Hussein Abu Hameida, the head of security in Benghazi, was fired this week after, he says, the central government blamed his police force for failing to stop an attack on the U.S. consulate. But he says he’s not going anywhere. (Abigail Hauslohner/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Hussein Abu Hameida, the head of security in Libya’s second-largest city, was sacked this week over the attack on the U.S. consulate here that killed the ambassador and three other Americans. But he says he’s not going anywhere.

On the night of Sept. 11, he says, his police were outnumbered and outgunned by the attackers. The blame, he says, belongs not on his own shoulders, but with the central government for its failure to rein in Libya’s powerful postwar militias.

“There has been no strategy in place to remove the weapons from the streets,” Abu Hameida said Wednesday in the sprawling, high-ceilinged chamber that serves as his office in Benghazi’s national security headquarters. “There has been no strategy to contain these [militias] and to move them into either the police or the army.”

Nearly a year after Libyan rebels killed Moammar Gaddafi, ushering in a new democratic era, Libya’s central government still exercises so little authority here in the eastern part of the country that Abu Hameida sees little peril in refusing an order from the Interior Ministry in Tripoli that he step down from his post.

Libyan officials have blamed foreign fighters for the Benghazi assault. On Wednesday, Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called it a “terrorist attack” and said there is evidence that those involved came from extremist groups in eastern Libya and from affiliates of al-Qaeda.

Libyan military guards check one of the U.S. Consulate's burnt out buildings during a visit by Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif, not shown, to the U.S. Consulate to express sympathy for the death of the American ambassador, Chris Stevens and his colleagues in the deadly attack on the Consulate on Sept. 11, in Benghazi. (Mohammad Hannon/AP)

For many here, last week’s violence underscored the security vacuum left by Libya’s anemic central authority. With a far weaker police force than existed before the revolution, people in Benghazi have become “self-disciplining,” said Fatima Aguila, a local English teacher. “We govern ourselves.” Residents go about their daily business, help each other to resolve tribal disputes and continue to stop at stoplights, she said.

But in lawless Libya, weapons also carry clout. Well-armed bands of former rebel fighters make up more than 200 militias nationwide, according to an Atlantic Council study released last week. Some militias claim to have been absorbed, at least symbolically, into the ranks of Libya’s Tripoli-based Interior Ministry and military, but ground-level security is often uncoordinated, decentralized and lacks a hierarchy.

In many cases, including in Benghazi and in the western mountain town of Zintan where Libya’s highest-profile prisoner, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, is being held, the militias hold considerably more sway — and arms — than the Interior Ministry’s police force.

Even the U.S. consulate was partially dependent on militias for its security in the hours ahead of last week’s assault, fighters and officials said. According to the accounts provided by several witnesses and officials, consulate personnel called militia commanders for help in securing a safe house and locating Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens after the initial attack left parts of the compound consumed by flames and consular staff ill-equipped to confront the intruders.

A week after the consulate attack, security commanders in Benghazi said they had yet to receive new directives from Tripoli.

“The only thing they’ve done so far is fire me, the head of general security, and Wanis Sharif,” the head of regional security in the eastern part of Libya, Abu Hameida said as dozens of the city’s blue-uniformed police, who Abu Hameida said support him, meandered the hallways and cruised through the headquarters compound in red-and-white police vehicles. “As if the Americans will be convinced that it’s as easy as firing the two most important people, and that will calm everything down.”

Discontent with Tripoli

Libya’s revolution was born in Benghazi, and, after four decades of marginalization and neglect under Moammar Gaddafi, many of the city’s residents had hoped the revolution would bring them recognition and development. But today they are frustrated and bitter, complaining that the new government has done little more for them than to appoint a few top officials who hail from the east. The real benefits — such as wages to workers across the public sector, including hospital staff, teachers, and garbage collectors — have been too slow in coming, they say.

Libya’s interim leadership and its newly elected national Congress have taken stabs at both pacifying and absorbing the militias. Authorities have issued paychecks, offered training, and urged the submission of official paperwork to become part of a national force. For the more troublesome fighters, Benghazi residents say the authorities have organized tribal meetings, urging the cooperation of families in reining in their restless, gun-toting sons.

But Tripoli’s critics, including militia commanders here, say the lack of a coherent strategy has kept national security weak and left militia members directionless, divided in their loyalties, and waiting for wages that never seem to come.

“Now, the big question is: What is the next step? And it’s not clear,” said Fawzi Wanis al-Gaddafi, the head of Benghazi’s Supreme Security Committee, a loose coalition of militias under ostensible Interior Ministry control, who, according to Gaddafi, number more than 16,000 fighters.

“People don’t like this temporary situation,” he said. “It’s their future, and they want to know where they’re going. They want it to be sorted out.”

The militias under the security committee’s umbrella haven’t received paychecks since June, he added. At the U.S. consulate on Tuesday, the militia fighters tasked with guarding the now-empty compound said they haven’t been paid since March. “We don’t tell them there are no wages, we say it’ll come after a week or two weeks,” Gaddafi said.

Decentralized security

So decentralized is Benghazi’s security setup that in the days following the attack, the prime minister’s office was still trying to get a grip on just what forces are operating within the city, said Youssef Arish, whose family owns property adjacent to the consulate and who knew Stevens personally. Arish said the investigators asked him about a mysterious militia that had recently moved into an abandoned compound down the street. “The Ministry of Defense knew nothing about it,” he said.

“People are angry,” he added. “They want the government to do something about this [militia problem].”

Any strategy will be tricky to implement, said Gaddafi. If Tripoli demanded the dissolution of his own force today, he said that he — like Abu Hameida, the city’s security chief — might have trouble following the orders. “The government is not strong enough” to tell the militias to lay down their arms, he said. “Plus, they don’t want to set off a civil war.”