'This extremism is alien to Libyans'
No one knows for sure who carried out Tuesday’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, but it underscores the weakness of the Libyan government in the face of Salafist extremism
FATHI AKKARI woke up on Wednesday to a day he was certain would mark another important step in Libya’s tentative journey from dictatorship to democracy. That evening the country’s recently elected national congress was due to select a new prime minister, and Akkari was one of the eight contenders for the post.
Last year he left his life in Dublin, where he lectured in electronic engineering at the institute of technology in Tallaght, to return to the country he had fled as a political dissident decades before. Akkari witnessed the final gasps of the Gadafy regime and was later appointed deputy minister for higher education in Libya’s interim government.
After taking his coffee that morning Akkari turned on a local TV channel. It was just in time to hear the first reports that the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, three of his staff and several Libyan security-forces personnel had perished in a sustained assault on the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, crucible of the revolution that allowed Akkari to return home. “I could not believe it,” says Akkari. “I knew the ambassador personally, and I knew he was a true friend of Libya. It was so shocking. It is a tragedy for us as Libyans that this happened in our country.”
As yet no one knows for sure who carried out the attack, although US officials believe it may have been a premeditated hit by militants using as a pretext an initially peaceful protest outside the consulate about an obscure US-made film lampooning Islam. The gunmen were heavily armed, some with rocket-propelled grenades, and they later raided a supposedly secret safe house just as Libyan and US security forces were arriving to rescue evacuated consular staff.
The timing of the assault, which coincided with the anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the US, was not lost on Akkari. “This for me suggests a connection with al-Qaeda, and unfortunately we have some elements in Libya who have this way of thinking.” Others have noted that the consulate was besieged just hours after the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for revenge for the June killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda figure from Libya, in a US drone strike in Pakistan.
Suspicion has already fallen on radical factions, including Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Sharia) and the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, the latter named after the Egyptian militant who is serving a jail sentence in the US for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Ansar al-Sharia, whose leader denounced Libya’s July elections as un-Islamic, has denied it was involved in the attack as a group, although locals say individual members may have been participated. The Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades had claimed responsibility for previous attacks against foreign targets in Benghazi, including a grenade strike on the Red Cross offices and a small explosion at the US consulate.
Libya’s problem with armed militias like these that cleave to the ultraconservative Salafist strain of Islam is not confined to Benghazi. In Fathi Akkari’s hometown of Derna, noted as a hotbed of Islamist opposition during Gadafy’s time, locals blame Salafist militias for a string of assassinations in the town as well as threats to radio stations and beauty salons.
“They are putting pressure on the community, and people don’t like it,” says Akkari as he tells the story of a friend at a radio station who was warned not to play music. “This extremism is alien to us.”
Adam Argiag, another Derna native who has lived in Ireland for many years, agrees. “Some people are saying we need to make another revolution against these people.”
Argiag, a member of the mainstream Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main parties in Libya’s national congress, divides Libya’s Salafists into three streams: those who tend towards a quietist approach; those who are largely nonviolent but support the demolition of shrines and mosques belonging to the Sufi tradition they consider idolatrous; and those he describes as “Salafi-jihadists”. The latter, he says, pose great danger.
“They are very extreme about many things, and they oppose concepts like democracy and the idea of civil society. Their numbers are small, but because they have guns they can make a big noise.”
Although they make up a fraction of Libya’s population, armed Salafists have grown increasingly assertive in recent months. In August they demolished Sufi shrines, mosques and mausoleums in Tripoli and the towns of Misrata and Zliten. In Benghazi they have desecrated British second World War graves and attacked the Tunisian consulate in protest at an art exhibition in Tunis they considered offensive. As has happened in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, some Salafists act like self-appointed morality police, admonishing women who do not wear hijabs and raiding cafes where unrelated men and women socialise together. Others have distributed leaflets at universities and schools calling for segregated education.
Libya’s Salafist problem, of which the US- consulate attack is only the most recent manifestation, underscores the weakness of the central government in Tripoli, which has struggled to impose its authority after the collapse of Gadafy’s iron grip. Many were appalled last month when the interior minister, discussing the destruction of Sufi shrines, all but admitted that the authorities feel powerless in the face of those responsible.
Libya still lacks what could be considered a professional police force and army, allowing local militias to fill the vacuum in parts of the country. Many of these militias resist calls to integrate into nascent national security structures; others have been co-opted into provisional forces under nominal government control.
Worryingly, eastern Libyas deputy interior minister has said infiltrators within the security forces may have tipped off militants to the location of the safe house to which consular staff were evacuated after the initial attack on the diplomatic mission. “The problem is, these people are not well trained and some of them have their own agendas,” says Fathi Akkari, referring to the Salafist bent of some of these loosely organised security forces. “We cannot rely on people like that. We need a thorough organisation of the police, army and national guard.”
Akkari, who, like all candidates for prime minister, put Libya’s security challenges as his top priority, believes the killings at the US consulate will mark a turning point. “It was such a terrible irony that this coincided with our vote for a new prime minister, but it has reminded us of the challenges ahead.”
He says he is confident the incoming government will take decisive action against radical elements, though many Libyans remain sceptical. “This is a real test for Libya, a real test for our new government,” said one Benghazi resident who did not want to be named. “Everyone will be watching to see if they are up to it.”
Authorities in Benghazi say they have made four arrests in relation to the consulate attack, and there are reports that the army is planning an operation against groups believed to have been behind it.
“Libyans have been disgusted by these killings, which have tarnished our image in the eyes of the world,” Akkari says. “They demand action, and the new government will have to move against these people, isolate them and eliminate this threat from our landscape.
“We cannot allow this to continue. It is not the Libyan way.”
Violence over anti-Muslim film
Protests about a US-made film denigrating Islam and the prophet Muhammad took place in several Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East, Africa and Asia yesterday. Clerics and Islamist groups said the US should not be attacked because of the work.
In Egypt, where violent demonstrations against the film began earlier this week, protesters gathered in Cairo after the Muslim Brotherhood, to whom the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, belongs, cancelled plans for nationwide protests and called on people to assemble in the city’s Tahrir Square for a symbolic rally.
Egyptian state media say more than 220 people have been injured in clashes since Tuesday. In a letter to the New York Times, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood wrote: “Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible.”
In his televised Friday sermon, the influential Doha-based Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has strong connections with the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, in Dublin, criticised attacks on US embassies in Egypt and Libya. He said anger about the film should not be directed towards the US.
Unrest prompted by the film, an amateurish work promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who once burned copies of the Koran, has resulted in the deaths of two people in Yemen, one in Lebanon and several others in Libya, including US ambassador Chris Stevens.
In Sudan yesterday demonstrators set the German embassy on fire, and gathered at the British embassy. It was unclear why the two European embassies were singled out.
Authorities in Afghanistan, which has witnessed several episodes of deadly violence over perceived slurs to Islam, have blocked access to YouTube.