Libyan citizens drive the extremists out

Libyan citizens drive the extremists out

by Sheila Musaji

An important event happened in Benghazi Libya on Friday.  Ten days after the terrorist attack on the American Embassy that left Ambassador Stevens and three other Embassy staffers dead and the Embassy destroyed, the Libyan people themselves turned on the extremist minority that had carried out that attack.

This really should be HEADLINE news as it shows that the hope engendered by the Arab Spring has given ordinary citizens in countries formerly under dictatorial rule, real belief that they have the power to change the situation. 

TAM posted last week about previous demonstrations in Libya against the Embassy attack.  Libyans protesting in Benghazi: Images You Won’t See in the Media.  If you type “Libya” into the TAM search engine, many articles will come up about previous developments in Libya.  Also, in our collection of statements and condemnations Muslim, Arab, & Interfaith Organizations Condemn Attacks on U.S. Embassies you will find many statements by Libyans themselves. 

Here are key points about this incident from media around the world.  There is a lot happening, and it requires reading a lot of different sources to put together even the outline of what is going on.

Al Arabiya reports that an estimated 30,000 Libyans came out for a “Save Benghazi” protest against the influence of militias, and those who attacked the American Embassy.  Hundreds of the protesters attacked the main Salafi militia base and burned it, forcing the Salafis out.  At the same time as the large protest, a jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia could only attract a few hundred people.

Al Jazeera reported Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Benghazi, said: “We went there to see their slogans and basically what they’re saying is that they refused insults to the Prophet but they also refuse terrorism in their city.”  “They have also called for the disbanding of the militias, chanting: ‘What are you waiting for?’. They’re asking the government how long it will take before they do that.”  They gathered to pressure the national congress to pass legislation criminalising militias and codifying the law on bearing arms, organisers said.  They were also demanding the withdrawal of all armed groups from state buildings and institutions and full support for measures to revitalise the police and army.

The Globe and Mail reports that at least 11 people died and at least 70 were injured in the assault on the militia base.  Demonstrators paid tribute to Ambassador Stevens and carried banners calling for justice to be done.  For many Libyans, the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was the last straw in one of the biggest problems Libya has faced since last year’s ouster and death of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi: the multiple mini-armies armed with machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades that are stronger than government security forces. ...  While the late Friday protests were planned in advance though social networking sites and flyers, the storming of the heavily armed militia headquarters took many by surprise. After breaking off from a huge anti-militia march — the biggest in the eastern city since the fall of Col. Gadhafi’s regime last October — protesters overtook a building used by Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia, set fire to a vehicle and offices after freeing three detainees held in an underground cell. The group is linked to the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Big Story reported that signs mourned the killing of Stevens, reading, “The ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya lost a friend.” Military helicopters and fighter jets flew overhead, and police mingled in the crowd, buoyed by the support of the protesters.  Residents of another main eastern city, Darna, have also begun to stand up against Ansar al-Shariah and other militias.  The anti-militia fervor in Darna is notable because the city, in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast north of Benghazi, has long had a reputation as a stronghold for Islamic extremists. During the Gadhafi era, it was the hotbed of a deadly Islamist insurgency against his regime. A significant number of the Libyan jihadists who travelled to Afghanistan and Iraq during recent wars came from Darna. During the revolt against him last year, Gadhafi’s regime warned that Darna would declare itself an Islamic Emirate and ally itself with al-Qaida.  But now, the residents are lashing out against Ansar al-Shariah, the main Islamic extremist group in the city.  Leaders of tribes, which are the strongest social force in eastern Libya, have come forward to demand that the militias disband. Tribal leaders in Benghazi and Darna announced this week that members of their tribes who are militiamen will no longer have their protection in the face of anti-militia protests. That means the tribe will not avenge them if they are killed.

