More than ten months after the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, Ansar al Sharia is even more entrenched in Libyan society. Members of Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi were reportedly part of the al Qaeda-linked jihadist coalition that killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador. But today, Ansar al Sharia is far from being on the run. The organization is expanding and is even tasked with providing security inside Benghazi.
On Sunday, Ansar al Sharia Libya posted images and a video of its armed members manning a checkpoint in Benghazi. Incredibly, according to previous reports, the group is providing security at the behest of the Libyan government.
In February, Jamie Dettmer reported for The Daily Beast that the Libyan government is relying on Ansar al Sharia, and other “revolutionary militias,” to “combat drug dealers and a crime wave that is disrupting daily life in the capital and in the eastern city of Benghazi.” Ansar al Sharia members have been “manning checkpoints and guarding hospitals and other public buildings,” while receiving Libyan government payments “through other Benghazi brigades.”
The rampant violence has not been quelled, however. There were numerous attacks before and after the assault on the U.S. mission in September of last year. That trend has continued.
On July 28, two bombs exploded in Benghazi, including a car bomb outside of a courthouse and a “bomb in a bag” between a hospital and the Ministry of Justice. In total, the Libya Herald reports, “four car bombs have exploded in the last three days, killing one man and injuring some thirteen people” in Benghazi. This string of attacks prompted the French to send a forensic team. The French previously sent a forensic team in April, after their embassy in Tripoli was hit by a car bomb.
In recent days, Benghazi assassins have killed a retired Libyan Air Force official, the commander of a police station, and a political activist. On top of all of this, more 1,000 convicts have escaped as a result of a riot at a prison near Benghazi.
Back in June, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was asked about an alleged intelligence report that blamed the Ansar al Sharia militia for much of the violence. As the Libya Herald reported, “Zeidan strenuously denied the existence of such a report.” But he couldn’t come up with an alternative explanation either.
“I was with the head of Intelligence, Salem Al-Hassy and he did not name anyone”, Zeidan said. “We can only apportion blame after there has been a full investigation.”
Other reports suggested that the violence has been fueled by a “convoy of Islamist extremists” who “had arrived in Benghazi from the alleged hotbed town of Derna,” the Herald noted. But Zeidan “again refused to confirm or deny such allegations.” (Ansar al Sharia is known to have a presence in Derna that is led by a former Guantanamo detainee. Derna has supplied many Libyan jihadists to the battlefields of Iraq and elsewhere.)
Meanwhile, groups such as Ansar al Sharia have benefitted from the chaos. This is the opposite of what was supposed to happen.
In its annual Country Reports on Terrorism published on May 30, the State Department noted that after the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack, “senior Libyan authorities assured their U.S. counterparts that security was their top priority.” Zeidan and his cabinet were “focused on bolstering the security sector in Libya and extending the reach of governmental security institutions beyond Tripoli.”
The “security and justice sector institutions had been severely weakened following 42 years of mismanagement” under the Qadhafi regime, however. And “any legislation seeking to limit the power of heavily-armed, extra-governmental militias has been difficult to enforce,” State reported. Libyan judges fear retribution and are therefore disinclined to hear cases. “Police and military personnel and facilities” have been the “frequent targets of attacks by pro-Qadhafi and violent Islamist extremist groups, who fiercely [resist] any efforts by the government to exert its authority.”
It is in this milieu that Ansar al Sharia is gaining strength.
Ansar al Sharia in Libya is, at a minimum, pro-al Qaeda. BBC News interviewed Ansar al Sharia commander Mohammad Ali al Zahawi shortly after the U.S. mission in Benghazi was attacked. While denying any link to al Qaeda, al Zahawi endorsed the terrorist organization’s strategy.
“Al Qaeda's strategy is aimed at weakening U.S. hegemony on the Muslim nation,” al Zahawi said. BBC News reported that he “thoroughly approves” of al Qaeda’s strategy. Al Zahawi also praised al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, and the al Qaeda master’s statements on jihad.
“Such statements are a wake-up call for Muslims,” al Zahawi said. “They help galvanize the Muslim nation, maintain its dignity and pride,” he added. “Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri is keen on safeguarding Muslim rights.”
Ansar al Sharia has been coy about its members’ role in the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. The group claimed in a statement that it did not participate “as a separate entity” or “as a sole entity” in the assault. This was hardly a firm denial.
And while al Zahawi did not claim responsibility for the attack, he was quick to imply the Americans deserved it. “Do you think that the killing of the US ambassador is more heinous than the several insults made about the Prophet, peace be upon him?” Zahawi asked during his BBC interview.
“I swear by God that we can tolerate the killing of all people and wiping all countries off the map but we cannot tolerate a single swear word that could hurt our prophet,” Zahawi continued. “They are weeping buckets on this ambassador but they won't shed any tears when dozens of Muslims are injured in these protests against the blasphemous film.”
Some in the U.S. military and intelligence community see Ansar al Sharia in Libya as an extension of al Qaeda. An August 2012 report prepared by the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, said Ansar al Sharia “has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States.”
Instead of being on the run, or having its operations disrupted by allied counterterrorism operations, Ansar al Sharia runs security checkpoints and is providing social services with the Libyan government’s blessing. The organization also recently announced a new branch in the Libyan city of Sirte, which lies between Tripoli and Benghazi.
Such operations only allow Ansar al Sharia to spread its pro-al Qaeda ideology and indoctrinate new recruits for jihad.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.