DOHA – “They are armed I am not going to fight a losing battle and kill my men over a demolished shrine,” said Fawzi Abd al-‘Aali, the former Libyan interior minister, before he “resigned” last August. 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.
Ahmed Jibril, Libya’s deputy ambassador to London, has now accused the Brigade, headed by Muhammed Ali Al-Zahawy, of perpetrating the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, which killed the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other US personnel, as well as Libyan guards. 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 that putatively triggered it.
The Brigade attracted public attention last June as well, when around 300 armed members staged a rally in Benghazi, sparking outrage among Libyans. “We wanted to send a message to the General National Council members,” according to 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.”
But 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 organisation, 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 Libya’s brutal dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Many subsequently matured politically, revised their worldview, and shifted from armed to unarmed activism, forming political parties and contesting elections.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, for example, 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 Sami al-Saadi, the group’s former chief ideologist, and Abd al-Wahad Qaid, an LIFG military commander and the brother of the 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 GNC 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 (interior ministry) and the Libyan Shield Force (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.
But 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 organisations 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 Guantánamo detainee, said in an interview last 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 insists 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 engendered wide public outrage in Libya, adding to the isolation and de-legitimisation 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 capitalise on public support and continue the disarmament, demobilisation, 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 American 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: “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. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements and Libyan Islamists Unpacked: The Rise, Transformation and Future. He can be reached at O.Ashour@Exeter.AC.UK or @DrOmarAshour.