The Attack on the U.S. Consulate: Emerging Signs of Jihadist Sentiment in Libya
Sep 26, 2012
On September 11, 2012, armed militants attacked the U.S. Consulate in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of four U.S. Foreign Service members, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. The Benghazi incident was preceded by other manifestations of extremist violence in Libya, such as earlier attacks on Western diplomatic facilities and personnel, a violent assault on the Tunisian Consulate in Benghazi in protest of an art exhibit in Tunisia, and the destruction of Sufi shrines throughout the country that Salafists had deemed un-Islamic. These incidents suggest that violence in Libya is evolving from predictable militaristic violence characteristic of guerrilla warfare to now include Salafi-jihadi terrorism.
In contrast to the violence during the revolution against the late Colonel Mu`ammar Qadhafi’s regime, terrorism presents a unique security problem for Libya’s ruling General National Congress (GNC). It is motivated by a different calculus from the previous kinds of violence faced by the National Transitional Council (NTC). With Salafi-jihadi terrorism, the demands of the perpetrators of the violence are more holistic and nihilistic. This evolution presents different problems for the GNC in its efforts to provide security to Libya, and it poses new risks to the United States.
In the absence of an effective state security apparatus, violence in Libya is pervasive and there are a range of violent actors and agendas. The new Libyan state does not exert a monopoly on force and the line between state and non-state actors is blurred. Within this morass of violence, certain trends can be discerned and it is important to parse these groups, to distinguish among them, and anticipate how and when they will use violence. Some groups have used violence to achieve a limited, tangible goal. Others have used violence to settle scores or to demonstrate their relevance to post-Qadhafi Libyan power structures. Finally, and perhaps most concerning, others are beginning to use violence as an expression of their ideological commitment to Salafi-jihadi interpretations of Islam. This article will examine these three trends.
Violence to Achieve a Tangible Goal
Violence that occurred in Libya during the last 10 months was generally motivated by complaints that could be addressed—territory, the informal economy, release of “henchmen” from detention, and revenge against former members of the Qadhafi regime. In a certain sense it was utilitarian, with violence for the sake of achieving a realizable goal. When possible, solutions were negotiated—often within hours.
The Tripoli airport seizure in June 2012 is perhaps the most high profile example of this trend. A militia from the town of Tarhouna seized the airport on June 4, 2012, because one of its leaders went missing. The militia believed that he was kidnapped by another militia, or detained by the NTC. The Tarhouna militia said that it seized the airport to call attention to the problem and to compel the NTC to act more quickly to find the missing leader. The NTC then sent an armed force, including members of the Zintan brigade, to contain the Tarhouna militia, as well as a delegation to begin negotiations regarding their demands. By the end of the day, the Tarhouna militia agreed to return the airport to government authorities and normal operations were restored.
The incident at Tripoli airport fits into a pattern that emerged in Libya since Qadhafi’s fall and is similar to protests at the Arabian Gulf Oil Company headquarters in Benghazi and the attack on former Prime Minister Abdelrahim al-Keib’s offices in Tripoli in May. Different groups appealed to the interim government seeking redress to a grievance or a complaint. The government was unresponsive, either due to lack of capacity or lack of interest, and the aggrieved party took a bold gesture to seize or attack a high profile installation. The action attracted greater attention to the problem and the standoff persisted while negotiations were undertaken. Once a resolution was negotiated, the aggrieved party withdrew. The goal has never appeared to be the permanent seizure of an installation, but rather to use the installation to amplify demands.
Political Violence and Revolutionary Aftershocks
Libya has also witnessed more conventional political violence. Beginning in late July 2012, there have been a string of assassinations in Benghazi. The assassinations targeted former members of Qadhafi’s intelligence services, all of whom were allegedly on a “hit list” that includes up to 1,000 names. Some of the attacks involved car bombs, while in other instances victims were shot. It is not known who carried out the attacks, but it is thought that possibly one or more local militias with grievances against the Qadhafi regime were responsible.
On August 19, 2012, for example, three car bombs exploded in Tripoli. The car bombs targeted administrative offices of the Ministry of the Interior and a building used by the Defense Ministry to detain and interrogate Libyans suspected of being supporters of the former Qadhafi regime. The bombings killed two Libyans. Local officials attributed the attacks to a group of men loyal to Qadhafi. After the attacks, security forces reportedly arrested 32 members of the group, which they said is intent upon sowing discord in the country and determined to discredit the GNC that was sworn in on August 8.