The Telegraph reported  The uprising has emboldened the Libyan government to issue a 48-hour deadline for militias not directly under its command to leave bases around Tripoli.  Brig-Gen Hamed Belkhair, commander of the official Benghazi garrison told the Daily Telegraph, that Ansar al-Sharia, the militant group whose members were implicated in storming the US consulate when ambassador Chris Stevens was killed had been disbanded.  “Its individual members may remain but it is finished as a force, God willing,” he said.

Yahoo News reported that the crackdown on militias has spread to Tripoli.

Those are the bare bones of the story to date.  Here are two of the best analyses so far:

Prof. Juan Cole provides an analysis

The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 was seen by many observers as a sign of Libyan radicalism or instability rather than the work of a small, violent and unrepresentative group.

It is a little hard to understand this point of view, since Libyans had just voted in what observers felt were free and fair, transparent elections, and they had elected moderate, mainstream politicians. Even the Muslim Brotherhood lost in the elections. When I was in Benghazi in late May, I found people enormously proud of their municipal and then-planned national elections, and relieved finally to have escaped the nightmare of Qaddafi rule. The US ambassador killed in the consulate attack, Chris Stevens, was wildly popular among Libyans, and I, as an American, was warmly greeted wherever I went.

On Friday during the day, the people of Benghazi demonstrated in their tens of thousands for peace and against al-Qaeda-style radicalism. Many placards called Chris Stevens “a friend,” though sources on the ground cautioned that the rally was not primarily about foreign affairs. The crowds were angered by continued poor security, and by the affront to the honor of their city, the leading municipality in the revolution against Muammar Qaddafi (Gaddafi) in 2011, committed by radical Muslim groups when they attacked the US consulate. The demonstrations were an affirmation of Free Libya and a signal that the people did not overthrow the mercurial Qaddafi just to be dominated by pro-al-Qaeda thugs.

Then on Friday night, their frustration with the militiamen of the “Ansar al-Shariah” and other lawless groups boiled over, and they attacked three of their headquarters and drove them out of the city. One of the groups they attacked, the Rafullah Sahati Brigade, has Muslim fundamentalist tendencies and is rumored to be connected somehow to hard line fundamentalist elements in the Libyan Ministry of the interior, according to al-Hayat the attackers had some armed men among them. The battle lasted two hours, and in the end the militia decided to withdraw from the city. ...

Max Boot on Commentary also provides an analysis

...  Fed up that Libya’s nascent, moderate government is unable to disarm militias, the people have taken the task into their own hands, forcibly disarming several militia groups and storming the headquarters of the extremist Ansar al Sharia group. Some 30,000 people marched through Benghazi, bearing signs that included “We want justice for Chris” and “The ambassador was Libya’s friend.” Protesters even chanted at Ansar al Sharia members: “You terrorists, you cowards. Go back to Afghanistan.”

This is, to put it mildly, heartening, and it shows that the people of Libya are hardly the anti-American radicals that many imagine them to be based on the actions of a few hotheads. One obvious takeaway is that the Middle East is not a uniform mass of sharia-spouting, America-hating crazies–which is, alas, the crude stereotype which remains popular in too many corners of the West. There are, in fact, complex forces at play and, while the radicals may grab the headlines, there is a “silent majority”–in the case of Libya, silent no more–that is more interested in peaceful social and economic development than it is in waging jihad against the West.

A second lesson from the Libya protests is that this is the payoff from an intervention to topple a hated dictator–America has plainly won the hearts of many in Libya, just as it did previously in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Kurdish region of Iraq. That does not, of course, mean that all Libyans love us–the extremists who killed our ambassador plainly did not–but it does mean that there is an undercurrent of sympathy for America that is not present in countries where we are associated with unpopular dictatorial regimes. We now have an opportunity to win popular favor in Syria or else suffer the opprobrium of allowing a terrible bloodletting to occur while we do nothing–which many Syrians will no doubt interpret as tacit American support for the hated Assad regime.

