Libya has to deal with rebels within (Gulf News)


Adopting a confrontational rather than inclusive approach, the new government may have made a mistake which could bring it back to the brink of civil war

By Abdel Bari Atwan | Special to Gulf News
Published: 20:00 September 28, 2012

TThe shocking September 11 murders in Benghazi, Libya, of four senior US diplomats, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, precipitated a backlash against Benghazi’s three strongest militias, which saw military police and ordinary citizens acting in concert.

The extreme Islamist group Ansar Al Sharia — allegedly behind the murders — was forced to abandon its offices and weapons and leave the town. The leaders of the other two militias — the 17 February Brigade and the Rafaala Al S’hati Brigade — were replaced by men appointed by the Ministry of Defence.

Libya’s new US-educated Prime Minister, Mustafa Abu Shagour, had pledged to deal with the country’s chaotic security situation and was behind this operation to decommission the heavily armed militias who have controlled the streets since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted.

However, with fighters in the 17 February and Rafaala Al S’hati brigades simply refusing to take orders from their new bosses, its success appears to have been short-lived, suggesting that Libya’s recently-elected leaders will need to find new strategies for dealing with its rebels within.

Article continues below

Abu Shagour had decreed that some militias would have to surrender their weapons and disband, while others could come under government control as part of the state apparatus.

This policy contains the seeds of its own failure, largely due to the ambiguity as to which militias are acceptable as future partners and which are not. Some armed groups are closely linked to the government, such as the Zintan militia, which is still holding Saif Al Islam Gaddafi and which is headed by Osman Al Jueili, minister of defence in the National Transitional Council. That Abu Shagour has yet to name his cabinet is another aspect of Libya’s on-going administrative chaos.

An additional problem is that the government has been in the habit of contracting the services of some militias to perform security duties for the state, such as policing ballot stations during the recent elections.

There are many reasons here for armed groups, who played a major role in the uprising, to cry foul.

And while the crackdown in Benghazi may have taken the militias by surprise, its impact seems to have been short-lived.

This week, a group of Islamist fighters were able to attack the Tripoli hotel in which a newly-arrived group of Americans was housed. The group was there to investigate Stevens’ death.

Suggesting a continued refusal by Libya’s Islamists to accept a secular leadership, the militants shouted “Abu Shagour is the enemy of God’ as they attacked the hotel.

Reports on the ground suggest that the militias are back in control in Benghazi, but that the Al Qaida-linked Ansar Al Sharia are conspicuous by their absence. Rather than celebrating this as a victory, I feel the fledgling government should consider it somewhat ominous and reconsider how to deal with militant Islamist groups in general.

It is likely that the Ansar Al Sharia’s fighters have simply dispersed rather than engage in a fight they perceived as without purpose and which they were likely to lose.

Some extremists will go underground, where they will be very difficult to track, others will have left the country to fight elsewhere for a season — there are on-going Islamist operations in Mali and Nigeria, for example, while hundreds, if not thousands of Libyans have gone to fight in Syria. Others will have relocated internally, to other Islamist strongholds such as Dirna and Misrata.

The tactic of relocating, only to return to an existing logistical infrastructure when the situation is more favourable, is referred to as hijra [migration] by jihadists and has become a typical defence strategy for Al Qaida-related groups, as I explained in my new book After Bin Laden: Al Qaida the Next Generation. We have seen the return of Al Qaida, having been apparently routed, in Iraq, for example and in my opinion Ansar Al Sharia are highly likely to return to Benghazi. This, along with the news that Abu Anas Al Libi, a veteran Al Qaida leader, is now living in Tripoli should ring alarm bells.

Clearly, a situation whereby rival militias, armed to the teeth, act as defacto military, police and judiciary forces in various parts of the country, is untenable. But by going for a confrontational, rather than inclusive, approach, the new government may have made a mistake which could bring Libya back to the brink of a civil war, pitting secular liberals against militant Islamists — a situation of benefit to Al Qaida which thrives in chaotic environments.

In addition, civil conflict would offer opportunities for the ancient regime to regain a foothold by forming alliances with disaffected armed groups.

The close involvement of the US in the recent clampdown, as well as the presence of US warships and more than 20 drones, may be a further cause for resentment and disappointment among those who celebrated the first free elections in 40 years and had every hope that the new Libya would be free from foreign interference.

Many already fear a replay of the situation in Afghanistan where President Hamid Karzai is seen to be closer to Washington than to his own people. Libya’s new President, Mohammad Magarief, was the first leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a CIA-trained and funded body established in 1981 to oppose the Gaddafi regime.

Disappointment with the post-revolutionary political landscape is potentially destabilising. Worse, it could play into the hands of groups like Ansar Al Sharia by creating more sympathy for the extremists.

Armed groups of all persuasions, from socialists to Islamists, were crucial to the battle against Gaddafi. Somehow they must all be incorporated into the fabric of the new Libya. It will not be an easy job.

Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation, to be published by Saqi books on Wednesday 3 October.