Attacks on Western targets in Libya sow fears of Islamist extremists


Libyan women who lost relatives during the uprising against Moammar Gaddafi sit on a pavement as they mark the first anniversary of the uprising in the eastern city Benghazi in February. More than a year since the revolt erupted, Libya is battling challenges ranging from how to tame rowdy militias who fought Gaddafi forces to establishing a new rule of law in the country. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

A recent string of attacks on Western diplomats and international organizations has sparked fears that extremists are trying to destabilize Libya’s first post-revolution national elections.

The attacks included a bombing last week outside the U.S. Consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi and a rocket-propelled grenade attack there on a convoy carrying the British ambassador, which injured two bodyguards.

Explosions have also targeted offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross and a U.N. vehicle, as well as British Embassy cars visiting the southern city of Sabha last week.

A Libyan group called the Brigades of the Imprisoned Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman has asserted responsibility for some of the attacks. It is not clear whether all the attacks are linked or whether elements from outside Libya are involved, though experts say those responsible are probably Libyans. Abdel Rahman, known as the blind sheik, is an Egyptian Muslim cleric who is serving a life sentence in the United States on conspiracy charges that grew out of an investigation into the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The violence comes just weeks before Libyans vote for a national assembly that will in turn choose an interim government and a slate of people to write the country’s constitution. The polling date was recently pushed back to July 7.

“Elections are coming up, so some people may see this as a last opportunity to cause trouble before a government with a stronger mandate takes on Libya’s challenges,” said a Western diplomat here. Embassies have reviewed security, but otherwise “we are carrying on with business as usual,” the diplomat added.

Libyan authorities are investigating the attacks, said Othman Bensasi, director of administration for the Transitional National Council, which has run Libya for the past year. He said there was no evidence that foreigners were involved.

“We think it is fundamentalist Islamic groups,” he said. “They don’t want stability. They don’t want democracy.”

Bensasi said the current lack of a cohesive governing body allows such groups to operate. “We don’t have an authority that takes clear decisions,” he said, adding that he hoped this would improve after elections.

Several Islamic groups in Libya have embraced the elections, putting forward parties and candidates. A much smaller fringe has condemned the polls as un-Islamic.

An official at the U.S. Embassy declined to speculate on who was behind the bombings. He said the United States has requested, and is receiving, increased security from the Libyan government since the Benghazi explosion, which hit an outside wall of the consulate compound.

Libyans in government as well as private citizens have expressed profound dismay at the attacks.

“Even more than we, they do not want their country to look like Iraq, and I think they’ve been shocked and worried over the last two weeks,” the Western diplomat said, adding that most Libyans seem to back the road map to a new government. “They are disappointed in the current government, but the vast majority have accepted that elections are the best way to improve things.”

More than 80 percent of eligible voters — about 2.7 million Libyans — have reportedly registered to vote in the election.

Speculation about those behind the recent violence has also focused on loyalists of slain former leader Moammar Gaddafi determined to prove true his prediction that, without him, Libya would fall to al-Qaeda. But analysts said that although the targets of the attacks — international missions — resemble the work of al-Qaeda, the methods used do not.

“It’s very amateur work, which is usually not al-Qaeda style,” said Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation. He said the attacks seem designed “to send a message to the international community: ‘We don’t like you. Go away. Libya’s not stable. Nobody can even protect you.’ ”

Benotman said he believed the perpetrators were young Libyans unsettled by what the elections symbolize.

“They are not happy about the new developments, the next phase, which is purely a political process,” he said. “Some people, they can’t act in that environment — they don’t have the skills — so they prefer to keep it as it is, in chaos.”

In the absence of a strong government, with tens of thousands of weapons in private hands, Libya has experienced an increase in crimes such as carjackings, smuggling and drug dealing. There have been attacks on local law enforcement officials and recurring skirmishes between warring militias across the country.

Fighting erupted this month between factions in the southern town of Kufra, and more than a dozen people died in clashes this week between a revolutionary brigade in the mountain town of Zintan and a neighboring brigade considered to be pro-Gaddafi.

The Zintan militia last week detained an International Criminal Court team that had come to visit Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, a son of the late leader, under suspicion of passing him sensitive information. The ICC has tussled with the Libyan government over where he will be tried for alleged crimes against humanity.

In contrast, Tripoli, the capital, feels tranquil, with policemen directing traffic, municipal workers trimming trees and men gathering at night to sip tea at breezy outdoor cafes along the Mediterranean.

Radwan Alborawi, 32, an IT specialist, sat at a table looking worriedly at a laptop screen showing demonstrators in Benghazi demanding Islamic sharia law. They scare him more than any of the country’s other problems, he said.

“They want to make Libya the same as Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “We didn’t fight for 10 months for them to come and raise their black flag.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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