Since then, doubts have emerged about who was genuinely behind the attacks. One theory postulates that they were undertaken by militias that had heretofore been incorporated into the political decision-making process, but now risk being marginalized after the swearing in of the GNC. A second theory is a mutation of the first. It claims that the bombings were an outward manifestation of competition among different security services such as the Supreme Security Council, Libya Shield, the High Security Council, the Tripoli Military Council, and the militias that are embedded within them. The interior minister, Fawzi Abdel Al, is a former leader of the Misrata militia, while the defense minister, Osama al-Juwaili, is the former leader of the Zintan brigade. The Misrata militia and the Zintan brigade are the two most powerful militias in Libya with the ability to deploy throughout the country. Both have vast arsenals at their disposal including tanks, war planes and helicopter gunships. The bombings were possibly a warning to the incoming government not to push them to the side and to continue to include them in the political process.
Elsewhere in the country, groups have clashed for a variety of reasons. In Kufra, political differences resulted in confrontations between the Tubu tribe and supporters of the NTC. The latter suspected that the Tubu were still loyal to Qadhafi whereas the former viewed the NTC supporters as carpetbaggers intent on benefiting from the change in leadership in Tripoli. In Bani Walid, tribes have clashed with one another over control of the lucrative black market that has emerged in the region.
Such violence is typical in a post-revolutionary state as various factions seek to find their place in the emerging power structures.
The Emergence of Salafi-Jihadi Terrorism
Although pervasive and persistent, none of the aforementioned violence has been definitively terrorism. What has now become clear is that among the range of violent non-state actors in Libya, there are Salafi-jihadi groups that harbor deep hostilities toward the United States. The Salafi-jihadi use of violence is different from other violence in Libya, as it is primarily ideological. The trends that led to the U.S. Consulate incident in Benghazi and the eventual deaths of four members of the U.S. diplomatic corps first began to emerge in post-Qadhafi Libya in June 2012, but its antecedents stretch back to the 1990s.
The first manifestation of Salafist violence in Libya was not strictly jihadist. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was formed in 1990 as an Islamist opposition to the Qadhafi regime. Unlike Salafi-jihadis, the LIFG accepted the notion of Libya as a nation-state but it wanted to overthrow Qadhafi and establish Libya as an Islamic state. In 1996, it attempted to assassinate Qadhafi, and in the wake of the attempt’s failure Qadhafi launched a campaign to eradicate the LIFG. Some members of the LIFG were killed, others were imprisoned, and still others fled the country and joined forces with al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan. By the 2000s, the LIFG had no active presence in Libya. During the Libyan revolution against the Qadhafi regime, former LIFG members who had been released from prison in 2009 following a “deradicalization” program unofficially restarted the LIFG and joined the rebellion. One former LIFG leader in particular, Abdelhakim Belhadj, formed his own militia, the Tripoli Military Council. Although hard figures are unavailable, Belhadj’s group was believed to have as many as 25,000 fighters at its peak during the final days of the revolution.
In 2006, with the seizure of the Sinjar Records in Iraq, it became clear that Salafi-jihadi ideology had grown popular in some parts of the country even though the LIFG was no longer active in Libya. The Sinjar Records indicated that Libyans were the second largest nationality represented among foreign fighters joining al-Qa`ida in Iraq. Almost all of the Libyan fighters in Iraq hailed from eastern Libya, particularly the town of Derna—approximately 180 miles east of Benghazi. Eastern Libya was deliberately and acutely neglected during Qadhafi’s 42-year reign. While Tripoli boasts the buildings and infrastructure of a state that produces upwards of a million barrels of oil per day, including six-lane highways and high-rise commercial towers, eastern Libya is a patchwork of cities and towns linked by potholed roads, dilapidated buildings, and failing infrastructure. Social services such as hospitals, schooling, and government housing are rundown and in short supply. The resentment in Benghazi toward western Libya is to such an extent that earlier in 2012 a group in Benghazi demanded that eastern Libya become an autonomous region within the sovereign state of Libya. Conditions progressively worsen toward far eastern Libya. A common analogy used to underscore the deplorable conditions in such towns as Derna is “Benghazi is to Tripoli as Derna is to Benghazi.”
The links between al-Qa`ida’s Salafi-jihadi ideology and Libya were further solidified by Abu Yahya al-Libi. Abu Yahya, the brother of an LIFG leader, went to Afghanistan to fight in the jihad against the Soviet Union, but then left the country to study Islamic texts in Mauritania. Upon his return, the Soviet Union had abandoned its campaign in Afghanistan. The esteem in which he was held was augmented by his escape from U.S. custody in Afghanistan in 2005. He eventually joined al-Qa`ida and rose to second-in-command of the group following the killing of Usama bin Laden in May 2011.
In June 2012, a series of bombings and attacks on Western targets in Benghazi revealed Salafi-jihadi terrorism tendencies in Libya. On June 6, militants attacked the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi with an improvised explosive device (IED). The IED was ineffectual, damaging the exterior walls of the compound. Four days later on June 10, 2012, a convoy carrying Dominic Asquith, the British ambassador to Libya, was ambushed. A rocket-propelled grenade struck the convoy. The ambassador was unhurt but two bodyguards were injured. During the same period there was an attack on the Tunisian Consulate in Benghazi in response to a controversial art exhibit in Tunisia. The exhibit displayed a panel with dead insects arranged to spell “God” in Arabic.
