Ethnic Warfare in Burundi: A Profile of Hutu Warlord Agathon Rwasa

Andrew McGregor

October 31, 2012

The Central African nation of Burundi has reached a political crossroads. In the last decade Burundi has managed, with international assistance, to bring an end to a vicious civil war and install a government that reflects demographic and tribal realities in Burundi. However, since the opposition decided to drop out of the political process by boycotting the 2010 elections, Burundi has witnessed a rise in political violence and state repression.

RwasaAgathon Rwasa in Bujumbura, 2010

The September announcement of a return to arms by the nation’s most notorious Hutu militia, the Forces nationales de libération (FNL) of veteran militant Agathon Rwasa has raised new concerns about a return to civil war between the Hutu-dominated government and Hutu militants. Rwasa has suggested the announcement was the work of a rogue commander, but the question now is whether Rwasa, who is in hiding, can maintain his iron-fisted control of the Hutu militants in the face of a government campign to eliminate present and former members through extra-judicial killings. [1]

Burundi’s Civil War

Landlocked and desperately poor, Burundi passed through periods of colonial rule by both Germany and Belgium before attaining independence in 1962. Like its neighbor Rwanda, Burundi has been consumed from the beginning by the rivalry between the majority Hutu (with 85% of the population) and the minority Tutsi community. In the first democratic elections, held in 1993, Burundians split from the traditional Tutsi elite by electing a Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, and a Hutu-dominated parliament. However, Ndadaye was killed by Tutsi troops only a few months later, launching a brutal 12-year civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi populations that left over 300,000 dead.

Early Life

A reported born-again Christian, Agathon Rwasa grew up in the culture of ethnic and political violence that dominated Burundi. His career became inevitably tied to the fortunes of Palipehutu, a Hutu militia dedicated to the extermination of the Tutsi community. Palipehutu had its origins in the post-independence period of Burundi, when the political aspirations of the Hutu majority collided with Tutsi control of the military. By 1972 a Hutu organization (Umugambwe w’Abakozi b’Uburundi – UBU) had emerged with the intention of wiping out the Tutsi community in Burundi.  Hutu massacres and Tutsi repression of UBU left over 100,000 dead. UBU reorganized in the Hutu refugee camps in Tanzania in 1980, adopting the name Palipehutu and resuming massacres of thousands of Tutsi civilians in northern Burundi in the late 1980s. Many of these killings were carried out by Palipehutu’s military wing, the Forces pour la liberation nationale (FNL).  The latter, under the name Palipehutu-FNL, split from the Marxist-influenced political wing of the movement in 1991.

By 2001, Agathon Rwasa was challenging Cossan Kabura for leadership of the movement, with Rwasa representing a hardline faction uninterested in negotiations with the government. In February 2001, the FNL announced it had sacked Kabura for pursuing peace talks without authorization, followed by a Rwasa-led assault on the capital of Bujumbura. Rwasa had already gained a degree of notoriety for his leading role in the so-called “Titanic Express Massacre” of December 2000, in which 20 Hutu and one British woman were removed from a local bus and murdered (Reuters, December 30, 2000; Sunday Times, January 11, 2004).

FNL official Alain Muhabarabona announced on August 8, 2002 that he had in turn sacked Rwasa as leader and taken over command of the movement – the first of several such attempts to displace Rwasa as FNL leader, all of them unsuccessful (AFP, August 22, 2002). Internal divisions did not prevent Rwasa from launching a major attack on Bujumbura in August, 2002 that demonstrated he was still firmly in control of the movement (AFP, August 25, 2002). By the end of the year the other major Hutu militias had made peace with the government, leaving only the FNL still in the field.

The Gatumba Massacre

In the spring of 2004 there appeared to be some softening of the FNL position and it seemed possible that peace talks with the government would resume.  This process was derailed, however, by the Rwasa-authorized massacre of roughly 160 Banyamulenge Congolese Tutsis at the Gatumba refugee camp on August 13, 2004. Pointing to previous massacres of Hutus by Burundian Tutsis, responsibility for the slaughter was quickly and proudly claimed by the FNL (Radio Publique Africaine, August 14, 2004). Though the massacre was roundly condemned by the international community and was cited in UN Resolution 1577, there was little follow-up, with no arrests made and no referral to the International Criminal Court.

