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Libya's rogue militias complicate manhunt for those behind consulate attack

Libyan authorities have thrown their support behind US efforts to track down the perpetrators of the consulate attack, but well-armed militias, possibly backing Islamists, still lie beyond their control.

By Correspondent / September 14, 2012

Libyan military guards check one of the US Consulate's burnt out buildings during a visit by Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif, not shown, to the US Consulate to express sympathy for the death of the American ambassador, Chris Stevens and his colleagues in the deadly attack on the Consulate on Tuesday, in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 14.

Mohammad Hannon/AP

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Rabat, Morocco

The hunt is on in Libya for those behind the consulate attack that ended with the death of a US ambassador and three consulate staff, but the government's tenuous control raises questions about US and Libyan authorities' chances of success. 

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Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three colleagues were killed on Sept. 11 when an angry protest at the US consulate in Benghazi over a film insulting the prophet Muhammad morphed into a deadly rocket attack. It’s unclear whether the escalation was spontaneous or orchestrated, as some US officials suspect, and whether security lapses by American or Libyan authorities played a role. Most important, the perpetrators remain unknown.

Determining any of that will be hard, especially amid the challenge posed by Libya's numerous militias, which have a host of competing agendas. The good news for investigators is that most Libyans reject the violent ideology that US officials believe fueled the attack, and are unlikely to shelter its perpetrators. Libyan officials have condemned the attack and shown every sign of wanting to work with the US. 

Yesterday Libyan authorities said they had arrested and were interrogating four men suspected of involvement in the attack. 

But the fledgling government is vastly outgunned by local militias that arose last year to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi and have since refused to lay down their arms. Tripoli has little choice but to seek their help in keeping the peace.

Some Libyan officials suspect those militias’ loyalty. Deputy Interior Minister Wanis Sharif told The New York Times that while the initial assault on the consulate was chaotic, a subsequent attack on a US safe-house appeared planned. He believes the attackers "had infiltrators who were feeding them information.”

“In theory, there was an attempt to bring militias under the control of the interior and defense ministries,” says Wolfram Lacher, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a foreign policy think tank in Berlin. “But in reality they have kept their own command structures.” 

Increasingly, militias – including some with Islamist agendas – are consolidating their power and building up their numbers, Mr. Lacher says. “They want to define the new state by controlling the security sector.”

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