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Born in 1956 in Tunis to parents of Mauritanian origin from the wilaya of Adrar in Algeria, Belhadj became a teacher of Arabic and an Islamist activist in the 1970s. In 1989, after the Algerian Constitution was changed to allow multiparty democracy, he helped found the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamic party which won the only ever free elections in Algeria since its independence. During this period, he was a preacher at the famous Al-Sunna mosque in Bab el-Oued, a popular district in Algiers.
In 1991, soon after FIS had finished a strike and massive demonstrations in Algiers, he, along with FIS president Abassi Madani, was arrested and jailed on charges of threatening state security. In late 1991, FIS won the first round of parliamentary elections, which were then called off by the military, who banned FIS; Belhadj remained in jail throughout most of the Algerian Civil War that followed, and was released only after serving a 12-year sentence in 2003 under the condition of abstaining from all political activity. Belhadj is in possession of a certain charismatic talent, his speech is more poetic than rational.
He did not remain free for long; in July 2005, he was arrested for making a statement on Al-Jazeera which praised Iraqi insurgents and condemned Algeria for sending diplomats to Iraq shortly after two Algerian diplomats (Ali Belaroussi and Azzedine Belkadi) had been kidnapped. He was released just under a year later in March 2006, under the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation.
Seen as the spiritual leader of the most hardline factions of the FIS, he was against women working and condemned democracy as a Western innovation, while emphasizing the importance of Islamic education. He described his favorite authors as Ibn Taymiyya, and Ibn al-Qayyim, as well as the more recent Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. However, his ideology is distinct from his favorite authors. He was often arrested by Algerian police for giving talk in Mosques about current events. On July 25, 2011, Belhadj's 23 year-old son Abdelkahar, along with three-would be suicide bombers and two of his associates, was shot dead by Algerian security forces while planning a suicide bombing at a military checkpoint in Algiers. Abdelkahar Belhadj was considered to be a high ranking senior leader in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
- « Islamic Politics and the Military: Algeria 1962-2008 » by Riadh Sidaoui, in Jan-Erik Lane et Hamadi Redissi, Religion and Politics: Islam and Muslim Civilisation, éd. Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, 2009, p 228.
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- "AFP: Algerian Islamists' former number two indicted". AFP. 19 January 2011. Retrieved 22 March 2014.
- "Al-Qaeda confirms Belhadj death". Magharebia.com. 3 August 2011. Retrieved 21 March 2014.