The movement’s next schism occurred in October 2005, when a government-supported faction was created under the leadership of former FNL deputy leader Jean-Bosco Sindayigaya, who had left the movement maintaining that all its demands had already been met. This faction had little impact as it fielded very few fighters but created some confusion by continuing to use the name Palipehutu-FNL. An apparent plan to transfer two battalions of well-armed Hutu fighters of the Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (FDD) returning from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Sindayaigaya’s command in order to negotiate with this version of the FNL rather than Rwasa’s collapsed when the scheme became known to Rwasa’s FNL (AFP, October 10, 2005; Radio Publique Africaine [Bujumbura], October 10, 2005; June 25, 2006; Net Press News [Bujumbura], September 21, 2005).

Burundi MapFunding for the movement came largely through local taxation, reported to be set at the rate of 1,500 Burundian francs from each household and 2,000 francs for every cow owned, these amounts to be paid every three months in FNL-controlled areas (Burundi Press Agency, November 16, 2007). Commercial vehicles passing through FNL areas were also charged 2,000 francs (Burundi Press Agency, June 25, 2007).

Making Peace

From October 2005 to March 2006 there were numerous raids and skirmishes with security forces, particularly near the rebels’ base in the Rukoka Forest. Eye-witnesses reported that many of the rebels appeared to be under 18-years of age (Agence Burundaise de Presse, October 3, 2005).

Despite international condemnation for his role in the Gatumba massacre, Rwasa surfaced in Dar-as-Salaam in May 2006, where he engaged in talks with then-Burundian president Domitien Ndayizeye that yielded a ceasefire and would eventually lead to a June 2006 peace agreement (South African Press Association, June 18, 2006). Rwasa identified three main issues to be addressed in the talks:

[First,] The problem of ethnicity which has always undermined the Burundian society which has been turned into a hobby-horse by governments. Secondly, the fact that all the governments killed and continue to kill innocent citizens instead of protecting them and promoting the Burundian society. There is also the problem of democracy, because democracy agrees that people express their opinions. We are asking to be recognized and to be able to exercise our political functions without being hunted down or pursued… (RFI, May 31, 2006).

Rwasa’s chief demand (not met by this agreement) was complete reform of the once Tutsi-dominated Burundian military, where 50% of personnel were to remain Tutsis according to the constitution as a counter to further genocide (RFI, June 16, 2006; Bonesha FM [Bujumbura], June 6, 2006). Despite the peace agreement, FNL fighters remained active in Bujumbura Rural Province and grenade attacks on bars and the murder of police officers in the capital continued through 2006. In July 2006, Rwasa’s followers shelled Bujumbura from the hills surrounding the capital in response to the arrest and alleged torture of three FNL leaders (Burundi Press Agency, July 24, 2006).

Destroying the Dissidents and Deserters

By mid-February 2007 there were reports that Rwasa had crossed the border from Tanzania into Burundi to reorganize the FNL (Net Press News [Bujumbura], February 19, 2007). Rwasa’s presence was essential as large numbers of FNL fighters said to be tired of life in the bush, constant warfare and the intransigence of the FNL leadership had begun to desert the movement in 2006-2007. According to an army spokesman, deserters had revealed FNL fighters were short of food by mid-summer, 2006 and were forced to eat grass to combat hunger (Burundi Press Agency, August 19, 2006). Many of the deserters were regrouped by the army under new leaders, but the old Palipehutu-FNL name was retained by the government to create dissension within the movement. In early September, 2007, FNL loyalists attacked one of these camps in a northern suburb of Bujumbura, driving the upstart FNL faction into the bush with heavy losses (IRIN, September 4, 2007; Bonesha FM [Bujumbura], September 5, 2007).

