November 28, 2013
There are conflicting accounts of how the clashes began, but some sort of minor contact between gunmen of Benghazi’s Ansar al-Shari’a and soldiers of the Libyan Saiqa Special Forces Brigade early on November 25 set off heavy fighting that left nine dead and 49 wounded but saw the long-desired expulsion of Ansar al-Shari’a from the city by the end of the day. Ansar al-Shari’a is believed to have been responsible for the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. After being previously driven from its Benghazi bases by public demonstrations in September 2012, Ansar al-Shari’a returned quietly five months later, promoting themselves as providers of humanitarian aid, public services and security in a city still struggling to establish an effective administration.
Saiqa Special Forces in Benghazi, November 25
There was a danger during the fighting that Islamist reinforcements might arrive from other Ansar al-Shari’a bases in nearby Derna (where an ongoing assassination campaign has targeted everyone from judges to traffic police) or Ajdabiya, but security officials issued a warning that any convoy attempting to enter or leave Benghazi would be treated as an illegal militia and targeted by military aircraft. The Ansar al-Shari’a militants in Derna are led by Abu Sufyan bin Qumu, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who was released to Libyan custody in 2007. A column of ten Ansar al-Shari’a “technicals” (gun-mounted 4x4s) attempting to leave Derna for Benghazi were turned back by Libyan Army units from al-Marj and Beida. Two other Islamist militias in Derna, the Abu Salim Brigade and the Army of the Islamic State of Libya, remained at their bases (Libya Herald, November 26).
Ansar al-Shari’a’s detachment in Ajdabiya was forced out of the town on the same day by armed civilians (Libyan News Agency, November 25). Armed civilians also joined the effort to expel Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi, but were asked to return home by Saiqa commander Wanis Bukhamada (Libya Herald, November 25). Ansar al-Shari’a also has bases further afield in Misrata and Sirte, but access to Benghazi from the latter base was prevented by a roadblock set up at Wadi Ahmar by the newly created Barqa defense force, the armed element of autonomy-seeking Cyrenaicans in eastern Libya (Libya Herald, November 25; for the Cyrenaican autonomy movement, see Terrorism Monitor, October 31).
Violence returned to the streets of Benghazi on the evening of November 26 – 27 as gunmen threw grenades and clashed with the Libyan Army in three parts of the city. The situation was brought under control as reinforcements were sent to the affected areas. Ansar al-Shari’a elements were suspected, but security spokesmen admitted they were unsure who was responsible (Libya Herald, November 26; Reuters, November 27). Three soldiers were assassinated in Benghazi the same day by unknown assailants.
Laws 27 and 53 of Libya’s ruling General National Council (GNC) call on all Libya’s militias to disband or join the national army by the end of the year. However, this raises the possibility of large numbers of new additions bringing an extremist ideology with them as they are integrated into a national military. Saiqa commander Wanis Bukhamada has promised his Special Forces would use force against any militia that failed to disband and attacked the police and army after that date (Libya Herald, November 26). Bukhamada is a former officer under the Qaddafi regime who defected to the rebels during the revolution and led the liberation of Brega.
There are signs that the security situation in Libya’s two major cities may be shifting in favor of those seeking the removal of the militias from the streets. Most of Tripoli’s warring militias left the city after the Misrata militia discredited its claims to be protecting the people of Tripoli when its fighters opened fire on peaceful demonstrators calling for their removal on November 15, killing 46 and wounding more than 500 more (Ahram Online [Cairo], November 26).
On the same day as the Benghazi clashes, a representative of Ansar al-Shari’a appeared on Libyan TV to announce that all those who chose not to comply with Shari’a in Libya would be fought and killed, as would the French and anyone seeking democracy or secularism. Derna-based commander Mahmoud al-Barassi fueled the GNC’s efforts to disband the militias by saying the GNC and the Army are apostates, insisting Prime Minister Ali Zeidan knows “nothing about Islam” and claiming that all opponents of Ansar al-Shari’a are “enemies.” Other elements of Ansar al-Shari’a were believed to have gone into damage control after al-Barassi’s remarks (Libya al-Ahrar TV, November 25; Libya Herald, November 25).
This article first appeared in the November 28 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.