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In Benghazi, militias may promote security one day, threaten it the next

Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan Islamist militia publicly blamed for the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last month, has disappeared from the city's streets. Not all locals are happy about that.

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Bargathi remembers the militants as polite and, above all, efficient. “They would distribute leaflets and CDs to the women explaining how we should dress and behave in accordance to Islam. But they were always respectful to the women working here,” she says.  

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“Ansar al-Sharia was starting to do good work,” says Sanad Al-Zaway, a 21-year-old engineering student who describes himself as a volunteer with the group. “They would raid the houses of people who were producing moonshine alcohol,” he says (alcohol is banned in Libya). “There was also a prison inside their barracks. People would go to Ansar al-Sharia with their problems because the police weren’t doing their jobs. Now all this work has been halted.”  

Who's in charge?

But what Al-Zaway considers “good work” didn’t always sit well with the people of Benghazi. Sameeh Laheiwl describes hitting a checkpoint on a recent trip to the beach with friends. “Guys with guns pull you over and start checking your car for alcohol or drugs,” he says. “If they are bearded, chances are that they will destroy what they find. Or they may just keep it and drink it themselves. The trouble is, you never know who you’re dealing with.”  

It is this kind of lawlessness that the people of Benghazi reacted against when they took to the streets on Sept. 21.

“The attack on the US consulate was just the latest in a series of incidents,” says Mohamed Abu Janah, a local radio executive and one of the protest’s organizers.

“The people will not accept anything less than a real national army,” says Fathi Baja, an early member of the National Transitional Council, the interim government that emerged during the fight against Qaddafi, in Benghazi. “All the militia need to be disbanded, including those that are supposedly operating under the army command. Their members are free to join the new army as individuals, but as long as the militia remain intact within the army, nothing will have changed.”

But the Libyan government is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Even if it wanted to break the hold of the militia, in the short term it has to rely on those same militia for maintaining order, and for operations like in Bani Walid, where government-sanctioned militia are currently surrounding a cluster of Qaddafi loyalists.  

An isolated militia

For now, the only tangible result of the events that began with the attack on the US consulate seems to be the isolation of Ansar al-Sharia, which has been blamed for the death of Ambassador Stevens and the others Americans on Sept. 11 and 12.

Few people in Benghazi believe that the Ansar al-Sharia leadership is behind the attack, even if eyewitnesses have placed individual members at the scene.

“It doesn’t make sense,” says Ramy Elobeidi, the former intelligence chief for the Libyan rebels. “They had only just started to establish themselves in the community with their social services. To order such an attack, and invite retaliation, would be counterproductive to their goals at this stage.”

The US State Department has designated Ansar al-Sharia, which roughly translates as "Helpers of Islamic Law," as the new “brand name” for Al Qaeda. But it acknowledges that Ansar al-Sharia in Libya is “a separate entity” from Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, which was recently put on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. The Yemeni group, State says, is “simply Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s effort to rebrand itself with the aim of manipulating people to join AQAP’s terrorist cause.”  

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