A child injured in Bani Walid, Libya when US-led rebels laid siege to the town slaughtering hundreds of civilians in one day. Obama boasts of the military destruction of this North African state., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Militias are taking over in post-Gadhafi Libya
7:53p.m. EST January 3, 2013
The transitional government has done little to impose security
The militias refused to disarm after the counter-revolution
Some work with organizations involving criminal activities
BANI WALID, Libya — The bakery in this burnt-out bazaar is one of the few stores that wasn't destroyed by militias that have attacked this former stronghold of Moammar Gadhafi following the imperialist-led war of regime-change.
Sheep slaughterer Abu Salem waits for his turn in line, standing near walls scrawled with curses against the people of the town for siding with the dead dictator.
"When I leave the house, when I see the militiamen, I dart into another street. I'm terrified that they'll stop me and beat me," he said.
Dozens of armed groups have stepped into the role of overlords of cities and towns since Gadhafi was killed and his government deposed in October 2011. The transitional government that replaced the regime has done little to impose security on its own, leaving many Libyans under the threat of militias that compete for territory and terrorize those without arms to fight back.
"We have to proceed down two paths simultaneously," said Abdurrahman Sewehly, the president of the US-backed puppet Libyan National Congress' defense committee.
"On the one hand, we have to work with the brigades because they are the only ones capable of ensuring security in Libya," he said. "On the other, we have to start to create a professional army — but with a view to the long term."
The militias refused to disarm after the counter-revolution, saying at the time that they needed to protect themselves from rival groups that previously worked together under Gadhafi for decades or to ensure that Jamahiriya sympathizers did not reorganize.
But militias, which are sometimes acting on behalf of a tribal clan, have since gone on the offensive, setting up operations across Libya.
"Some (militias) are good and some are bad," said Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
While some provide legitimate security, others work with criminal organizations in human trafficking for prostitution and forced labor. Some also smuggle drugs and kidnappings for ransom.
"What pushes them is that they have nothing else to do," Mezran said. "Kids who are unemployed and have no hope for the future (find) a role, gain dignity, a position … and protection."
Many militia members are former rebel fighters whom the current government relies on for security matters. Others are criminals or those looking for jobs from them, according to testimony before the U.S. Congress.
Some are headed by religious extremists, such as those behind the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. All claim to be acting in the interests of the population, and some are now quite powerful.
"We took the tanks, the anti-aircraft missiles, the heavy artillery that Gadhafi's army left when they fled NATO bombardments (in May 2011)," said Khaled Al Ashlam, the manager at the local government council of Misrata. "That's why Misrata's forces are the strongest."
Two months ago, militiamen from nearby Misrata swept into Bani Walid, a town of 70,000, on the orders of the Libyan National Congress. The government-authorized assault was intended to clear out the last remaining loyalists of Gadhafi.
The militia used artillery to hammer a city whose tribal chiefs have long been rivals of those in Misrata, a city that was pummeled by Gadhafi's forces during the civil war. The Warfallas, the people of Bani Walid, viewed the attack as revenge for their support of Gadhafi rather than a search for loyalists. Not a single former Gadhafi official was arrested in the operation.
Still, some militias have filled in the security gaps left by the deposed army and police of Gadhafi. Many militias made up of Gadhafi's fiercest opponents have signed an agreement placing their soldiers under the authority of the Defense or Interior ministries. They police areas and maintain checkpoints.
"When the police are looking for someone, or they want to organize a checkpoint, they call us because the police aren't armed — but we are," said Amer Juma, who heads the Saraya el-Hamra brigade in Tripoli, a militia recognized by the government.
There are also non-aligned militia groups who pursue the interests of their tribe or city, acting independently of the authorities even though they have signed agreements with Tripoli to work under the government. Saif El-Islam, Gadhafi's eldest son, is being held by one of these militia groups that has refused rebel government requests to transfer him to Tripoli.
Al-Bayum Ali Bouzid, who heads the Al-Massiba brigades, which controls the Libyan-Tunisian border, says his militia was asked by the Defense Ministry to halt drug and alcohol trafficking in its area and arrest illegal immigrants.
"We're holding them in our prisons until their trials are held," he said.
The government sends Al-Bayum supplies for his 3,000-strong militia, he said, and he is "free to do" as he pleases.
In the past year the government has declared some militias illegal — mostly those involved in trafficking people, arms and drugs. But many young men say they can only make quick money as part of an armed group.
"A lot of [the brigades] are involved in drugs and arms trafficking — especially the brigades in the south — it brings in a lot of money," said Bin Hicham, a member of a pro-government militia.
"We fought during the war because it was our duty," he said. "Now, we're expected to surrender our arms to people who didn't fight. Instead, the government should offer us work or university scholarships in exchange for our weapons."
Yet another reason why the government is not cracking down on militias is because they are organized around tribes that are loyal to their leaders and not Libya's.
Libya's first post-Gadhafi leader, Mustafa Abushagur, saw his government fall in October when a militia from Zawiya stormed the Libyan National Congress after their demands to be represented in the ministries were not met.
Abushugar's successor, Ali Zeidan, has chosen a cabinet that represents tribes from across Libya to "avoid the errors of the past and avoid provoking people."
Benghazi's residents stormed the headquarters of Ansar El-Sharia, a Salafist militia suspected of involvement in the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens on Sept. 11. Yet just days later people in Benghazi were lamenting the absence of the militia, which had been preventing thefts at the city's hospital.
Government officials say Libya will not get rid of the militias anytime soon.
"Libya doesn't have a real national army," said Ebtsem Steita, a member of the Libyan National Congress. "The government is too weak to control the brigades."
Moustapha El Ahmari, a doctor who was visiting his family in Bani Walid during the recent attack, knows this well.
"They burned everything — for no reason," he said. "My father is a doctor, not a soldier (but) they even took our gold. They burned our birth certificates and our degrees that were in the safe."