Inside the former US Consulate in Benghazi in the aftermath of an attack that resulted in the death of the American ambassador and other personnel. Rebel government forces say the attack was planned., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Libya's hard-line militia
The government may suspect Ansar al-Shariah but is unlikely to act
By Maggie Michael and Hamza Hendawi
BENGHAZI, Libya - Suspicion in last week's attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans has focused on members of a hard-core Islamist militia known for its sympathies to al-Qaeda, its fierce animosity to the United States, and its intimidation of other Muslims who don't conform to its ideology.
That doesn't mean Libyan authorities will move against Ansar al-Shariah soon. The group is among the most powerful of the many heavily armed militias that the government relies on to keep security in Benghazi.
In fact, it guards one of Benghazi's main hospitals.
Libya's militias are a legacy of last year's civil war that led to the ouster and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi - and their continued power underscores the weakness of the country's political leadership nearly a year after the war ended. With a range of ideologies, the militias arose from local groups that took up arms and battled Gadhafi's forces. Across the country, they still resist integration into the armed forces and remain in many places the sole forces keeping a fragile sense of order.
Ansar al-Shariah, which denies it was part of the attack, is not the biggest of Benghazi's militias. But it is viewed as the most disciplined and feared, with links to other groups. It is also the most forceful in demanding that the new Libya be ruled by a strident interpretation of Islam not far from al-Qaeda's.
Over the weekend, Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif told the Associated Press that some members of Ansar al-Shariah carried out the attack on the consulate.
"At least some of them, not necessarily the militia as a whole," he said, suggesting divisions within the group. Megarif said the attack had been planned well in advance to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, adding that foreign al-Qaeda members were also in Libya and that he could not rule out that they had a role.
The United States, which is investigating the attack alongside Libyan officials, says a different scenario may be emerging. Rather than a plot, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said it appeared gunmen hijacked what had been a spontaneous protest against the anti-Islam movie.
In either case, the militia says it did not participate "as an organization" in the protest at the consulate.
According to its leaders, Ansar al-Shariah numbers about 300 active members, though other factions say they believe it numbers as many as 5,000. Some of its leaders are veterans of the numerous wars in Afghanistan.
The group's members have been blamed for a string of recent attacks against Muslim shrines around Libya. The shrines, including tombs of religious figures, are revered by Sufis and other moderate Muslims. But Ansar al-Shariah, which denies responsibility for the attacks, and other hard-liners consider visits to the shrines as tantamount to idol worship and an affront to Islam.
Ansar al-Shariah's prestige was boosted when the militia took over security at the Jalaa Hospital, the city's main emergency hospital. Its fighters are posted at the hospital entrance and in its halls.
"The fact is that things have been going very well in the hospital since Ansar al-Shariah fighters were assigned to be in charge there," said Mohammed Qaeir, a senior member of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.
"Previously, the hospital and the doctors worked under the threat of violence by gunmen. This is not happening there anymore."
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