“They are armed, I am not going to fight a losing battle and kill my men over a demolished shrine,” former Libyan interior minister Fawzi Abd al-Aali said before he “resigned” in August last year. He was referring to the armed Salafi groups that were accused of destroying Sufi shrines. One of the accused groups was the Ansar al-Shariah Brigade, which was quick to support the demolition, but denied any responsibility for it.
Libyan Deputy Ambassador to Britain Ahmed Jibril has now accused the Brigade, headed by Mohammed Ali al-Zahawy, of perpetrating the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in which US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other US personnel, as well as Libyan guards, were killed. Others have quickly embraced and promoted Jibril’s allegation, but the picture is more complex.
The Brigade denied responsibility in a written statement, as well as in a brief interview with its spokesperson, who at the time was in charge of guarding al-Jala Hospital in Benghazi. Like its statement on the destruction of Sufi shrines, it denied involvement in the attack on the US consulate, but stressed the gravity of the insult against the Prophet Mohammed that putatively triggered it.
The Brigade attracted public attention in June as well, when about 300 armed members staged a rally in Benghazi, sparking outrage among Libyans.
“We wanted to send a message to the General National Council members,” said Hashim al-Nawa, one of the Brigade’s commanders. “They should not come near the Shariah. It should be above the constitution, and not an article for referendum.”
However, was the Ansar al-Shariah Brigade really behind the attack on the US consulate? The nature of Libya’s post-revolution armed Islamist forces is by no means straightforward. Salafi jihadism is not an organization, but an ideological trend based on the core belief that armed tactics of all kinds are the most effective — and, in some versions, the most legitimate — method of bringing about social and political change.
Last year, its adherents did play an important role in the removal of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Many subsequently matured politically, revised their worldview and shifted from armed to unarmed activism, forming political parties and contesting elections.
For example, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) has produced two main political parties: Al Watan (The Homeland) is led by former LIFG and Tripoli Military Council commander Abd al-Hakim Belhaj. The other, Al Umma al-Wasat (The Central Nation), is led by the group’s former chief ideologist, Sami al-Saadi, and Abd al-Wahad Qaid, an LIFG military commander and the brother of deceased al-Qaeda commander Hasan Qaid (Abu Yahya al-Libi). Both parties fared poorly in the election in July of a new General National Congress, with only Qaid winning a seat. Indeed, the congressional elections were in many ways a defeat for Libya’s non-violent Salafi parties (such as al-Asala), as well as for the post-jihadists.
Other armed Islamist formations, including Salafi groups, accepted integration into Libya’s new state institutions, such as the Supreme Security Committee (the interior ministry) and the Libyan Shield Force (the defense ministry). The National Guard, headed by the former LIFG deputy leader, Khaled al-Sharif, absorbed more than 30 brigades, mostly from the west and southwest of Libya.