Libyan Special Forces Expel Ansar al-Shari’a from Benghazi

Andrew McGregor

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.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis Intensifies Assassination Campaign in the Sinai

Andrew McGregor

November 28, 2013

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) is the Egyptian branch of a Gazan Islamist organization that first appeared in the Sinai in the days after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Since then, ABM has become one of the most active and aggressive of the many militant groups now found in the Sinai. Its latest high-profile operation was the November 17 assassination in Nasr City of Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Mabrouk Abu Khattab of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA), one of the leading investigators involved in the prosecution of ex-president Muhammad Mursi and other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past, ABM has mounted several attacks on the pipelines that carry Egyptian natural gas to Israeli and Jordanian markets, claimed responsibility for an attack on Israeli troops in September, 2012 and attempted to assassinate Egyptian Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim on September 5 (Daily News Egypt, July 26, 2012).

Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Mabrouk

In its claim of responsibility for the murder of Colonel Mabrouk, ABM maintained that it had targeted the senior investigator over the commitment to trial in Alexandria of 15 women and seven girls for participation in a violent pro-Mursi demonstration in Alexandria in October: “[Mabrouk] was one of the major tyrants of the state security apparatus and the assassination was a response to the arrest of free women by this malicious apparatus.” The statement ended by promising further attacks if the women were not freed. [1]Given Mabrouk’s peripheral connection with the Alexandria case, prosecutors suspected the ABM statement was intended to mislead their investigations and asked the Interior Ministry to investigate the declaration (al-Masry al-Youm, November 21).

Suspicion of complicity in the assassination has fallen on the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemned the attack on November 19 and assailed efforts by the media to associate them with the assassination (Daily News Egypt, November 20). The timing of Mabrouk’s murder is noteworthy, as it came shortly before his testimony in the Mursi trial and a week after submitting a CD supporting the charges of spying leveled against the ex-president. Judicial sources have indicated that the CD includes a recording of a phone call between Mursi and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as well as another phone conversation in which Mursi admits providing Hamas with information on the security situation in the Sinai (al-Masry al-Youm, November 21). Colonel Mabrouk played a central role in taking down the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, arresting leading members such as Khayrat al-Shater, Essam al-Erian and Muhammad al-Beltagy. The spying charges actually predate Mursi’s removal as president; the case accusing Mursi and 13 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood of spying and illegal contacts with foreign entities was forwarded to prosecutors by the Ismailia Appeals Court on June 23 (al-Ahram Weekly, November 22).  Mabrouk was also expected to be the chief witness in a separate case regarding Mursi’s Hamas-assisted escape from Wadi al-Natrun prison five days after the January 25 Revolution.

According to the ABM statement, the killing was carried out by the Mu’tasim Bi-‘llah Battalion. This ABM faction is named for al-Mu’tasim Bi-‘llah, the eighth Abbasid caliph (795 – 842), known for his fighting skills and his campaigns against the Christian Byzantine Empire. As justification for the murder, the ABM statement cited an episode from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, in which the Prophet attacked and expelled the Jewish Banu Qaynuqa tribe after an incident in the market in which a Jewish goldsmith is said to have pinned the clothes of a Muslim woman so as to cause her to be stripped naked when she walked away. The Jewish merchant was immediately killed by a passing Muslim, who was in turn killed by a Jewish mob, leading to the Prophet’s eventual attack. [2] ABM asks, on the basis of this precedent, what alternative do Muslims have when faced with the detention and assault of hundreds of Muslim women?

Mabrouk’s funeral was attended by Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim and several other ministers and high officials. A three-day mourning period was announced by interim president Adli Mansour on November 20 (Egypt State Information Service, November 21). The Interior Ministry claims 152 “martyrs” have been lost to militant activities since Mursi’s June 30 overthrow.

Colonel Mabrouk was only the latest in a series of Interior Ministry personnel (many of whom conceal their identities and rarely work in the field) to be targeted by assassins. Revelations of the existence of “assassination lists” with the home addresses of intelligence officers involved in the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood are reported to have prompted a deadline of January for Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim to discover the leak in his Ministry (Ahram Online [Cairo], November 22; al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], November 22).

On November 21, police in the Delta town of Qaha raided an apartment in search of two suspected terrorists wanted in connection to the murder of Colonel Mabrouk, the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Ibrahim and an attack on a Coptic church. The two were arrested only after a gunfight that killed police Captain Ahmad Samir al-Kabir (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 21; November 22).

