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Libyan cop in Benghazi kidnapped

The kidnapping of the head of the criminal investigations department in Benghazi, where four US officials were killed last year, is a reminder of how tough Libya's transition remains.

By Staff writer / January 3, 2013



Cairo, Egypt

Abdelsalam al-Mahdawi, the head of Benghazi's criminal investigation department, was kidnapped on his way to work today by gunmen at an intersection in Libya's second largest city.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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Benghazi was the heart of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, and since then it has failed to bring the militias that fought on the side of the revolution – some Islamist, some not – under any kind of government control. They remain armed and often a law unto themselves in the city. Criminal gangs, spawned from militias, are also at work.

The list of potential suspects is long, particularly since Mr. Mahdawi's personal background isn't immediately clear. Was he someone who served Mr. Qaddafi's regime at one point, and is being targeted for revenge? Could it be a personal or family dispute? Could his investigations of militias and/or criminals be the reason for his kidnapping? A simple matter of kidnap-for-ransom? All are possible.

But what's likely is that sorting out what's happened to him will be confusing, subject to completing claims, and difficult for any neutral observer trying to get at the truth to figure out. That's been the pattern in violent incidents in Benghazi not just since the war ended, but before.

The attack on the US facility in Benghazi in September that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead is still not fully understood. Meanwhile, today's assault is the second attack on a senior police official in Benghazi since November, when Benghazi police chief Farraj al-Dursi was assassinated outside his house. Mr. Dursi, who served under Qaddafi's government, was appointed police chief during a shuffle of security in the city after the attack on the Americans in September.

One long-standing murder in Benghazi is taking a troubling turn.

Abdel Fateh Younes, a commander of rebel forces, was abducted and murdered in the city in July 2011. Gen. Younes defected from his long-standing stalwart support of Qaddafi that February and was abducted after being called back from the front of that civil war. What happened next remains uncertain.

Shortly after his murder, Mustapha Abdel Jalil, then head of Libya's Transitional National Council and himself a former minister in Qaddafi's government, insisted Younes was killed by agents of Qaddafi. Others in the rebel government in Benghazi said Younes' arrest had been sought on suspicion he was working as a double agent for Qaddafi. In the immediate aftermath, a civil war within a civil war in Benghazi looked possible, with angry loyalists of Younes demanding justice.

Mr. Jalil was a hero of the revolution for being one of the earliest defectors from Qaddafi's regime and for successfully navigating international intrigue and competing agendas domestically in winning NATO support for the rebellion. In December, he was threatened with a military trial for allegedly ordering the murder of Younes. Among the charges against Jalil were "undermining national unity."

Is there good reason to suspect him? It's unclear, as with so much else in Libya these days. The proposal to try Jalil in a military court, however, was clearly worrying. On Dec. 19, the military tribunal organized to try Jalil resigned and the case was thrown back to prosecutors. To top it all, one of the judges investigating Jalil was murdered in Benghazi last year.

What does all this mean? Hard to say. But the ongoing chaos and bloodshed, at high political levels in Libya, is not a positive sign.

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