Worrying signs of lawlessness in Libya

Seven Iranian Red Crescent members were abducted in downtown Benghazi yesterday. Today there were bomb blasts and a jail break. 

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters
People gather to inspect the damage to the Libyan intelligence building after a bomb explosion, in Benghazi, on Aug. 1.

A lot has gone right in Libya since the successful war to topple the regime of Muammar Qaddafi last year. An election was finally held last month and the country's new political leaders have avoided open fighting for power that some feared would follow in the wake of Mr. Qaddafi's ruinous time in power.  

But some of the militias who fought Qaddafi resemble little more than criminal gangs today. Generally untouchable, they continue to swagger through Libya's towns and cities, demanding special treatment as a reward for their role last year. Many of them are now technically integrated into the security services, but continue to operate with impunity.

The Associated Press reports that a bomb blast hit a military intelligence building in Benghazi early this morning, and overnight a militia raided a local jail, releasing Salem al-Obeidi, who is accused of being behind the murder of Abdel Fateh Younes outside of Benghazi last summer. Mr. Younes was a longtime military enforcer for Qaddafi who defected to the rebellion. He was vying for its military leadership at the time of his murder.

It hasn't been a good week for security in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and at the heart of the uprising. In the early hours yesterday, seven Iranian members of that country's Red Crescent were kidnapped there. The Iranians were invited there for a conference to discuss coordinating aid efforts with their Libyan counterparts and were kidnapped as they sought to return to the high-rise Tebesti Hotel where much of the foreign press that covered the war based themselves. Amnesty International writes:

"At 1am on Tuesday, the delegation was intercepted on a road in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi and driven away by a group of unidentified armed men, who did not present an arrest warrant. The exact fate and whereabouts of the seven Iranian Red Crescent members remain unknown. Their Libyan driver was left untouched and allowed to go free... According to (Libyan Red Crescent) General Secretary Abdulhamid Elmadani, efforts to approach all known security, military and civilian bodies in Benghazi have not yet been successful in locating the Iranian delegation’s exact whereabouts or identifying their captors."

Kidnapping that many people requires organization, advanced knowledge of their movements, and a place to hold the captives. Agence France-Presse reports, citing an unnamed Libyan "security official," that the group is being held for questioning by a militia. "Members of the brigade holding the Iranians are questioning them to determine whether their activities and intentions aimed to spread the doctrine of Shiite Islam," AFP quoted the security official as saying. Iran is a Shiite state, while Libya is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab.

While it's probably safe to assume that a negotiated release of the Iranians will eventually occur, as has happened with other abductions and arrests in the past, this is yet another black mark for the new Libya. 

A New Zealand-born documentary maker was arrested and held for three days last month after interviewing Qaddafi loyalists from Tawergha who have been homeless since the end of the war. She was accused of spying before being released and expelled from the country. An Australian lawyer seeking to represent Saif al-Islam, one of Qaddafi's sons, was detained for 26 days last month (also on allegations of "spying") before her eventual release.

To be sure criminal behavior by militias has been an ongoing thorn in the side of the emerging order, rather than the disaster that many feared. A militia seized and briefly held the main airport in Benghazi in February, for instance, but order was soon restored.

But the steady drumbeat of problems is worrying. If it isn't dealt with, "rat-a-tat-tat" can transform into "boom."

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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