An Arabic sign written with a black marker pen rests among the floral wreaths on the iron gates of the deserted U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, two weeks after Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in an attack blamed on Islamist militiamen.
“Hey!” it says to Libya’s new parliament. “Where’s the security for us and our guests?”
The sign stands near an ocher-painted concrete pillar still bearing a bloody handprint from the Sept. 11 attack, and encapsulates what many Benghazi residents say they feel about the consulate assault and the city’s uncertain prospects now the Americans and other Westerners have left.
“The American people I have met are good, and I hope they think the same about us,” said Benghazi aviation student Mohammed El Gadari in an interview. “Some extremists killed the ambassador, and they must be punished, but it doesn’t mean we want to kill foreigners. We want Benghazi to be a cosmopolitan city.”
Libya’s second-biggest city was the cradle of last year’s uprising that overthrew the four-decade dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi. As the regime’s forces approached newly liberated Benghazi in March 2011 threatening reprisals, President Barack Obama and allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched an aerial campaign to halt them and prevent what the U.S. leader termed “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”
‘Justice for Stevens’
Some 18 months later, the Libyan government accused Islamist militiamen of killing the U.S. ambassador, an act that brought tens of thousands into the streets to protest on Sept. 21-22. A number carried signs in English reading “We Demand Justice for Stevens,” and at least four people died as demonstrators assaulted Islamist militia bases.
The U.S. also has promised a response. Obama told the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 25 that the attack on the consulate was an attack on America and vowed that the U.S. would be “relentless” in pursuing the killers. In Washington, Republican lawmakers in both chambers of Congress yesterday accused the administration of downplaying the possible role of al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate in the attack.
While Libyan authorities say they’ve arrested eight people linked to the deaths, they’ve given no further details.
A guard at the Benghazi consulate said residents in the upscale district worry that the Americans may not return.
“People in the district are very sad, they say this act is haram,” or forbidden under Islamic law, says the guard, Hamid Idris, who wears a black baseball cap with “Security” in bold white letters.
At the city’s Gawash riding stables, where 30 horses are kept in crumbling white-washed brick stalls, rider Asidm Bashir said in an interview that most people in Benghazi were shocked by the attack.
“Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had a saying about not killing an envoy, a diplomat,” he said. “But every religion has its extremes.”
Some Benghazi residents say that the port city is not anti-American, rather the attack is a consequence of a weak government unable to control a small jihadist insurgency. Two British bodyguards were injured in June when unidentified attackers tried to kill Dominic Asquith, the U.K. ambassador to Libya.
“In the absence of an effective state security apparatus, violence in Libya is pervasive and there are a range of violent actors and agendas,” said a report posted yesterday by Geoff Porter of the Counter-Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. “The new Libyan state does not exert a monopoly on force and the line between state and non-state actors is blurred.”
“Security is a top priority for the next three to six months and 70 percent of our efforts are dedicated to stabilizing Libya,” Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur said in a Sept. 20 interview.
For now, chaos is commonplace. Police officers blocked Benghazi’s streets, causing long traffic queues on Sept. 24 and 25, complaining that they had not been paid for five months.
“Libya is a rich country,” said Benghazi pharmacist Abdulrahman Yunis in an interview. “We are not anti-American, we want to reach out to the world.”
While some militias, including Islamists, have been licensed by the interim government to carry out internal security duties during the past year, they don’t guard the country’s oil fields. Instead, some former rebels are being trained to protect oil installations by the Ministry of Defense, the National Oil Corp. said Sept. 25.
Benghazi is headquarters for the Arabian Gulf Oil Co., which is responsible for Libya’s most productive fields, the Sarir group south of the city. Agoco spokesman Abdeljalil Mayuf said the company was relying on Interior Ministry units to secure its offices and national army brigades to guard three key fields.
“We don’t depend on the militias” and “there is nobody from the private sector,” he said in an interview. “When people see private security they think ‘Iraq’ and ‘Blackwater’ and that sort of thing. The fields are secured by the army.”
Oil executives and most Benghazi citizens were saddened by the ambassador’s death, he said. Many fear jihadists mean to subvert Libya’s democracy, which saw the first free national elections in more than 40 years in July, and bring back a dictatorship similar to Qaddafi’s.
While the Libyan people are Muslims, “they are against Islamists,” Mayuf said. “We kicked out Qaddafi, but we don’t want to create a state like Iraq or Somalia. The Libyan people, they want something better.” The country’s Islamist parties failed to win a parliamentary majority in July, unlike neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
As a result of last week’s demonstrations and riots, two Islamist militias disbanded, including Ansar al-Shariah, which the government accused of links to the Stevens attack. The White House says the killings were acts of terrorism while the head of Libya’s newly elected National Congress, Mohamed Magariaf, told NBC News yesterday that the attack was a “pre-planned act of terrorism” timed to Sept. 11 and was not connected to an amateur film made in the U.S. that caused protests across the Muslim world.
The government has given two other Islamist brigades, Rafallah al-Sahati and the February 17 Brigades, permission to stay, albeit with new army-appointed commanders.
“The danger is members of Ansar al-Shariah will go into the shadows,” said Ishmail Salabi, a senior commander of Rafallah al-Sahati and a prominent Islamist, in an interview on Sept. 24. at a private house chosen out of fears he may be targeted by anti-militia forces.
New protests are expected after Friday prayers on Sept. 28, with activists demanding justice for the four protesters killed in rioting at the Rafallah al-Sahati base.
Benghazi’s army commander, General Hamad Belkhair, said next time protesters will be protected by his men. He’s also seeking an investigation into the deaths of six soldiers from the 1st Infantry Brigade found with their hands bound and gunshot wounds to the back of the head near the Rafallah base on Sept. 23.
“My troops saw civilians getting badly treated” by Islamists during the riots, Belkhair said in an interview. “They think they should protect the civilians.”
The general himself was kidnapped on Sept. 22 and held for six hours by masked gunmen who accused him of being an “infidel” and warned him against army action aimed at jihadists, he said.
Meanwhile, the Islamists insist they are here to stay as a counterweight to police units such as the national gendarmerie, which they say is packed with Qaddafi loyalists.
“Raffalah al-Sahati are Islamist, we won’t support anything but the Shariah,” Salabi said in reference to Islamic law.