Islamist militia edging back into Benghazi

Mohammad Hannon/AP - Libyan security forces stand guard at a checkpoint on the highway leading to downtown Benghazi ahead of the two-year anniversary of the uprising that toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

BENGHAZI, Libya — After the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission last fall that left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead, the Islamist militia widely accused of leading the assault all but disappeared amid a popular backlash.

But Ansar al-Sharia is edging back into society, and many of Benghazi’s residents now say they want it here.

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The militia tentatively resumed its role as guardian of Benghazi’s two main hospitals last week. Its fighters have staked out positions at the western entrance to the city. They have also moved back onto their base, and residents say the group has been participating in community cleanup and charity work.

Its resurgence — and that of Rafallah al-Sahati, another Islamist militia — underscores the city’s reckoning with a harsh reality, residents said. No one else is capable of securing volatile Benghazi.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Jalal al-Gallal, a prominent political activist in the city and a former member of Libya’s transitional government. Ansar al-Sharia has some “hard-liners,” he said, “but they do actually carry out a lot of good work, whether we like it or not.”

The eight-month war that toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi in 2011 left the country awash with weapons and brigades of former revolutionary fighters, many of whom now operate as militias loosely allied with the government and determined to play a security role in the new Libya.

Thousands of Benghazi residents protested against the militias and the prevailing lawlessness in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission, and some locals assisted by government-allied militias eventually overran bases belonging to Ansar al-Sharia, Rafallah al-Sahati and two other groups.

But the country’s police force, much of it still stocked with men who served under the ousted regime, remains weak and has continued to face opposition from the militias.

‘The only realistic option’

After Ansar al-Sharia left its post as the self-appointed guardian of Jelaa Hospital in Benghazi, security rapidly deteriorated there, health officials said.

Feuds between families carried from the streets into the emergency room, as angry relatives followed gurneys taking victims of the fighting into the hospital. Patients sold drugs in the hallways and stole hospital equipment.

Doctors were sometimes threatened at gunpoint, said Mohamed Khamis, an emergency room surgeon. Last month, a militia member walked into the emergency room and shot his rival dead on the operating table, he said.

“After that, we closed for two weeks. We called for help. We reached out to the Interior Ministry and the Health Ministry, but all they’ve done is make promises,” Khamis said.

Last week, the hospital finally reopened its doors — but only after a security force made up of Ansar al-Sharia alumni and neighborhood fighters took up position outside. Ansar al-Sharia’s black flag flies above the main entrance. Two of its tan gun trucks — their identifying stickers replaced with a new title, “The Selmani Youth Forum” — stand outside.

For the past four days, there have been no violent incursions, Khamis said.

“We would prefer it if the Interior Ministry was protecting life here,” he said. “But the only solution is to go with Ansar al-Sharia because they’re the only realistic option right now.”

It’s a cynical arrangement, many here say. But as Benghazi commemorates the two-year anniversary of its revolution this weekend amid heightened fears of violence, some residents suggested that the government in Tripoli may have called on the militias to maintain order.

“The people attacked Ansar al-Sharia a few months ago because they were angry. But now they’re asking them to come back because there is no police and no real military,” said Essam al-Zubeir, a government spokesman in Tripoli. “All of this needs time. Until the country is able to rebuild the police and military, the people prefer to be protected by their own people.”

But not all is as it was. If the residents of this city have learned a hard lesson about security and the capabilities of their weak central government, so, too, have the militias learned from the people, many said.

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens “was a great friend of the revolution and his death was a great blow. But what came out of it was the toning down of the extremists,” said Essam Gheriani, a businessman and activist. “Everyone is keeping an eye on them now. Benghazi has always been a city that is quite volatile, but now they know what they can do and what they can’t do.”

A taboo affiliation

On the street, Ansar al-Sharia remains a taboo affiliation, even thought many residents say they admired the group’s work.

Bearded “volunteers” in military fatigues manning a checkpoint at Benghazi’s western entrance said Ansar al-Sharia had recently taken up position there to help secure the road. They told earlier visitors that they were members of the group, but none would admit that on Saturday. Their white Toyotas, mounted with machine guns, were anonymous too; rectangles of dirt surrounded the spot where their identifying labels once stuck.

Rafallah al-Sahati has recoiled, too.In September, the group’s commanders bragged about the militia’s role on the rescue team that assisted the American evacuation from the mission on the night of the attack. But the group largely disappeared from the public eye in the months since.

The group recently resumed command of checkpoints on the city’s perimeter, but it has changed its name to “Libyan Shield 3” because it now falls under the command of the Defense Ministry, said one of the group’s fighters, Basit Mohamed, who was wounded in the September assault on the group’s base.

“They are much more restrained. They understand that the spotlight has been put on them,” al-Gallal said of the militia.

No one in Benghazi ever went on trial for the attack. But whether Ansar al-Sharia carried it out — or a more recent string of assassinations and disappearances of local police officials believed to be ex-regime loyalists — has become largely irrelevant here.

“People care, people do understand that you need to have due process,” al-Gallal said. “But they also understand that there is an absolute absence of central government.”

 
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