Mainstream FNL militants killed nine men in October 2007 in the camp of dissidents who continued to use the Palipehutu-FNL in defiance of FNL spokesman Pasteur Habimana’s demands the dissidents change the name of their group (Bonesha FM [Bujumbura], October 22, 2007). Habimana accused the chief mediator, South African security minister Charles Nqakula, of gathering “bandits” together under the FNL name, though it was more widely believed that the divisions in the FNL were being promoted by the Bujumbura government. Only days earlier, FNL forces had attacked dissident FNL leaders at the Hotel Albatros in downtown Bujumbura, killing three and seriously wounding dissident leader Nestor Banzubaze (a.k.a. Banes) (Net Press News, October 15; RFI, October 15). Further embarrassments followed as other “FNL dissidents” loyal to Emmanuel Sindayigaya (a.k.a. Gatayeli) bearing newly issued Burundian military gear began carrying out atrocities in southern Burundi, compelling government authorities to seize and imprison their new ally (Net Press News [Bujumbura], November 23, 2007).

Ending the Armed Struggle?

Peace efforts suffered a serious blow in April, 2008 when the FNL began shelling Bujumbura to reinforce FNL demands for full immunity from prosecution and a healthy share of government positions. The dispute descended into street clashes between the army and FNL fighters, angering the Tanzanian and Ugandan brokers of the peace deal (BBC, May 8, 2008). International pressure finally forced Rwasa to agree to a May 25 ceasefire that laid the foundation for a new peace agreement with the government.

Under the protection of a detail of South African troops, Rwasa returned to Bujumbura on May 31, 2008 aboard a South African aircraft to the cheers of thousands of people after two decades in the bush (RFI, May 31, 2008). Rwasa declared the end of the armed struggle at a ceremony on June 17, 2008, saying the movement wished to show the international community that it was “committed to reaching a lasting peace.” The demobilization process was complicated, however, by Rwasa’s reluctance to declare how many fighters he had under his command (IRIN, June 17, 2008).

In June, 2008 the Army arrested over 100 young men who they claimed had been recruited to the FNL after the ceasefire in order to boost FNL numbers in a newly-integrated Burundian army (BBC, June 19, 2008). Rwasa was now claiming a vastly inflated strength of over 21,000 FNL fighters. By late July, 2,450 fighters had surrendered only 40 weapons (IRIN, July 29). Despite many difficulties, the government and the FNL came to an agreement in December, 2008 that called for 33 senior government posts to be offered to FNL members as well as the release of political prisoners from state prisons (Radio Burundi, December 4, 2008). Rwatha was eventually appointed head of Burundi’s national social welfare agency (AFP, June 5, 2009).  South African troops foiled an assassination attempt on Rwasa by assailants armed with grenades a month later (Net Press News [Bujumbura], July 14, 2009).

Rejection and Flight

The FNL began demobilizing its fighters with a ceremony in western Burundi in April, 2009 (Radio Publique Africaine [Bujumbura], April 18, 2009). In a process assisted by the South African military, 3,500 fighters were destined to be integrated into the Burundi Defense Forces and police, with the remainder (an estimated 5,000) being completely demobilized (Institute for Security Studies [Pretoria], May 8, 2009).

The FNL put Rwasa forward as its candidate for the 2010 presidential elections, with Rwasa announcing: “The time of taking power by force is over. Now is the time for dialogue and democracy” (Reuters, November 30, 2009). Though Rwasa was viewed as the main challenger for the presidency, he joined five other opposition candidates in announcing their withdrawal from the June, 2010 elections after the ruling CNDD-FDD won easily in a round of local elections preceding the presidential poll.

Rwasa went into hiding in July, 2010, claiming he feared for his life as the government wanted to kill him (Net Press News [Bujumbura], July 8, 2010. In a cassette tape distributed to his followers, Rwasa said: “They’re looking for me because I told the truth [about election rigging], because I said publicly that I don’t accept the results of the local elections… [Last]Wednesday they wanted to arrest me again. I got wind of it and I disappeared from circulation” (AFP, June 30, 2010).

The FNL leader was believed to have fled to the DRC’s Kivu region, a common refuge for many regional militants, terrorists and bandits. FNL members claimed Rwasa’s flight had followed a raid on his home in Bujumbura in which tear gas, live ammunition and rockets had been used. Police denied these details, but said they had acted after FNL activists had gathered near Rwasa’s house after rumors of his impending arrest began to circulate, searching passers-by and stopping vehicles (AFP, June 17, 2010).

