TRIPOLI, Libya — After committing $8 million to help build a counterterrorism force in Libya, the United States faces a difficult choice: work through a weak government that has so far proved unable to build a national army and police force from the thousands of former rebels who have operated as militias since Moammar Gaddafi’s downfall — or work with the militias themselves.
The deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi underscored what many here say is a growing extremist problem amid Libya’s lawlessness. Most Libyan lawmakers are welcoming an Obama administration decision — made shortly before the Benghazi attack — to help Libya establish a special counterterrorism force.
But unlike Pakistan and Yemen, where U.S. Special Forces have helped train elite counterterrorism units, Libya presents no obvious security partner.
The Libyan government remains largely ineffective, with its military and police force still in the embryonic stage. Many militia members are armed, disciplined and ready to work. But Libyan officials and analysts say their participation in such a force could undermine the very goal of establishing a strong and unified postwar Libya.
Last week, a U.S. Embassy delegation, led by CIA operatives, traveled to Benghazi to meet and recruit fighters directly from the Libyan Shield, a powerful umbrella organization of militias, according to Fathi al-Obeidi, a commander of the group.
The Libyan Shield provided the rescue force that assisted the U.S. mission in Benghazi on the night of the attack, and Obeidi said his fighters represent the most viable local option for a special unit.
The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli could not be reached for comment, and Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman, said that U.S. officials were still in the preliminary stages of the program and had not yet determined the size or composition of the force.
It was also unclear whether the visit described by Obeidi was part of the $8 million Defense Department initiative or a separate project.
But interviews with Obeidi and other militia commanders, as well as elected officials and the commander of Libya’s armed forces — each of whom offered a different interpretation of where power lies in the country — underscored the complex reality that U.S. officials will have to navigate if the program moves forward.
Analysts said the task of choosing a viable security partner from among disparate and competing factions in Libya’s security vacuum is loaded with potential pitfalls.
“There are enormous risks,” said Geoff Porter, a risk and security analyst who specializes in North Africa.
One danger of working with quasi-state actors such as Libya’s militias is that it’s difficult to hold their members accountable if they commit violent crimes or engage in human rights abuses, Porter said.
In a more stable political environment, a security unit that goes rogue could be prosecuted, he said. But Libya has yet to see a seated cabinet, a justice system or the establishment of an army. And if U.S. funding builds a special unit whose capabilities exceed those of other state and quasi-state actors, its members would have little incentive to join a national force later on, Porter said.
Libya’s most powerful militias, including those aligned under the Libyan Shield and the Tripoli-based Supreme Security Committee, or SSC, have contributed to the country’s security woes, officials said.
Last month, the acting defense minister, Osama al-Juwali, said his ministry had no control over Libyan Shield forces from Misrata who had seized Bani Walid, a former Gaddafi loyalist town, and were blocking displaced residents from returning.
Violent clashes between rival militias, including those that fall within larger umbrella groups such as the Libyan Shield and SSC, are near-daily occurrences. Last weekend, gun battles shut down a neighborhood of the capital as the SSC used machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades to tame one of its own groups, which had begun arresting and torturing members of the community.
Obeidi said that he had come to the capital early this past week along with other militia commanders in part to press certain demands on Libya’s new prime minister.
“We want every minister to have a deputy, and this deputy should be a revolutionary,” Obeidi said. When Prime Minister Ali Zeidan initially declined to meet with the group, the Libyan Shield threatened to bar him and his newly approved cabinet from entering eastern Libya. Zeidan later agreed to the meeting.
The total absence of professionalism among Libya’s armed forces — past and present — should be a red flag for anyone working to build a force here, said Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expert and a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
“Anyone who gets involved with the Libyan Shield, the Supreme Security Committee or other groups has to be hoping that these groups will stay professional and stay on the mission that they’re being asked to implement — that they’re not going to go rogue,” he said.
The lines between those who fall under the authority of Tripoli and those outside it are already gray, with militia members claiming to act under the authority of the ministries of defense and interior when it suits their objectives.
Libyan Shield forces wear army fatigues and drive trucks identified as belonging to the Libyan army but privately dismiss its chief of staff as a lame duck. Meanwhile, the SSC militias frequently don police uniforms, even as commanders say they often act unilaterally.
“We’re in Martyr’s Square. We have checkpoints. We have about 13,000 men in Tripoli,” said Saeed Garsallah, a top SSC commander who runs his troops out of the Tripoli Zoo. The SSC even operates undercover agents dressed as taxi drivers, he added. And when protesters from other militias stormed the General National Congress last month, it was the SSC that stepped in.
“We did it not to undermine the police, [but] because we are the revolutionaries and we have the weapons, so it’s easier for us to be there in the fight and in the field,” Garsallah said.
Even national congress members who said the militias were to blame for many of Libya’s current challenges also said they’re often the only forces out there keeping Libyans safe. And lawmakers are divided over the most appropriate solution.
In the past year, Libya’s transitional authorities have at times thrown money, titles and promises of work at the former rebel troops in an effort to appease them. At other times, officials have told the fighters to go home, drawing protest and threats.
Many officials have argued in recent weeks that a special unit to combat extremism is essential to keep Libya from slipping further into the realm of statelessness. But they also spoke of the need for parallel initiatives that would draw some of the former fighters away from their weapons while bringing others more firmly under Tripoli’s control.
“We need force, but it’s not the solution,” said Ebtisam Stieta, a national congress member from the conservative eastern city of Darna, where many say the extremist threat is most critical. “When the concept of al-Qaeda is there, they’ll return to it,” Stieta said. “So you need efforts to change their philosophy.”
Craig Whitlock in Washington and Ayman al-Kekly in Tripoli contributed to this report.