The tragic assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was the latest in a series of attacks by the country’s increasingly active Salafists. In late August, armed Salafist groups demolished Sufi shrines, mosques and mausoleums in Tripoli, Misrata and Zliten. Earlier this year, Salafists desecrated British World War II graves, attacked the Tunisian consulate over an art exhibit in Tunis they deemed offensive, bombed the offices of the International Red Cross, and detonated an improvised explosive device at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
However, such attacks are hardly proof of Salafism’s growing influence over Libya. Rather, they are symptoms of an intense recomposition and fractionalization of the movement, between quietist, “politico,” and militant strands. More importantly, they reveal the Salafists’ anguished search for relevance in a country that is already socially conservative, but that has soundly rejected dogmatic political actors in favor of technocratic ones.
In the July 7 elections for the General National Congress (GNC), Libyan voters effectively shunned the “politico” current of Libyan Salafism represented by the Al-Watan party – which counted the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group emir, Abd al-Hakim Bilhaj, as its most prominent luminary – and Umma al-Wasat, whose candidates included LIFG figures such as Sami al-Saadi and Abd al-Wahhab al-Ghayid, the brother of slain Al-Qaeda deputy Abu Yahya al-Libi.
Tellingly, the candidates from both groups failed to secure even a single seat. Bereft of the political platform of Egypt’s Al-Nour party and lacking the stark secular-Islamist social divide that has enabled Tunisian Salafists to play the role of provocateur, militant Salafists in Libya are trying to muscle their way to prominence using violence. The country’s rich Sufi heritage (regarded by Salafists as anathema and idolatrous) has been the most recent object of their wrath. But the history of Salafist militancy extends farther back and encompasses a broad array of causes and targets.
By many accounts, the Salafists’ most visible entrée into the public sphere occurred on June 7, when the militia Ansar al-Shariah (based in Darnah and Benghazi) led a rally of armed vehicles along Benghazi’s own Tahrir Square and demanded the imposition of Islamic law.
It was the Ansar al-Shariah Brigade that was initially implicated in the consulate attack this week in Benghazi, although the group issued a statement on its Facebook page denying involvement. Another, more shadowy underground group, the Omar Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades – which claimed responsibility for the Red Cross attack and previous bombing of the consulate – is suspected in the recent assault. Elsewhere in Darnah – long-regarded as a hub of Islamic conservatism – Salafist militias have reportedly carried out assassinations of Gadhafi-era officials, taken over radio stations, and shut down beauty parlors. All of this has occurred in a worsening security vacuum where, in the absence of a professional police force and army, power has fallen to local militias – many with a Salafist bent.
Libyans’ public reaction to such strong-arm tactics has been vociferous and damning. Tribes, women’s groups, and civil society – as well as the country’s increasingly active social media community – have all mobilized to condemn the recent attacks on Sufis, while mounting demonstrations of their own against the Salafists’ shows of force. Counter protests in Benghazi were held in response to the Salafists’ armed rally on June 7, with many participants arguing on local TV that Libyan society was already sufficiently Islamic, and that Ansar al-Shariah should leave their weapons and Afghan dress at home.
Taken in sum, much of the violence suggests a movement in search of a cause; failing to achieve local resonance, Salafists have expanded beyond their traditional turf of social issues and are now grasping at foreign causes they believe will excite Libyans’ emotions.
Recently, anti-Americanism has risen to the fore. The Omar Abd al-Rahman Brigade has been the most active in targeting U.S. interests and claims credit for an earlier bombing of the consulate. In the run-up to the Benghazi attack, there were alarming exchanges in Salafist social media attacking the U.S. for using Libya as a base for flying drones.
Prominent Salafist-jihadist ideologues from Al-Qaeda (most notably Ayman al-Zawahiri) have long seen Libya as ripe for exploitation and have urged Libyan Salafists to avenge the U.S. killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi. According to one report, Zawahiri dispatched a longtime Libyan Al-Qaeda member, Abd al-Basit Azuz, after the 2011 revolt to establish an Al-Qaeda foothold in Darnah. An online video (probably from spring 2012) shows Azuz speaking at a rally there.
Most worrisome about the recent attacks on Sufi sites has been the government’s reaction – a response that has blended toleration and active collaboration. Much of this ambivalence results from the weak legitimacy and resources of the country’s provisional government, the National Transitional Council. Bereft of an effective army and police, the NTC was forced to co-opt the country’s numerous revolutionary “brigades,” deputizing them into provisional security forces like the Supreme Security Committees and Libyan Shield Forces, which nominally report to the Interior Ministry and the Army chief of staff, respectively. Invariably, these poorly trained bodies contain a number of Salafist militias who have used their warrant from the government to enforce draconian social mores, conduct vendettas against Gadhafi-era intelligence officers, and attack Sufis.
The real threat, therefore, is not Salafism per se, but Salafism as a failed litmus test for the new government’s legitimacy and capacity. In the wake of the shrine demolitions, many Libyans indicted the lame-duck cabinet of the NTC and the newly installed GNC as the true culprits for failing to provide security. Calls for more government resignations and even martial law have only increased in the wake of the attack on the Benghazi consulate and the death of the U.S. ambassador. Although the GNC had initially demanded the resignation of several Supreme Security Committees commanders in Tripoli for their complicity in the recent shrine demolitions, they subsequently reversed course and issued a letter of commendation after these commanders threatened a general strike. When the government has responded, it has usually been late or ineffective.
For the citizens of Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities, all this is a stark and tragic reminder of the perennial problems of poor governance and the security vacuum. Moving forward, what is needed is less of a focus on Islamism itself and more on building effective, representative governance and accountable, professional security forces.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and focuses on security affairs in Libya and the Gulf. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.