His opponents within the FNL saw their opportunity, and on August 1, 2010, a number of dissident FNL leaders announced they had replaced Rwasa as leader of the movement with Emmanuel Miburo at a congress from which Rwasa was absent. (RFI, August 1, 2010). Rwasa described the leadership congress as “a provocation. It is very clear that the intention of the government is to allow people affiliated to it to take over the FNL party leadership” (RFI, August 7, 2010). Rwasa appealed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for help in the “restoration of the FNL party and its leaders in their rights” (Jeune Afrique, September 25, 2010). Rwasa loyalists began to search for the dissident RFL leaders and their followers and the murder of seven sugar factory workers and the discovery of bound and mutilated bodies in the Rusizi River in northern Burundi was taken as an indication FNL fighters were regrouping in the nearby Rukoko marshes (AFP, September 15, 2010; September 22, 2010).

By December, 2010, Rwasa was telling journalists that he had “totally renounced the war” even as a UN report suggested the FNL leader had re-mobilized 700 of his most dedicated fighters in the eastern DRC (IRIN, December 10, 2010). Authorities in Bujumbura continued to maintain the fiction that the frequent episodes of grenade-throwing and armed attacks were the work of “armed bandits” rather than political dissidents gathering in the Congo, even in the face of reports from Congolese Colonel Delphin Kayimbi that his forces were battling FNL guerrillas in the North and South Kivu provinces of the eastern DRC (Net Press News [Bujumbura], November 10, 2010).

At the same time FNL spokesmen and other opposition leaders were warning of “an explosive situation” in Burundi with the entire opposition sidelined from the political process, though this was partly the result of their own electoral boycott.  Without access to government, the opposition began to complain of a constant campaign designed to harass the opposition through arbitrary arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings. Murders of demobilized FNL fighters by uniformed men were becoming common (IRIN [Nairobi], November 26, 2010; December 1, 2010; AFP, October 16, 2010). By May 2011, Burundian defense minister Major-General Pontien Gaciyubwenge was ready to admit that the growing violence in western Burundi (especially in Burundi Rural Province) was the work of Agathon Rwasa and his followers (RFI, May 7, 2011). A year later, President Nkurunziza would promise Rwasa: “We will follow you and bring you back with your arms tied behind your back” (AFP, May 18, 2011).

On May 30, 2011 a group of fighters believed to be members of the FNL threw a grenade into a crowd watching a soccer match at the home of a ruling party member in Kanyosha district, killing four people and wounding others (Reuters, May 30, 2011).

According to a document produced by the Service National de Renseignement (SNR), Burundi’s national intelligence service, Rwasa was personally involved in the planning of an attack on the Chez les Amis bar in Gatumba (near Bujumbura) on September 18, 2011 that killed 39 people (al-Jazeera, September 19, 2011; AFP, September 19, 2011; October 6, 2011). The attack, allegedly carried out by a group under the command of Bariyanka Antoice (a.k.a. Shuti), came a week after Rwasa accused the government of torturing and killing over 100 members of the FNL. Many of those at the bar when it was attacked were members of a local football club with ties to the ruling party.

In mid-September, 2011, Rwasa claimed 169 of his followers had been killed since the start of the year, 20 of them after being detained by police. He claimed the latter, together with the intelligence services and the ruling party’s youth wing, were behind a series of “unacceptable massacres, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, cruel acts of torture, intimidation, death threats and extra-judicial executions” (AFP, September 16, 2011). One of the organizers of the Gatumba massacre, FNL commander Laver Nduwayezu (a.k.a. Carmel, a.k.a. Mukono) was killed by Congolese troops in early May, 2012 and his body handed over to Burundian security forces (AFP, May 4).

A Return to War?

