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The Mess We Left Behind in Libya

While Washington is busy fighting over a report, Benghazi is descending into chaos. 

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

BENGHAZI – While heads are rolling in Washington over a damning independent report that found the U.S. State Department’s security planning to be "grossly inadequate," tensions in Libya’s second largest city continue to rise. On Sunday, gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a police compound in the city, killing one officer and sparking a firefight that resulted in the deaths of three others who had rushed to the scene. Images of a patrol vehicle’s blood-splattered interior rippled across Libyan TV channels and social media. Not for the first time, Benghazians wondered what had become of the city they proudly describe as the wellspring of Libya’s revolution.

More than three months after the storming of the U.S. mission, and with the Libyan investigation into the attack that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans all but ground to a halt, Benghazi remains jittery and tense. Even in affluent neighborhoods, gunfire and explosions form an almost nightly soundtrack. Many residents are wary about where they venture after dark. The American drones that circle overhead prompt bitter complaints — as well as the occasional attempt at black humor. "That’s my brother-in-law up there keeping an eye on me," one man said with a laugh as he pointed skywards.

But there is little levity when it comes to confronting Benghazi’s dense knot of security challenges — which include rogue militias, frequent assassinations, and a fraught political environment made even more flammable by the ready availability of weapons. "I think the security situation is going from bad to worse after the consulate attack," says Wanis al-Sharif, the top Interior Ministry official in eastern Libya. Why that is depends on whom you ask.

For some, Ansar al-Sharia, the hardline Islamist faction which has rejected accusations it was involved in the U.S. consulate attack, is a popular target. "The Ansar people want to kill everybody who is against their ideology or anyone who was involved with Qaddafi," said one Benghazi resident, as he and a friend debated who may have been behind the weekend attack on the police station.  His companion begged to differ: "No, no, it was the azlaam (Qaddafi loyalists). They want to destroy the reputation of the Islamists and create chaos at the same time." Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sentiment resonates with many of the former rebels — Islamist and otherwise — who still call themselves thuwar, or revolutionaries.

Fourteen months after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s death, Benghazi finds itself pulled in multiple directions. Not only are there tensions between powerful militias that pride themselves on their revolutionary credentials and remnants of the old order — pejoratively referred to as taheleb, the Arabic word for algae and a reference to the green color of the Qaddafi era flag — but cleavages between Islamists and non-Islamists, and supporters and opponents of the region’s nascent federalist movement also threaten to tear the city apart.

These dynamics often overlap, but the deadliest tensions spring from the animosity between security officials who served the former regime and those within the ranks of the thuwar, who experienced its brutality first hand. Eastern Libya’s constellation of Islamist-leaning militias, several of which are nominally under the authority of the government, contains commanders and rank-and-file fighters that span a broad ideological spectrum. They range from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, to Salafists, to a handful of radicals who cleave to takfiri ideology, which sanctions the killing of Muslims deemed to be insufficiently pious.

What a large number of Benghazi’s militiamen have in common, however, is the shared experience of incarceration in Gaddafi’s prisons, in particular Abu Salim, the notorious Tripoli jail where political dissidents, most of them Islamists, ended up prior to the uprising.

"I think it is mostly the Islamists behind these killings because the people that have been killed are mostly those who were working in national security while the Islamists were in prison and were being tortured," says Wanis al-Sharif, the Interior Ministry official. "Now the Islamists are out and I think they are carrying out these revenge attacks."

But others see this as something more than the vulgar pursuit of revenge. They see the violence as part of a larger struggle for Libya’s soul as the post-Gaddafi state tentatively takes shape. That battle is as much about ideology as anything else: conversations with those who inhabit Benghazi’s Islamist milieu invariably turn to the drafting of the country’s constitution, a process due to begin next year. "Many of these thuwar still don’t trust the government. They are waiting for the constitution. It is very important for them," says Jamal Benour, a judge who acts as justice coordinator for Benghazi.

Most Libyans agree that sharia should be a main source for legislation, but religious hardliners, many of whom are armed, go further and insist it should be the only source of law. For example, a recently posted YouTube video shows a preacher in Benghazi denouncing the new government as secular-leaning, and telling the former revolutionary fighters to hold onto their weapons until sharia holds sway.

But it is precisely those weapons — and the men that cling to them — that brought Benghazi to the brink three months ago. Following the attack on the U.S. consulate, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest not just the assault, but also the continuing existence of rebel militias that many see as too accustomed to the power of the gun. Later that night, the compounds of three Islamist brigades — February 17, Ansar al-Sharia, and Rafallah al-Sahati — were stormed, with violent clashes occurring at the latter’s base.

The militiamen, for their part, are still smarting from these so-called "Save Benghazi" demonstrations. "This was all the evil forces coming together — federalists, azlaam, and corrupt members of the police and army — to use the cover of people demonstrating to attack brigades that worked for the revolution and are now actively under the government’s control," said Wissam bin Hamid, 35, a commander with an officially-sanctioned umbrella group of militias known as Libya Shield.

Hamid, who used to run a car workshop before the revolution, insisted that he eventually wants to return to his old life. But for now, he argued, forces like his help plug a security gap. His militia helped ensure elections in Benghazi ran smoothly, he said, and his men escorted American officials from their besieged compound during the Sept.11 attack. Later, they provided security for a U.S. investigation team that visited Benghazi.

"Everybody says they want police and army…even we [the former revolutionary fighters] want it. I want it. But we can only return to our old lives once [the police and army] are able to provide security."

Part of the uncertainty in Benghazi stems from the fact that Ashour Shuwail recently replaced Fawzi Abdelali as Libya’s interior minister. Many are waiting to see what kind of changes will be ushered in by Shuwail, whose appointment was initially blocked by the so-called Integrity Commission, a body which screens candidates for links to the previous regime. Shuwail, who was head of the Benghazi police force when the revolution began, has considerable support among those who want to see the militias gone. "Now we have a lot of hope since [Shuwail] is one of us," said one man who took part in the "Save Benghazi" rally.

Others are not so sure. "I don’t think Shuwail is the right man," Wanis al-Sharif said of his new boss. "The thuwar have openly registered their dislike for the man and I don’t think it is healthy to have someone who does not have the backing of all sides especially at this critical stage…But we have big hopes for the program he is going to work on to get security back on the streets."

Shuwail’s plan to improve security includes increasing the police presence in Benghazi and other cities and moving all heavy weaponry from urban areas into assigned military bases. He also plans to introduce legislation banning the selling or possession of arms, while allowing for the voluntary handing in of weapons as well as the integration of militia members into the ministries of defense and interior.

But as Shuwail and the Interior Ministry prepare to impose law and order, there is virtually no talk about the investigation into the attack on the U.S. consulate, which has so far turned up nothing. The independent report issued on Tuesday by the Accountability Review Board may have offered the most detailed account of the attack thus-far, but authorities in Libya have yet to make a single arrest in connection with the attack. Some have fingered Ahmad Abukhattallah, a local militia leader who admitted to being present that night, though he denies taking part in the attack. But even Abukhattallah has yet to be hauled in for questioning, he confirmed to us at the weekend.

Wanis al-Sharif acknowledges that the investigation appears to have drifted. He blames it on the fact Libya has yet to establish proper security forces, let alone a functioning judicial system. "What can you expect from a country with no criminal investigative department?" he says. "It is almost impossible."

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