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In Libya, a patchwork of militias keeping the peace, and straining it

The murders of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi last month were a reminder that militias can make for poor security forces.

By Correspondent / October 5, 2012

This Sept. 12 file photo shows Libyans walking on the grounds of the gutted US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after the attack that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Ibrahim Alaguri/AP

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Benghazi, Libya

Not too long ago Wasim Ben Hamid's job was to bring Libya's social order crashing down. Now he's trying to build a new one as Benghazi coordinator for the Libyan Shield Forces (LSF), a national umbrella for militias who fought Muammar Qaddafi and are now working with the defense ministry to provide internal security.

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Progress has been halting. The enthusiastic young men who triumphed over Qaddafi may not be ideal for day-to-day policing and counter-terrorism work in a country with powerful regional and tribal rivalries and a surplus of weapons.

Mr. Ben Hamid believes his men are up to the task. But the limits of "security by militia" were tragically laid bare by the Sept. 11 attack on the US consulate here that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three colleagues. Regardless of any American security lapses, the bottom line is that both local militias and Libya's nascent official security forces failed to keep the consulate safe.

Afterward, Benghazi residents demonstrated against violence, prompting the Islamist militia blamed for the attack, Ansar al-Sharia, to withdraw from its compound. Locals say Ansar al-Sharia gunmen have disappeared from city streets.

But security across Libya remains fragile, and inter-militia rivalry remains a threat to a country still trying to find its way after four decades of one-man rule.

“The involvement of revolutionary brigades and local armed groups in efforts to end hostilities blurs the line separating neutral mediation from partisan meddling,” the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, said in a report last month.

That makes strengthening national security forces a top priority for the new government, which has yet to be formed since national elections in July. On Thursday, a proposed cabinet lineup by Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abu Shagur was rejected by the national assembly after a few hundred protesters from western towns with strong militias of their own flooded the parliament building, complaining the proposed government wasn't regionally inclusive.

Mr. Shagur has promised to propose a new cabinet by Sunday. Whether one will be approved then remains an open question. And until there's a government, building effective national security institutions is unlikely. The ICG warned that until then, the "reliance on revolutionary brigades and local armed forces will continue to be an uncertain wager.”

Militia men

The key is breaking down existing militia structures, says Fawzi Waniss, head of the Benghazi section of the Supreme Security Council (SSC), an auxiliary police force of militia fighters working under the interior ministry.

The SCC and LSF have brought most militias under at least nominal government control, says Mr. Waniss. Others are more loosely aligned with the state, while still others remain independent. “In Tripoli, they allowed whole brigades to enter the SSC,” says Mr. Waniss. “That was a mistake.”

In August the loyalty of some of those brigades was questioned after SSC fighters in Tripoli stood by while hardliners from Islam's Salafy sect destroyed mosques which contained Sufi shrines and graves. Adherents of the Salafy school, which is predominant in Saudi Arabia, consider venerating saints apostasy. 

Waniss has roughly 18,000 men under his command. He says they were recruited as individuals, rather than en masses as members of existing militias. But in other places, some of the auxiliary cops were recruited before a vetting system was in place, casting doubt on their loyalties. 

Meanwhile, Waniss also faces a lack of money.

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