- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
On Dec. 5, the city of Benghazi witnessed more than five killings in less than 24 hours. One of the targets this time was an American national, Ronnie Smith, who was working as a chemistry teacher at the Benghazi International School. It is not clear who is behind the killing.
Smith was reportedly targeted in the Fweihat district of Benghazi where he lived, and was shot multiple times while on his morning jog. The U.S. embassy in Libya has a warning against all travel to Benghazi, but since Smith considered himself "Libya’s best friend," as his Twitter account indicates, he chose to stay behind in the troubled city to continue teaching.
Benghazi’s security situation has deteriorated significantly since the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans in an attack on the city’s U.S. consulate on Sept. 11, 2012. The extremist group Ansar al-Sharia (affiliated with al Qaeda) is linked to the U.S. consulate attack. The group is also linked to the explosions and the assassinations that have plagued the city for more than a year, targeting army and police officers, as well as lawyers, judges, and activists. The militants have previously targeted other international schools. On March 3, members of the jihadist group stormed the European School to protest some of the teaching materials used for its curriculum, which they said contradicted sharia law.
Recently, the national army’s Special Forces unit attempted to fight back against Ansar al-Sharia after clashes broke out between the two militias on Nov. 25. (The photo above depicts members of the national army traveling through Benghazi on Nov. 25.) Since then, many Libyan civilians have come out in support of the army, participating in civil disobedience and public protests against the group in Benghazi and Derna. As of Dec. 5, Derna’s bloody demonstrations have already lasted five days, in which the jihadist militants fired live rounds of ammunition on peaceful protesters. The number of assassinations has increased, and frequent explosions have led to several deaths and injuries.
Back in Benghazi, a few days after the clashes between the army and Ansar al-Sharia militants, leaders of the national army came on TV to call for a ceasefire and plead with the group to stop "terrorizing" the people. There are reports that the militants have now returned to their posts in Benghazi as part of a deal to stop the fighting in the city. Nevertheless, it looks like the deal did not include a condition to end the assassinations of police, army personnel, and ordinary civilians.
The fact that military commanders were pressed to plead with the jihadist group at all is extremely worrying. It indicates that the group could be more powerful than previously thought. During the press conference, Col. Wanis Abu Khamada (commander of the Special Forces units) said, vaguely, that the army is not only targeting Ansar al-Sharia, but is fighting other threats as well. Given the recent reports of foreign nationals among the group’s ranks, Abu Khamada’s guarded comments could indicate the army’s hesitancy to censure the well-trained and quickly growing group.
If the weak Libyan authorities can barely manage an appropriate response to local armed groups and militias, it is impossible to see how they would be able to deal with more influential and organized groups like Ansar al-Sharia. The government, led by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, took a clear position against Ansar al-Sharia and vowed to give the army and police their full support as they work to establish control. However, Libya’s General National Congress (the country’s legislative body) is divided on the issue; some members continue to defend the group’s actions.
Those who targeted Smith may have done so because they saw the effect that Chris Stevens’ assassination had on the U.S. involvement in Libya. Their main goal is to destabilize and undermine the country’s transition — and they have deduced that killing Americans is an effective way of doing just that. But rather than withdrawing, Libya’s friends in the West need to increase their engagement and identify trustworthy partners in the transition government that they can work with to stabilize the country. Given that some of the government’s institutions have been infiltrated by elements that support and defend groups like Ansar al-Sharia, foreign intervention will need to be measured and informed. A Libya controlled by jihadis on the doorsteps of Europe is not an option — but recent events have shown that the transitional government is already unable to fully manage the devolving security situation. If the United States and other foreign governments pull out of Libya any further, they will be handing Libya to extremists. That is exactly what they want.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.