“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.
However, several armed formations, such as Ansar al-Shariah and the Imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman Brigades, still reject the transition to party politics and integration into state institutions. These organizations are numerous, but small. Some were not invited — or given sufficient incentive — to join official bodies.
“Nobody asked us to join the army or the police,” Sufian bin Qumu, Ansar al-Shariah’s commander in Derna and a former Guantanamo Boy detainee, said in April. “They did not even give me or any of my men a reward for fighting.”
Bin Qumu has a small paramilitary force training in the Bou Musafir forest on the outskirts of Derna. He says that if the head of the boy scouts or the city’s clan leaders asked him to disband the training camp, he would do so.
The tragic death of Stevens and his colleagues has sparked public outrage in Libya, adding to the isolation and delegitimization of the armed groups. Dozens of Libyan activist groups have uploaded videos paying tribute to Stevens, as well as issuing statements against terrorism and al-Qaeda. One of the Muslim Brothers’ Web sites includes such a statement, and Libya’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadeq al-Gheriani, also condemned the attack.
Two issues remain critical in Libya to prevent future tragedies. The first is the need to capitalize on public support and continue the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process that started under the National Transitional Council, but was never completed. Second, the government must enhance its communication strategy.
Arab Spring governments condemned the outrageous movie smearing the Prophet of Islam, but they should have stressed that the US official and unofficial bodies had nothing to do with the film’s production. Collective punishment and targeting the innocent is forbidden in the Koran in more than 20 verses, such as: “That no burdened person [with sins] shall bear the burden [sins] of another” (The Star Chapter 53:18).
Omar Ashour is the director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
Copyright: Project Syndicate