LIBYA Susan Rice: Spontaneous Protest Was Hijacked By Extremists, Heavy Weapons Accessible
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Published on Sep 16, 2012
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September 15, 2012
Attack by Fringe Group Highlights the Problem of Libya's Militias
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, SULIMAN ALI ZWAY and KAREEM FAHIM
CAIRO — Ansar al-Sharia, the brigade of rebel fighters that witnesses say led the attack on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, holds that democracy is incompatible with Islam. It has paraded the streets with weapons calling for an Islamic state, and a few months ago its leader boasted publicly that its fighters could flatten a foreign consulate.
But if the group's ideology may put it on the fringe of Libyan society, its day-to-day presence in society does not. It is just one of many autonomous battalions of heavily armed men formed during and after the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi who have filled the void in public security left by his fall, resisting calls to disarm by saying that the weak transitional government is not up to the job.
Ansar al-Sharia's fighters have given conflicting stories about their role in the attack. Said to number fewer than 200, they can usually be found at Al Jala Hospital in Benghazi, where they act as its guards and protectors. And when instead they turned their guns on the United States mission, American security officers and the Libyan authorities did not call for help from any formal military or police force — there is none to speak of — but turned to the leader of another autonomous militia with its own Islamist ties.
"We had to coordinate everything," said that militia leader, Fawzi Bukatef, recalling the first phone call about the attack that he received from the mission's security team. The Libyan government, he said, "was absent."
The organization and firepower used in the assault, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, has raised alarm in Washington about the possibility of links to Al Qaeda and a premeditated conspiracy that found a pretext in anger over an American-made video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. But to Libyans, the battle for the mission has underscored how easy it is for a spark like the earlier protest in Cairo to set off such an attack in post-Qaddafi Libya, when major cities are still controlled by a patchwork of independent militias and all keep their weapons at the ready.
The battle over the mission has also became the latest skirmish in a larger struggle unfolding across the region between hard-line and moderate Islamists seeking to determine the fate of the Arab Spring.
The leaders of Libya's interim government say they hope public dismay at the attack on the mission will be the catalyst they need to finally disarm and control the militias. Mr. Stevens, the United States ambassador, was a widely admired figure for his support during the revolt against Colonel Qaddafi, and in the days after the attack far larger crowds than the one that attacked the mission turned out in both Tripoli and Benghazi to demonstrate their sadness at his death and their support for the United States.
But since the militiamen, who still call themselves "revolutionaries," remain the power on the streets, there is an open question who will disarm or control them. "The government is required to do so," said Mr. Bukatef, leader of eastern Libya's most potent armed force, the February 17 Brigade. "But the government can't do it without the revolutionaries," he said, noting that many brigades continued to operate independently even though they now nominally report to the defense minister. "It takes a delicate approach."
Ansar al-Sharia declined to be interviewed for this article. The brigade in Benghazi, whose name means Supporter of Islamic Law, came together during the fight against Colonel Qaddafi.
Mr. Bukatef said that its numbers had seemed to range from 50 to about 200. He claimed that some of its members were responsible for the assassination during the uprising of the rebel commander Abdul Fattah Younes, in revenge for his previous role as a minister in the Qaddafi government who led a crackdown on Islamists. The transitional government, Mr. Bukatef said, was too weak to confront such a brigade, and so no one has been charged with the crime.
Many more-secular politicians in Libya are suspicious of Mr. Bukatef and his brigade because of their own Islamist
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