On the following day, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior announced the arrest of the prime suspect in the Mabrouk assassination, Shady al-Manei, described as a leading member of Bayt al-Maqdis. Al-Manei was alleged to be a subordinate of Muslim Brotherhood deputy guide Muhammad Khayrat al-Shater (presently detained) and was previously imprisoned in connection with the 2005 Taba bombings before being released by ex-president Muhammad Mursi (Egypt State Information Service, November 23). Nabil Na’im, a fierce opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad from 1988 to 1992, has accused al-Shater, a prominent businessman, of funding ABM’s strikes on Egyptian security forces (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 9; for Khayrat al-Shater, see Militant Leadership Monitor, September 2013).

The Egyptian Army has not failed to respond to the ABM’s attacks on security personnel. On November 26, four black Army Humvees pursued and killed Shaykh Abu Munir (a.k.a. Muhammad Hussein Muhareb) and his son at al-Mehediya in the northeast Sinai. Abu Munir was an associate of ABM and a prime suspect in the brutal roadside murder of 25 police recruits dragged from their bus in August (Aswat Masriya [Cairo], November 26; Telegraph, November 26).

On November 20, ABM released the identity of the suicide bomber who attacked the South Sinai security directorate on October 7, killing five soldiers and wounding 50 others. The “martyr,” Muhammad Hamdan al-Sawarka (a.k.a. Abu Hajer), was a member of the Sawarka tribe, one of the Sinai’s largest. The ABM statement also criticized prominent Egyptian Salafist leaders for failing to resist the overthrow of Muhammad Mursi (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 20).

In his assessment of the Sinai campaign of the Egyptian security forces, Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a founding member of the extremist al-Gama’a al-Islamiya who has since renounced political violence, commented:

This campaign has largely succeeded. Without it, Egypt would have witnessed a long series of car bombings. We must admit that this military campaign prevented the arrival of this danger to the Nile Delta and to Cairo in a major way. Extremists in Sinai can equip a thousand booby-trapped cars and dispatch them to other areas in Egypt. The military campaign destroyed many mine and weapons stockpiles, and many of those who committed terrorist attacks were arrested. Many smuggling tunnels were closed and the sources of funding for these groups in the Sinai were controlled (As-Safir [Cairo], November 25).


1. Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, “Declaring our responsibility for assassinating the criminal Muhammad Mabrouk,” November 19, 2013,

2. The incident is related in Ibn Hisham’s (died c. 830) Al-Sirah al-Nabawiyah , an edited version of Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad (now lost).

This article first appeared in the November 28 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Oil Exploration and Political Stalemate Threaten to Trigger Renewed Conflict in the Western Sahara

Andrew McGregor

November 28, 2013

The decades-long unresolved conflict over the Western Sahara threatens to heat up again as Algeria and Morocco dispute the future of the region and young members of the Sahrawi Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro –Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro) urge a return to arms against Moroccan “occupiers” rather than spend further decades in refugee camps located in the remote Algerian desert. A general international indifference has preserved the political impasse, in which native Sahrawis demand a referendum on independence and the Moroccan administration offers regional autonomy within a “Greater Morocco.” Giving impetus to the return of the issue to international attention is the growing Moroccan exploitation of the Western Sahara’s resources, including phosphates, fisheries and, potentially, oil and gas.  Omar Mansour, a member of the Polisario’s National Secretariat, has warned: “If the U.N. does not take this seriously to ensure self-determination and that human rights are respected, then we are heading towards a war with regional implications” (Reuters, April 22).

Northwest Africa in the Colonial Period


The Polisario Front was established in May, 1973 with the intent of expelling Spanish colonialists from the colony of Spanish Sahara (1884 – 1973). It gained strength in 1975 when locally-raised Spanish troops began to desert to the Polisario with their weapons. When Spain calculated the cost of retaining the colony in a world increasingly unsympathetic to colonial projects, it decided to defy a UN resolution and simply abandon the region, ceding the larger part of the colony, Saguia al-Hamra, to Morocco, with part of the Rio de Oro going to Mauritania in the 1975 Madrid Tripartite Accords.

The native Sahrawi resistance proclaimed the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 in response, which Algeria soon recognized in the hope of preventing regional expansion by Morocco. The Sahrawis then launched a costly guerrilla campaign with Libyan support against both Morocco and Mauritania. By 1979, Mauritania, with limited resources and exhausted by years of fierce desert fighting, decided to abandon its claim to the southern Rio de Oro after a military junta arranged a ceasefire, though Morocco quickly stepped in to expand its own claim to the entire Rio de Oro. The Polisario Front was recognized by the UN as the official representative of the Sahrawi people in the same year. The Sahrawis’ conflict with Morocco became increasingly bitter, with both sides committing human rights abuses in a war the international community barely noticed.

