Salafi Violence in Libya

A vehicle and the surrounding area are engulfed in flames after it was set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Bengha
A vehicle and the surrounding area are engulfed in flames after it was set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012. An armed mob protesting over a film they said offended Islam, attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and set fire to the building, killing one American, witnesses and officials said. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

The news that US Ambassador Christopher Stevens died during an assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi came as a shock. Although there was already increasing awareness of radical Islamist sentiments in eastern Libya, and in fact throughout the country, their full extent and their threshold for violence were unknown. Even so, it may have been only a matter of time before the mix of radical Islamists and abundantly available weaponry in Libya catalyzed into catastrophic violence.

Apart from some very crude accounts of what sparked protests outside the consulate and the eventual assault on the building, it is not entirely clear what transpired in Benghazi. Nonetheless, the Libyan government's inability to curtail violence in the country has long been a concern, whether it was the ineffectual approach of the National Transitional Council (NTC) or infighting among the security services under the General National Congress (GNC) that have undermined any effort to establish law and order.

Several weeks ago, in a piece posted on the Arabist, I categorized violence in Libya and suggested ways in which it might be mutating. The takeaway from that piece was that there is a new strain of terrorism in Libya that is growing increasingly dangerous.

Briefly, there is a superabundance of violence in Libya. There are tribal skirmishes -- usually instigated by a desire to settle vendettas or to control parts of the black market economy. There has been a steady wave of assassinations of former Gaddafi intelligence officials in Benghazi, carried out by unknown groups. In late August, three car bombings that were allegedly perpetrated by Gaddafi loyalists rocked Tripoli.

And there has been Islamist violence, especially in Benghazi, which served as ample warning for what transpired on 11 September 2012. In June an IED was thrown at the US Consulate in Benghazi and the UK Ambassador's convoy was attacked with RPGs, wounding two of his bodyguards. The Tunisian Consulate in Benghazi was ransacked in protest over a controversial art exhibit in Tunisia. Several car bombs have been detonated, targeting key Libyan government buildings. More recently, Salafist groups have destroyed Sufi shrines throughout the country, sparking outrage and dismay but no forceful government reaction and leading some skeptical Libyans to think that elements of the Libyan government were in cahoots with Salafists or at least sympathetic to them.

In the early days of the revolution in Libya, there were questions about whether al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group, would take advantage of the lawlessness in Libya. At the time, I argued that it was unlikely that AQIM would decamp from northwestern Mali to Libya, but instead it was likely that new radical Salafi groups would emerge in Libya. It now appears that there are at least two radical Salafi groups, if not more, that are either avowed allies of al-Qaeda or at least share al-Qaeda's salafi jihadi ideology. The first, which carried out the attack on the US consulate in June, was called the Brigade for the Release of the Imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdulrahman, named after the alleged mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. The second group is Ansar al-Sharia, the Victors of Sharia.

The counterterrorism challenge in Libya is enormous. There is no shortage of weaponry in Libya, but there is an enormous deficit of state capacity. The Libyan government is trying hard to keep the political process moving forward, electing a congress and president, but it has done so at the expense of a deteriorating security environment. The gamble for the Libyans was that they would get their political house in order before the security environment became too difficult to contain. The government has lost that bet. Now it must deal with the consequences of having allowed the security situation to become so bad as to lead to the death of the US ambassador, the very country that helped the Libyan overthrow the brutal rule of Muammar Gadaffi.

I had the good opportunity to brief Ambassador Stevens in the spring of 2012 before he assumed his post in Libya. He was affable and insightful, with deep and genuine empathy for the challenges facing Libyans and Middle Easterners more broadly. He was just the kind of man that any country would have wanted to represent its interests overseas and the US was lucky to have him. I am sure that many of us in the community feel the same way. He will be sorely missed.