Overt and covert government operations against the FNL that began in July, 2012 have played an important part in encouraging the movement to renew its armed struggle against the Bujumbura government. On September 2, veteran Hutu rebel General Aloys Nzabampema announced the creation of a new FNL faction of 1,000 fighters, which would take up arms against the regime in response to the government’s “policy of extermination of FNL members” (AFP, September 4; RFI, September 4). The statement declared their goal was the removal of President Pierre Nkurunziza, the Hutu leader of the Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie–Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD–FDD – National Council for the Defense of Democracy and the Forces for the Defense of Democracy).

Though the statement caused great consternation in Bujumbura, it was quickly rejected by Rwasa’s spokesman, Aimé Magera, who denied a resumption of hostilities and described Nzampema as a deserter who “has never been a leader of the FNL” (Jeune Afrique, September 4; IWACU [Bujumbura], September 3).


Extrajudicial killings by security services or members or allies of the ruling party are encouraged by a culture of immunity in which the current CNDD-FDD government denies the very existence of such a problem despite ample UN documentation of scores of such killings since the 2010 elections. President Nkurunziza appears to be overly reliant on his military advisors, leaving few options for other means of addressing the impasse with the FNL, which still sees itself as the senior Hutu liberation movement and thus deserving of the fruits of political supremacy. Rwasa, a consummate political survivor, is under strong pressure from his movement’s rank-and-file to resume the armed struggle against the government, which is quickly becoming a matter of personal survival for many FNL members. Though the still-hidden Rwasa insists the FNL has abandoned its arms, this is a familiar refrain oft-heard shortly before Rwasa launches yet another deadly attack in this seemingly interminable conflict.


  1. Rwasa’s organization is still often referred to by its earlier name, the Parti pour la libération du peuple hutu (PALIPEHUTU). A common usage is “PALIPEHUTU-FNL.”

Algerian Leaders of al-Qaeda Leaders in the Islamic Maghreb Regain Control with Appointment of New Saharan Amir

Andrew McGregor

October 18, 2012

AQIM’s Algerian leadership has appointed al-Vourghan Brigade leader Jemal Oukacha (a.k.a. Yahya Abu al-Hammam) as its new Saharan amir (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, October 4). Al-Hammam’s appointment was intended to fill a vacancy created when Nabil Makhloufi (a.k.a. Abu al-Kama) was killed a month ago, allegedly in a “car accident” in the desert between Gao and Timbuktu (Le Temps d’Algerie [Algiers], October 5).

al-HammamYahya Abu al-Hammam

Al-Hammam is a native of Reghaia, a town in Algiers Province in northern Algeria, and has been involved in Islamist militancy since 2000, when he finished an 18-month term in prison and joined the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC), which later became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The young jihadi began to come into prominence through his participation in several raids against Mauritanian and Algerian military posts under Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abd al-Hamid Abu Zaid. In 2006, al-Hammam was sentenced to death in absentia in Biskra on terrorism-related charges. By 2010 he was heavily involved in the kidnapping of European nationals in the Sahel region with the Vourghan Brigade (Liberté [Algiers], October 6).

Al-Hammam is believed to be very close to AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Mus’ab Abd al-Wadad) and his appointment can be seen as an attempt by the Boumerdes-based leadership to reassert their authority in the wild Sahara/Sahel sector, where movement commanders have grown used to a large degree of autonomy in their operations and decision-making.

Al-Hammam’s promotion appears to have come at the expense of Mulathamin Brigade leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was reported to have been seriously wounded in a clash with Tuareg rebels earlier this year (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 12). If this is the case, the appointment may well create new tensions within the movement, but the decision marks Droukdel’s intention to establish firmer control of the movement’s southern brigades in anticipation of a major confrontation with ECOWAS, African Union or Western forces in northern Mali in the coming months. News of the appointment was apparently accompanied by orders from the AQIM leadership to Abd al-Hamid Abu Zaid and others to respect the decision (El-Khabar [Algiers], October 6). It has been reported that the division of spoils from AQIM’s lucrative Saharan kidnapping business has been a recent source of friction between the movement’s southern amirs.

