Ansar al-Sharia's members are known in the US as the killers who overran the US consulate in Benghazi last month, murdering US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues. The incident that has roiled the US presidential race and led to furious rounds of politicking and finger pointing in Washington.
But to Fadya Bargathi at Benghazi's El Jala hospital, the designated culprits in the consulate attack are something else: saviors. “Before Ansar al-Shariah took over security here our lives were hell,” says Ms. Bargathi, a hospital administrator. “People would walk in and out of the hospital with their weapons, and if they didn’t get treatment immediately they would put a gun to a doctor’s head.”
The story of Jala hospital and Ansar's role in restoring order there captures the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya. Militias, some Islamist, some not, are frequently the first line of security, other times the threat themselves.
Ansar al-Sharia is alleged to have been both. While many in Benghazi are skeptical the group ordered the attack on the US consulate, and see them more likely as a convenient scapegoat, US and Libyan officials have been pointing in their direction.
But Bargathi sees the group differently. She was one of the few staff members at the hospital during a visit last week. Most of her colleagues were on strike, demanding the return of Ansar al-Shariah’s security detail.
They vanished from the city's streets after Sept. 21, when tens of thousands of ordinary Libyans took to the streets to demand an end to militia rule in a "Save Benghazi" protest. The protest, which came 10 days after the consulate attack, ended with thousands of people storming the barracks of Ansar al-Sharia and several other Islamist katiba, or brigades.
But while many in Benghazi hailed the routing of the militias as an example of people power overcoming militia rule, life just got worse again for the staff at El Jala hospital.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Bargathy, “I marched in the ‘Save Benghazi Friday’ protest myself. All of us want a real national army and an efficient police force to take over security from the militia. But the military police they sent us after Ansar al-Shariah left just wasn’t up to the task. One day they just didn’t show up anymore.”
Ansar al-Sharia offered its assistance to El Jala hospital last August, ostensibly in response to cries for help from the staff in the local media that went unanswered by the authorities.
It was also something of a public relations move from a young, radical group desperate to win over the hearts and minds of the community. A public display of force in June, when Ansar al-Shariah had declared the upcoming general elections to be against Islam, had left a bad taste in the mouths of many in Benghazi.
Jahiya Kuwafi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya who has spent a lot of time with Ansar al-Sharia. Even before the US consulate attack, “I was talking to them, trying to convince them to give up their weapons and help society in other ways. Their work at the hospital was part of that,” he says.
At El Jala hospital now, a number of posters reminding people that smoking is against Islam are the only remaining evidence of Ansar al-Sharia’s presence.
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.
“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.”
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."
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.
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.”