A group called the Brigade of the Imprisoned Shaykh `Umar `Abd al-Rahman claimed responsibility for the June 6 attack on the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi. The attack was allegedly in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of al-Qa`ida member Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan on June 4. The group recorded a video of the attack in typical jihadist style. Both the rationale behind the attack and the name of the group are clear al-Qa`ida references, but there may not be a direct affiliation with al-Qa`ida as of yet. As with the case of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), its affiliation with al-Qa`ida only came after months of negotiations between AQIM’s predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), and al-Qa`ida’s central leadership. Some analysts suggest that al-Qa`ida finally allowed the GSPC to become an al-Qa`ida affiliate after the GSPC attacked a vehicle belonging to a U.S. company in front of a U.S.-owned hotel in Algiers. It is possible that the Brigade of the Imprisoned Shaykh `Umar `Abd al-Rahman is following a similar trajectory.
The other attacks—against the UK ambassador, the Tunisian Consulate, and ultimately the U.S. Consulate on September 11, 2012—are suspected of being carried out by a group called Ansar al-Shari`a (Supporters of Islamic Law). Ansar al-Shari`a is a loose appellation for hardline Salafists throughout the Middle East, with groups in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. It not clear whether, or to what extent, the groups are connected. Even in Libya itself, Ansar al-Shari`a has different branches in Benghazi and Derna. The degree of cooperation among the branches is uncertain. Likewise, while Ansar al-Shari`a in Libya may share some of al-Qa`ida’s ideology, until recently there did not appear to be clear links between Ansar al-Shari`a in Libya and al-Qa`ida. Ansar al-Shari`a in Libya denies that it was involved in the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate, although witnesses have said that the gunmen who attacked the consulate facility—armed with grenades and rockets—carried the Ansar al-Shari`a flag.
Investigations into the recent consulate attack also suggest that AQIM may have been involved in the attacks. Multiple newspapers have interviewed U.S. officials saying that they intercepted communications between Ansar al-Shari`a and AQIM on September 11. Other U.S. officials have denied such assertions. It is premature to assume AQIM played a role in the incident.
Implications for Libya’s New Government
The presence of Salafi-jihadi groups in Libya places the GNC in a difficult position. Like the NTC before it, the GNC does not have an effective military that can be reliably deployed, but unlike the NTC it cannot negotiate with Salafi-jihadis—since they are absolutists and reject negotiation—in the same way that the NTC was generally able to resolve conflicts with regional groups, militias and tribes. Salafi-jihadis not only want to rid Libya of non-Muslim influence like the United States and the United Kingdom—as well as Muslim practices that do not conform to their strict interpretation of Islam, such as the Sufism followed by many Libyans—but also refuse to recognize the notion of a nation-state, the very institution that the GNC is trying to reconstruct in the aftermath of the Qadhafi regime. Although a popular backlash, followed by security force action, swept Ansar al-Shari`a and related groups from their bases on September 21-22, these militants are likely to regroup despite the more hostile operating environment.
There are no readily available statistics regarding how many troops the GNC has under its command. Weapons collection programs that the NTC had discussed at the beginning of its tenure to reduce the threat posed by militias and to reassert the state’s monopoly on force have evaporated. The GNC is unable to reliably deploy forces to halt violence, whether it is of the more pragmatic nature that was endemic during the first 11 months following Qadhafi’s death or the Salafist violence that has appeared more recently. When Salafist groups destroyed a Sufi shrine in downtown Tripoli on August 25, security services under the control of the Interior Ministry were unable or unwilling to stop them.
Salafi-jihadi ideology has roots in Libya that reach back two decades and correspond to the rise of al-Qa`ida as the preeminent Salafi-jihadi organization. The lawlessness in Libya and the impotence of the GNC has allowed Salafi-jihadi violence to emerge once again. The GNC has no choice but to confront Salafi-jihadi sentiment directly. Without a functioning, effective military, however, it will be difficult to do so.
Dr. Geoff D. Porter is the founder and managing director of North Africa Risk Consulting, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in political and security risk in North Africa. Dr. Porter was the Director for Middle East and Africa at a political risk consulting firm. Earlier in his career, Dr. Porter was a professor of Middle East and North Africa History. He is fluent in Arabic (including Modern Standard Arabic and North African dialect) and French.