Rabat offered to hold a referendum on independence in 1981, but soon withdrew the offer, deciding instead to build a huge and heavily garrisoned sand berm to isolate the Polisario guerrillas in the economically useless and uninhabited regions of the former colony. 1250 miles long and 15 to 30 feet high, the berm is equipped with sensors, landmines and surveillance equipment; any attempt to cross the berm brings out Moroccan fighter jets ready to attack infiltrators in open country. The berm separates inhabitable, resource rich land near the coast from the largely lifeless desert to which the rebel Sahrawis fled in the 1970s and 1980s.

This tactic effectively ended Polisario strikes in the Moroccan-held Western Sahara and forced a 1989 ceasefire. A 1991 ceasefire agreement called for a UN referendum asking Sahrawis whether they wanted independence or integration into Morocco. However, preparations for the referendum broke down when UN organizers experienced difficulty in determining who was or wasn’t eligible to vote from amongst the scattered Sahrawi population.  By this time, Morocco preferred the facts on the ground and has yet to conduct the referendum. Disappointed Polisario leaders have since referred to their homeland as “the last colony in Africa” (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], October 31).

Growing Anger in the Refugee Camps

Cut off from the inhabitable parts of the Western Sahara, the exiled Sahrawis now live in six refugee camps housing 150,000 people centered around the Algerian town of Tindouf, home to an Algerian military base. Twenty-six thousand additional refugees live in Mauritania. The four main camps are named for towns in the Western Sahara – al-Aaiun, Smara, Awserd and Dakhla. “February 27” is a small camp and the administration is run from the Rabouni camp. There are reports of widespread malnutrition and related illnesses in the camps, which rely largely on shipments of food and other aid from the international community (Sahara Press Service [El-Aaiun], November 13).

Political development in the refugee camps has calcified, with government remaining in the hands of an old guard led by Muhammad Abdelaziz, who was elected as Polisario Front secretary-general and president of the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic in August 1976 and has remained in these posts ever since, ruling with the help of a small but powerful group of loyalists.

The sole political formation is the Polisario Front, a creation intended to put aside local political rivalries in the interests of presenting a common front demanding self-determination for the Western Sahara. However, this state of affairs is increasingly unable to restrain a growing number of youths (over 50% of the population in the camps is now under 18) who have never set foot in their “homeland,” see no future in the refugee camps and are growingly inclined to resume the armed conflict with Morocco in the face of the apparent satisfaction of the international community with the status quo.  As even President Abdelaziz concedes, “Patience has its limits” (Global Post, November 13).

Abdelaziz has been clear that renewing the armed conflict remains the legitimate right of Sahrawis, but is seeking to avoid new clashes with a far stronger power that could easily devastate the Sahrawi community in open warfare. Time is not working in favor of the Sahrawis holding out for independence in the refugee camps – with the gradual return of some refugees and a growing population of Moroccan migrants, the Western Saharan administrative capital of al-Aaiun alone now holds twice as many people as the combined refugee camps in Algeria.

Security in the camps is provided by Polisario internal security forces and the 6,000 to 7,000 man Ejercito de Liberación Popular Saharaui (ELPS – Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army), the military wing of the Polisario Front. The ELPS fields a variety of vintage Soviet equipment donated by Algeria and a range of equipment captured from the Spanish, Moroccans and Mauritanians. The Polisario administers its own justice and maintains its own detention facilities. Sahrawi dissidents accuse the movement of human rights abuses, including the torture and disappearance of dissidents (Sahara News, August 7).

Morocco has the upper hand in the constant propaganda warfare with the Polisario Front, disseminating its views and castigating the Polisario for alleged human rights abuses and purported ties to Islamist terrorist groups in a number of English-language websites designed to influence Western (especially American) opinion. For its part, the Polisario accuse Rabat of paying former refugees to produce lurid accounts of torture, illegal imprisonment and repression in the Polisario camps.

The Moroccan Approach

Morocco has devised a plan for regional autonomy as an alternative to holding a referendum on independence and has tried to gain international support for its claim by announcing an $18 billion investment plan intended to double the region’s GDP and create 120,000 jobs (African Energy, November 25).

Though efforts to obtain diplomatic recognition of its claim over the Western Sahara have faltered, Morocco has proceeded with the economic development of the territory based on an ambiguous legal ruling issued by the UN in 2002. Morocco inherited a major phosphates mining operation from Spain and is in negotiations with the EU to expand its fishing zone to include the profitable waters of Western Sahara. Now Kosmos Energy and partner Cairn Energy plan to begin oil exploration in a Moroccan-licensed offshore block next year. This latest development has enraged the Polisario Front, which stated that it was against “exploiting the sovereign resources of the Saharawi people without their consent while we remain under an illegal occupation… Western Sahara remains occupied as a matter of international law and so the taking of petroleum is clearly a war crime” (African Energy, November 25).