Saturday, October 27, 2012

Instability Worsens in Occupied Eastern Libya

Muslim extremists akin to al-Qaida spread fear in Libya's east

By Abigail Hauslohner Washington Post Press

DARNA, Libya -- Operating from the shadows, Islamist extremists are terrorizing the eastern Libyan city of Darna, six weeks after the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi threw a spotlight on Libya's growing religious extremism.

A campaign of bombings and death threats aimed at government targets is being blamed on armed extremists, including the city's most powerful militia, the Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade, whose ideology residents say is akin to al-Qaida's.

What is unfolding may be the most extreme example of the confrontation under way across Libya, underscoring how deeply the fundamentalists have sown their seeds in the security vacuum that has defined Libya since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi last year.

Extremists have continued to operate despite the popular backlash after last month's attack in Benghazi, 156 miles to the west, and despite fears of retaliation by the U.S., whose unmanned drones can be heard humming overhead almost every day.

For now, militants appear to have taken cover in urban homes and farms in the remote mountains that surround the city. But officials say the local government remains powerless to stop them, even as the extremists push their ideology just as fervently as before.

"No one will stop anyone from doing anything," said Fathalla al-Awam, head of the largely toothless local council, and militants are free to come and go from the city and surrounding areas as they please.

"There's no police, no army and no militias. Nothing. It's an open city from east and west."

Some Libyans say the extremist views are held more broadly than just among the Islamist militias, a fact they said the U.S. fails to understand in the wake of the Benghazi attack. Not all of the extremists in Darna or elsewhere in Libya belong to a group, they said. But those who share al-Qaida's ideology are many, they said, and that creates ample opportunity for recruitment.

"It's a way of thinking," said Saad Belgassim, a former bureaucrat in Darna's now-defunct court system. "They kidnap people like they do in Afghanistan. They delude young people and send them off to bomb themselves."

In some ways, the sway that Islamists hold is no surprise. Neglected, conservative and poor under Gadhafi, Darna stood out for its fierce Islamist resistance to the old regime -- and for sending more jihadists to Iraq during the U.S. occupation than any other place in Libya.

Those who adhere to the militias' ideology said their goals are simple. They want Islamic law, or sharia, and they want the U.S. pushed out of Muslim lands, said Tarik Sharqi, a fundamentalist imam in Darna, who residents said maintains a close relationship with Ansar al-Sharia, but who would only concede that "everyone in Darna is connected."

Locals considered the drones they hear overhead "a form of occupation," he said, and Libyans would wage "jihad" to force them out.

Until a month ago, the Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade occupied buildings and ran checkpoints around the city, operating alongside like-minded groups, including the local branch of Ansar al-Sharia, the prime suspects in the Benghazi attack.

"They were the police, and they were the criminals at the same time," said Hussein al-Misary, a local journalist. They pushed aggressively for Islamic law and threatened those who favored Tripoli's vision of a central government and constitution. They even posted kill lists on jihadist Facebook pages, he said.

The first sightings of U.S. drone aircraft here were reported in July, in what American officials have said was an effort that preceded the Benghazi attack to gather intelligence on extemist groups. Misary said those sightings appear to have prompted militants from Ansar al-Sharia, headed by former Guantanamo inmate Abu Sufian bin Qumu, to disappear from his Darna beach house into the mountains, while members of the Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade did not retreat until late September, after the Benghazi attack and in apparent response to U.S. warnings of retaliation.

At first, the disappearances seemed hopeful, local authorities said. As the Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade retreated, the elected local council laid claim to their main base, an old sports complex, aiming to make it a police headquarters.

Days later, an explosion ripped through the base's headquarters. Other explosions targeted the cars of a journalist and two local officials who had advocated for the militias' disbandment in the wake of the Benghazi attack. The elected authorities retreated.

"It looks like the militias are dissolved, but the reality is still the same," said Awam of the local council.

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