Five months after the killing of four Americans here ignited a U.S. presidential-election furor, Benghazi’s most notorious Islamist militia is back in town.
Ansar al-Sharia, widely blamed for the murder of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in a chaotic assault on the diplomatic mission on Sept. 11, has now taken control of the key western entrance to Libya’s second city – including the highway to the capital, Tripoli.
After an unofficial carve-up of the city among the main Islamist militia groups, Ansar al-Sharia’s militant fighters have become entrenched at the traffic-choked intersection by inspecting trucks, checking for expired medicine, seizing goods and setting up a medical clinic to test foreign migrants for diseases. They are even negotiating with the Interior Ministry on a deal to transfer their detainees to the government.
It’s a dramatic return to influence for the militia group, which was forcibly evicted from Benghazi by angry protesters after the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate.
The highly visible resurgence of Ansar al-Sharia – often reported to have connections to al-Qaeda – is a further sign that Libya’s weakened government is unable to halt the activities of the most extreme Islamist groups, despite their alleged links to political violence and cultural destruction.
A visit to Benghazi this week showed that the western entrance is controlled by a dozen members of Ansar al-Sharia, backed by pick-up trucks and other vehicles, including one carrying an anti-aircraft gun. Some vehicles were emblazoned with the group’s logo: a black Islamist flag surmounting two crossed Kalashnikov rifles and an open Koran, along with an index finger pointing skyward. “Ansar al-Sharia Patrol,” the signs proclaim in Arabic.
Members of Ansar al-Sharia say they won authority over the western entrance of Benghazi in an agreement with other Islamist militia groups last month.
“I think we’re doing very well,” said Rajab Alaghoury, a shift commander at the checkpoint. “We even sort out conflicts in the area. We are with the people.”
Observers say Ansar al-Sharia is regaining ground in Benghazi by portraying itself as a humanitarian and security organization, protecting the city from external threats and hazardous goods.
“It’s a sneaky way of infiltrating the government,” said Fathi Baja, a political scientist in Benghazi who was among the leaders of Libya’s transitional rebel council. “Nobody gave them permission. It’s a tactic for returning to Benghazi. The government doesn’t want a confrontation with them at this time.”
Ansar al-Sharia has denied any involvement in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound. But U.S. and Libyan officials have often linked the group to the attack, and some of its leaders have acknowledged they were present at the U.S. compound on the night of the assault.
The killings became a major issue in the U.S. election when Republicans accused the Obama administration of neglecting the security threat and falsely describing the incident as a spontaneous protest rather than a deliberate terrorist attack. Several congressional investigations are under way.
The militia fighters have the traditional signs of Islamist militancy: bushy beards, camouflage uniforms and Kalashnikovs. They freely identify themselves as Ansar al-Sharia members and chat proudly about their work at the checkpoint, although they refuse to allow photos.
They pull over passing trucks, inspect their goods, check for expired food or beverages and study the identity documents of suspected illegal migrants. They said their medical clinic is almost completed and will be open later this week. Last year, they adopted the same kind of public-relations strategy by providing security at the city’s main hospital.
“The people know who we are, and how we helped during the revolution, and how we kept the central hospital secure,” Mr. Alaghoury said.
Another militia officer, Abdullah Abdurahman, displayed a crate of confiscated food and medicine at the checkpoint. A closer look at the drug packages, however, showed that many weren’t expiring until April or June of this year.
He also waved a handful of identity documents from suspected illegal migrants – including a Chadian man and an Ethiopian woman who had “escaped from her boss,” he said.
“We catch a lot of illegal immigrants without documents, including Africans and Egyptians.”
He said his group is negotiating a co-operation agreement with Libya’s Interior Ministry, allowing it to transfer detainees to the government. “Our authority is from the people, but we want to be more official, so that we can collaborate with the government.”
Ansar al-Sharia is seen as the most extreme of Benghazi’s militia groups, but most streets and checkpoints in the city are controlled by other Islamist groups that share much of its ideology and its ultraconservative interpretation of Islam.
The reaction among Benghazi’s people is mixed. Some are resentful of the continuing power of Islamist militia groups, others praise the work of Ansar al-Sharia.
“They’re doing a good job on security,” one Benghazi man said. “They are very strict and tough. People are afraid of them because they could easily beat you up and put you in jail. People who smoke hashish and drink alcohol don’t like them.”
Other militias also admire them. “What Ansar al-Sharia is doing is more humanitarian than military,” said Ismail Salabi, a senior leader of Libya Shield, a powerful Islamist militia that controls several checkpoints in Benghazi. “Ansar al-Sharia is Libyan – they are among us.”
Meanwhile, a few kilometres away, the former U.S. diplomatic mission is still in ruins, as it was after the Sept. 11 attack. Its main building, where Mr. Stevens was caught in the firestorm, is littered with broken glass and rubble, wrecked furniture and a smashed chandelier. Its walls are heavily blackened by smoke, the after-effects of which can still be smelled. Some of the ambassador’s clothes are still strewn across his bedroom.
Asked about the attack, Mr. Alaghoury said: “The U.S. consulate had security cameras everywhere. If there is proof we did it, please show us.”