AQIM’s dominance in the Sahara/Sahel region is now being challenged by the rival Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), which is attracting large numbers of sub-Saharan recruits (Jeune Afrique, October 14). A spokesman for the Mulathamin Brigade denied Algerian reports that Mokhtar Belmokhtar was injured in a clash between the AQIM Brigade and MUJWA fighters on September 27 (Le Temps d’Algerie, October 1). Nonetheless, al-Hammam’s appointment is in part an effort to reinvigorate AQIM’s profile in the region.

With an external military intervention in Mali very unlikely before the end of the year, both AQIM and MUJWA have an opportunity to rally supporters and prepare an armed response. MUJWA leader Omar Ould Hamaha has warned France against adopting an aggressive stance against the Islamists of northern Mali as well as claiming Mauritania’s armed forces would be no match for MUJWA fighters, who he says are more experienced and better armed than Mauritanian troops (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], October 6). Algeria appears to be favoring an approach that would simultaneously encourage dialogue with northern Mali’s Tuareg rebels (without exclusion) while isolating AQIM and MUJWA from the local community (Tout sur l’Algerie [Algiers], October 12).

This article first appeared in the October 18, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Libyan Islamist Abd al-Hakim Belhadj Warns against U.S. Retaliation for Benghazi Consulate Attack

Andrew McGregor

October 18, 2012

One of the most prominent Islamists to emerge as a political power in Libya’s post-Qaddafi era has offered his views on the controversial September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead. The remarks, carried in an October 9 interview by pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, were made by Abd al-Hakim Belhadj (a.k.a. Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq), head of the Islamist al-Watan (“Homeland”) Party and the former head of the post-revolutionary Tripoli Military Council. Belhadj is also a former amir of the al-Qaeda-associated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and is believed to have received close support from Qatar during the revolutionary period.

Benghazi - govt troopsLibyan Government Troops – Benghazi

Belhadj adopted a view similar to the earlier and now generally discounted interpretation that the assault on the Benghazi consulate was a spontaneous demonstration inspired by an anti-Islamic film rather than a planned terrorist strike:

The information we received is that the issue at the beginning was spontaneous. The people gathered in front of the consulate, and then an exchange of fire took place between the two sides – between the consulate’s guards and the demonstrators, some of whom were armed. This has later resulted in the regrettable action which claimed the life of the U.S. ambassador. We are waiting for the results of the investigations that will provide us with the firm information represented in the facts that will condemn parties and lead us to know those responsible.

Belhadj’s remarks were essentially an extension of the Islamist’s earlier characterization of the incident:

We are fully aware that this despicable hate film, “Innocence of Muslims,” does not reflect the American people’s views, and that the producers of this film are an extremist minority. The unequivocal condemnation of the film by U.S. officials made this quite clear. Indeed, a careful analysis of the situation suggests that there is no conflict between our peoples. Rather, a hate campaign led by a small number of extremist Islamophobes has led to unacceptable counter-reactions by small extremist groups. As in the U.S., these extremists do not reflect mainstream opinion (Guardian, September 21).

While Belhadj admits he has “heard of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” he notes that, “personally, I have not noticed the presence of al-Qaeda in Libya during my leadership of the Military Council in Tripoli.” Commenting on reports of people affiliated with al-Qaeda involved in the Benghazi consulate attack, Belhadj claims: “In fact, I do not have information on the presence of this organization in Libya. However, as ideas, perhaps there are similar ideas, and we… will work to prevent Libya from becoming a land for targeting or implementing al-Qaeda’s plans or for its presence.”

Though Belhadj is certain to be better informed on the attack than he seems prepared to reveal, nevertheless the former militia commander appears committed for now to a political approach to determining Libya’s future through his Watan Party and is more closely associated with the consulate’s Libyan February 17 Brigade guards than with the parties most likely associated with the attack. However, Belhadj still has reservations about a general demobilization and disarmament of Libya’s roving militias, suggesting that the government should work out a plan to absorb the ex-revolutionaries “and stop chaos, which the proliferation of these groups and weapons may cause.” Nonetheless, Belhadj calls for the establishment of a capable national security administration before the disarmament process, “because if we start with collecting the weapons before building the establishment, this may have an adverse result and this vacuum may be exploited by those who want to shake security or destabilize the country.” Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the state can establish a functioning security role until the militias turn in their weapons, thus leaving the state permanently vulnerable to bursts of political violence such as the one that claimed the lives of U.S. diplomatic and security personnel in Benghazi.

