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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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According to a report published by the federal research division of the Library of Congress in August, however, at least one of the Ansar al-Sharia groups in Libya "has increasingly embodied al Qaeda's presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States."

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Mr. Kuwafi, the Muslim Brother, warns against jumping to conclusions. “Their first mistake was the name they adopted. I told them that a name like that was going to scare people in the West, especially since there is an Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, which really is linked to Al Qaeda." 

Kuwafi doesn’t deny that “there are extremists in Libya, working in the shadows. But I have not seen anything that leads me to believe that Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi has international connections of this kind.”

“Of course they want an Islamic state. But they are patriots in the first place, and they see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to Libya. They have seen Libyan members of the Brotherhood meet with their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, and they fear that the new Libya is going to be ruled by an international Muslim Brotherhood, with Libya providing the oil money.”  

He offers as proof for their patriotism that Ansar al-Sharia simply left their barracks when confronted with civilian protesters. He contrasts that with the behavior of another Islamist militia that operates with official government approval in Benghazi, the Rafallah al-Sihati brigade. That brigade opened fire on the protesters, killing 11 people, when they descended on its compound.

Innocent?

Rami Elobeidi, who was the head of intelligence for the National Transitional Council that overthrew Qaddafi last year, agrees. “Ansar al-Sharia is a convenient culprit. The government didn’t get worried about the Benghazi protest until the people attacked Rafallah al-Sihati.”  

Indeed, Army Chief of Staff Yussef al-Mangoush asked the protesters on television that night to leave the “legal” brigades, ones operating with government approval like Ansar and Sihati, alone.

Elobeidi deplores the routing of Ansar al-Sharia for his own reasons. “When there are people you distrust, it is better to have them in one place where you can see them, instead of dispersed and in hiding.”  

Ansar al-Shariah may be keeping a low profile for now, but that doesn’t mean that its ideas have disappeared. Ismail Fraj Al-Mejbri, one of the Rafallah al-Sihati brigade's leaders, felt it necessary, unprompted, to deny rumors that “all of Rafallah al-Sihati is Ansar al-Sharia."

Malek Al-Kharraz, a young member of an Islamist militia, explains that it's a question of ideology, rather than membership in a particular group. “Being Ansar al-Sharia is like being Al-Qaeda," he says. "You are a member if you share their ideas, even if you belong to another katiba.”

Kuwafi says he once asked Ansar al-Sharia what they would do if the people took up arms against them.  

“They said they would always be on the side of the people. I also asked them what they would do in the case of a foreign intervention against them. They said that all Libya would be Ansar al-Shariah then.”

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