and executions for those accused of 'crimes' such as adultery, homosexuality and theft.
|Threat: Many former rebel fighters talk openly about launching a new revolution
As well as allowing Libyan men to take multiple wives he wants brutal punishments for anyone who criticises Islam or refuses to pray.
His background gives little cause for celebration in Britain. Indeed, Belhaj - who used the Islamic nom de guerre Abu Abdullah Sadeq when he was in Afghanistan - has good reason to hate the West, a fact that should give pause to businessmen hoping for access to the country's bountiful oil reserves.
Born in the capital Tripoli, Belhaj studied civil engineering before joining other Islamic extremists in the Eighties and attempting to launch an uprising against Gaddafi's rule. It failed. Belhaj fled to Afghanistan and fought in the Soviet-Afghan war.
He returned to Libya and formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a collection of jihadists committed to introducing fundamentalism.
After the movement was crushed by Gaddafi's brutal security apparatus, Belhaj returned to Afghanistan and fought with the Taliban until 2002, when he went on the run again. He was picked up by British and U.S. intelligence in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2004 and handed over to Gaddafi, with whom the West was anxious to curry favour over oil deals.
Manacled to a wall in Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim prison, the Islamic terrorist was not allowed to wash for three years and was finally released last year on condition he renounced violence.
He has since said he supports a free, democratic Libya and is opposed to al Qaeda - a claim that prompts cynical laughter from those who know him.
The blood-soaked circumstances of Belhaj's sudden rise to power, underlined when he appeared on state television to announce Gaddafi's death, suggest that renunciation was entirely hollow.
For many believe the real transfer of power in Libya came not with the capture and killing of Gaddafi last month, but with a murky assassination carried out near the rebel frontline three months ago.
It was then that Abdel Fattah Younis, a moderate who was head of the rebel army, received a message that he was to come to Benghazi in the east of Libya to meet the country's political leadership.
He never made it. Driving through the night with two bodyguards, he was ambushed by a hardline Islamic rebel unit. All three were shot dead and their bodies burned and left in a ditch by the road.
While Belhaj denied responsibility, he was the prime beneficiary, taking over as military chief and moving a step closer to total power.
He was hailed a few weeks ago by his Islamic supporters as the man who led the attack on Gaddafi's Tripoli compound.
But Belhaj is dismissed as a fraud by moderate rebel fighters, who this week branded the new head of the military a coward.
'He was hiding in his house when we attacked Gaddafi,' one of his men told me. 'We joked and laughed when we saw him pictured with a gun after our victory - that was the first time anyone had seen him with a gun. He certainly never used it in combat.'
Surrounded by a group of other fighters, now guarding 300 Gaddafi supporters rounded up and jailed outside the capital, all agreed they would fight to the death for liberty if the country is turned into a closed Islamic state.
People hate Belhaj, one revolutionary called Kharyee told me. 'We think he's a show-off, like Gaddafi,' he said. 'If he becomes boss, we will make another revolution. He wants to be the boss, but we will kill him before that happens.'
Meanwhile, even as Tripoli's hotels fill with businessmen from Britain and the rest of Europe, eager for a slice of Libya's oil wealth, the fighting continues — with those living in destroyed Gaddafi strongholds vowing revenge on rebel forces.
In towns such as Sirte, now reduced to rubble, and Bani Walid, where Gaddafi hid after his Tripoli palace was over-run, local people are enraged by looting and summary executions by rebel fighters.
Nor has the mood been helped by gangs of former rebel fighters carrying out house-to-house searches to find Gaddafi supporters, who are being taken to dozens of makeshift prisons set up in schools and shopping centres.
There will be no forgiveness, with fighters demanding those who killed for Gaddafi should be executed - raising the prospect of mass hangings throughout Libya.
To add to the chaos, I have discovered evidence that doctors and nurses who treated injured Gaddafi fighters are also being rounded up. At a prison in Zawiyah, more than 70 are being held in appalling conditions for being 'overly sympathetic' to the fallen dictator's soldiers.
With the country awash with guns, and fears that stockpiles of chemical weapons and anti-aircraft missiles will find their way to al Qaeda-linked groups, there have also been clashes between rival rebel factions vying for control of the country's wealth.
And where Gaddafi's security organisation once suppressed tribal dissent, hostilities are breaking out within the ruling National Transitional Council, with leaders from the one million-strong Warfalla tribe openly at odds with those from the Obeidi tribe from the eastern region of Benghazi, of which slain rebel chief Younis was a leading light.
From the Berbers in the western mountains, to the Magariha tribe of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, to the warrior-like Misrata and coastal Kargala Tawajeer tribes, I have heard all claim to have been responsible for Gaddafi's overthrow, and demand their place at the top table of new Libya.
None of the traditional tribal rivalries were apparent when people united bravely against Gaddafi, but now he's gone, the old enmities are surfacing.
On top of these tribal problems are geographical tensions, with people in Tripoli furious that the announcement of the country's liberation was made in Benghazi, almost 1,000 miles to the east, which many in the west regard as almost a different country.
The people of the capital are also furious about rebel gangs from the east moving around their territory, prompting a series of violent clashes. Indeed, amid the nightly crackle of gunfire and boom of anti-aircraft guns, the authorities are trying to crack down on lawlessness, with a number of rebel fighters jailed alongside Gaddafi's men.
Weaving in and out of traffic at 100mph, a Kalashnikov jammed between his legs, a former fighter called Jarrad underlined the problems of moving from tyranny and war to liberty and peace.
'I love speed - this is the first time I've been free,' he shouted as he gunned the engine through a gap in traffic. 'Now I want to drink whisky and beer, smoke drugs and get girls. That's a free life, yes?'
Having reported from Libya during the cool months of the Arab Spring, through a broiling summer of dust and death, and now the cold nights of approaching winter, I have always been shown kindness by ordinary Libyans. But, as ever, it is the country's leaders that the people must be wary about.
Let's hope they don't betray this damaged nation, just as Gaddafi did after coming to power in 1969, promising a future of hope and wealth. For it's unlikely the young of the new Libya will wait another 42 years before digging up their Kalashnikovs to drive any new despot from power.
© Daily Mail, London