Belhadj was in Benghazi in April, 2011, where he helped organize a new Islamist militia known as the “February 17 Brigade” (al-Hayat, January 2). It was this same militia that was later responsible for providing local security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Included in the security force for the Benghazi consulate proper were four members of the Islamist February 17 Brigade, described by a State Department source as “a friendly militia which has basically been deputized by the Libyan government to serve as our security, our host government security.” A further 16 militia members were part of the quick reaction security team based at the CIA compound described as the consulate’s “annex.” [1] Members of the militia engaged with the consulate’s “Special Protection Unit” complained of a lack of training, inadequate weapons and equipment and a general lack of cooperation from the U.S. embassy that culminated in the unit receiving no response to calls for backup during the assault on the Benghazi consulate (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 7).

Benghazi - Ansar supportersAnsar al-Shari’a Supporters – Benghazi

Formerly led by Islamist Fawzi Bu Kataf, the February 17 Brigade possesses a quantity of heavy weapons and can field 1500 to 3500 fighters (BBC, September 28).  Bu Kataf was replaced by Colonel Amraja’a al-Msheiti as commander on September 24 (AFP, September 24).

The February 17 Brigade is one of the so-called “loyal militias” (at least nominally under the control of the Libyan Defense Ministry) in Benghazi. Others include:

  • The Martyr Rafalllah Sahati Brigade – Formerly led by Ismail al-Salabi (brother of Libya’s leading Islamist, Ali al-Salabi), the Brigade began as a battalion of the February 17 Brigade before forming an independent command during the anti-Qaddafi revolution.  On September 24, the Brigade’s commander, Shaykh Muhammad al-Garabi, was replaced by Colonel Salah al-Din bin Umran (AFP, September 24).
  • The Libya Shield Brigade – Led by Islamist Wissam bin Hama’ad, the Libya Shield is the most powerful armed group that can be called on by the new Libyan government and has been sent to remote regions such as Kufra Oasis to quell tribal violence and establish the writ of the government.

Other, non-conforming militias active in Benghazi include:

  • The Martyrs of Abu Salim Brigade – Prominent in the revolution, the Islamist group was expelled from four public buildings by demonstrators on September 21 (AFP, September 22).
  • Ansar al-Shari’a – The Ansar have engaged in the destruction of Sufi shrines and participated in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in June but have denied having any role in the latest consulate attack despite eye-witness accounts placing Ansar al-Shari’a fighters at the scene and movement spokesmen later responding to news of the assault with approval. The movement is a fierce opponent of democratic initiatives in Libya and is believed to have carried out a number of prominent assassinations, including the July 28 murder of General Abd al-Fatah Yunis and two of his aides (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, August 4, 2011). After being driven from their compound and base at Benghazi’s al-Jala’a hospital by hundreds of angry demonstrators, Ansar al-Shari’a fighters are reported to have fled Benghazi and Derna for their home turf in the Jabal Akhdar mountains of eastern Libya with some 150 to 200 men and 17 vehicles (Guardian, October 9).

Libyan leader Muhammad al-Megaryef has used public anger against the militias (who appear to have been surprised by the degree of resentment expressed by protesters in Benghazi’s September 21 anti-militia demonstrations) to try and bring the leadership of the “loyal militias” into line with the nascent Libyan government security forces by assigning Army chief Yusuf al-Mangush to replace their commanders with colonels from the official Libyan military (BBC, September 24).

Despite such efforts, there is a near certainty of a retaliatory drone strike targeting armed militants responsible for the consulate attack before the U.S. presidential election. Numerous drones have been reported by local observers in the night skies over Benghazi, though it is difficult to confirm the accuracy of such reports. Abd al-Hakim Belhadj has publically warned the United States that it would be “unwise” to “send drones into Libyan airspace or [send] naval destroyers to its shores” (Guardian, September 21).


1. State Department Background Briefing on Libya, Washington, D.C., October 9, 2012,


This article first appeared in the October 18, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.