 Details on the attack are still emerging, but initial evidence suggests that the attack was organized; however, information remains contradictory at this point. See Osama Alfitory, “Libyan Attacks Said to be 2-Part Militant Assault,” Associated Press, September 13, 2012; Dina Temple-Raston, “U.S., Libyan Versions Of Consulate Attack Diverge,” National Public Radio, September 20, 2012.
 “Libya’s Salafists in Search of Relevance,” Daily Star, September 14, 2012; “Libya Sufi Shrines Attacked ‘By Islamist Hardliners,’” BBC, August 25, 2012.
 The General National Congress (GNC) is a result of a political process that was initiated in August 2011 by what was then known as the Transitional National Council (TNC). The TNC was a self-appointed body that had assumed governmental leadership functions for territory within Libya that rebel forces had seized from Qadhafi’s military. With the death of Mu`ammar Qadhafi in October 2011, the TNC organized elections among its members to appoint a government, including a prime minister and a head of what was renamed the National Transitional Council (NTC). The NTC adhered to the political roadmap laid out in August 2011, and after passing an electoral law in February 2012 held national elections for a new congress on July 7, 2012. The new 200-member congress, known as the GNC, was sworn in on August 8, 2012. It immediately elected a leader for the congress, Mohammed Magarief, and organized a process whereby a new prime minister would be selected by congress members. The new prime minister, Mustafa Abushagur, was elected on September 12. The GNC will function as Libya’s legislature until a constitution is drafted and ratified and new national elections are held, currently scheduled for the first half of 2013.
 “Libyan Militia Takes Control of Tripoli Airport,” Boston Globe, June 5, 2012.
 “Flights Resume at Tripoli Airport After Seizure,” BBC, June 5, 2012.
 “Libyan Authorities Regain Control of Airport Seized by Gunmen,” Agence France-Presse, June 5, 2012.
 “Libya Police Put End to Protest at Oil Firm Agoco,” Reuters, May 9, 2012; “Libyan Rebels Storm Prime Minister’s Office,” Guardian, May 8, 2012.
 Information on this hitlist came from a personal contact of the author who is based in Benghazi.
 Kareem Fahim, “2 Die in Libya as Car Bombs Strike Capital,” New York Times, August 19, 2012; “Libya Arrests Gaddafi Loyalists Over Car Bombings,” Guardian, August 19, 2012.
 Alison Pargeter, The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
 “Holding Libya Together: Security Challenges after Qadhafi,” International Crisis Group, December 14, 2011; “Libyan Islamist Quits Militia to Enter Politics: Aide,” Reuters, May 14, 2012.
 Libyans formed the largest contingent of fighters per capita, but Saudis comprised the largest overall group of foreign fighters. Additionally, the Sinjar Records do not represent the total number of foreign fighters in Iraq, but a selection of approximately 600 foreign fighters.
 Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Al-Qa`ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2007).
 Personal observation, Benghazi, Libya, March 2012.
 “Attack in Benghazi,” U.S. Embassy in Libya, June 11, 2012.
 “Libya Unrest: UK Envoy’s Convoy Attacked in Benghazi,” BBC, June 11, 2012.
 “Gunmen Storm Tunisian Consulate in Benghazi,” France24, June 18, 2012.
 `Umar `Abd al-Rahman was found guilty in U.S. courts for having masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center attack. See “Attacks on Western Targets in Libya Sow Fears of Islamist Extremists,” Washington Post, June 15, 2012.
 “Sources: U.S. Mission in Benghazi Attacked to Avenge al Qaeda,” CNN, June 6, 2012.
 The video can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhhyGB-ttMU.
 Jean-Pierre Filiu, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Algerian Challenge or Global Threat?” Carnegie Papers, October 2009.
 Robin Benejri, “Did Ansar al-Sharia Carry Out Libya Attack?” BBC, September 12, 2012.
 Aaron Zelin, “Jihadism’s Foothold in Libya,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 12, 2012.
 Ahmed Maher, “Meeting Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi of Libyan Ansar al-Sharia,” BBC, September 18, 2012; Mel Frykberg, “Ansar al Shariah, Linked to Diplomat’s Death, Sets Benghazi Rally to Counter Calls for Moderation,” McClatchy Newspapers, September 20, 2012.
 According to the Wall Street Journal, “The [U.S.] officials said the AQIM leaders were communicating with members of Ansar al-Shari`a, a local group of Libyan militants, after seeing violent anti-U.S. protests breaking out in Cairo.” See Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous, “U.S. Probing al Qaeda Link in Libya,” Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2012; Chris Stephen, “Libyan Parliamentary Speaker Hints at Military Strike after Consulate Attack,” Guardian, September 16, 2012; Temple-Raston.
 Josh Lederman, “UN Ambassador Says Libya Attack was Spontaneous,” Associated Press, September 16, 2012.
 Taha Zargoun, “Fighters Bulldoze Sufi Mosque in Central Tripoli,” Reuters, August 25, 2012.