A third and final lesson is the need for follow-through–it is not enough to topple a dictator; it is just as important to establish order in his wake–something the Bush administration failed to do in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the Obama administration failed to do in Libya. The counsels of those of us who favored the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force to Libya after the successful NATO intervention were ignored. The result is the continuing chaos (although admittedly it is by no means a sure thing that an international force could have imposed order; it might even have sparked greater conflict). It is not, however, too late: Libya now has a moderate, pro-American government that is struggling to control its territory. While some isolationists in Congress argue that, in the wake of Stevens’s death, we should cut off aid to Libya, our proper course is just the opposite: We must increase aid, including the dispatch of military equipment and advisers, to create a national army and police force robust enough to keep order.

It is not surprising that Libya would be the country in which the people took such a strong stand.  This is the country that produced Omar Mukhtar, an ordinary schoolteacher and Sufi,  to lead the fight against the Italian Fascist occupiers of his country. 

J. Hammond notes in Omar Mukhtar, icon of the Libyan uprising that

... Such a powerful symbol is Omar Mukhtar that 79 years after his execution both the protestors and the Qadddafi regime have battled for his legacy. 

...  Italians wrested Libya from the Ottomans in the 1911-1912 Italo-Turkish War.  Italian control however was nominal beyond Libya’s coast. That changed a decade later when Mussolini came to power. After brutalizing democrats and communists in Italy, he turned his attention to building an empire. To return to Italy’s control territory that had not been ruled by Rome well, since Roman times. The situation in 1922 has odd echoes to today: a dictator with delusions of imperial grandeur launches a brutal “riconquista” on the Libyan people.

The Italian’s put General Grazani in charge of “pacifying” Cyrenaica the area of Eastern Libya now the center of the anti-Ghaddafi revolt as well.  Graziani described the Bedouins in the most insulting terms available to a citizen of Mussolini’s fascist Italy: Freedom loving. Graziani once wrote of the Bedouin: “Anarchist, lover of the most complete liberty and independence, intolerant of any restraint, headstrong, ignorant, unconquerable and boastful (bluffista) hero, it is sufficient that he possesses a rifle and a horse; he often masks, under the pretence of necessity of moving his tent, the desire of gaining the end of withdrawing himself from every governmental contact and control.”

Of the various Senussi resistance figures in Eastern Libya, it was Omar Mukhtar who rose to become the most prominent guerrilla leader using terrain and local support to his advantage. To which Grazani responded with a gauntlet of brutal tactics: concentration camps, a 300 kilometer wall of barbed wire, and aerial bombardment. Yet, resistance continued so Marshal Bagdolio wrote to General Grazani to extend his brutality “by now the course has been set and we must carry it out to the end, even if the entire population of Cyrenaica [Eastern Libya] must perish”. Angelo De Boca, the leading Italian historian of the Colonial period called the effects of concentration camps a small genocide. In total some 40,000 Libyans perished and 20,000 were sent into exile in Egypt during the nine years of war.

As the pressure tightened, a wounded Omar Mukhtar was captured on September 11, 1931. Following his defiant refusal to retreat to Egypt. After a brief show trial, Mukhtar was sentenced to be hanged. During his three days of captivity the prize prisoner acted with dignity throughout his ordeal. The elderly Mukhtar was brought to the gallows on February 16th, 1911 and hanged before thousands of his fellow Libyans. His alleged last words were a were a reflection of his career as a Qu’ranic teacher: “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un” to “To God we belong and to Him we return”.

Yet Mukhtar’s Senussi religious background is not what matters most to the Libyan protestors of today. Above all it was his example as an unbending resister to heavy handed rule of authoritarianism in the face of harsh military force. As a recent Libyan protestors organizing via twitter have asked “Please pray for the people of Omar Mukhtar.”


Furious Libyans attack militia linked to U.S. ambassador’s death

People power drives Islamist militias out of Libyan towns

Read more:

Protestors apologize to US; overtake Islamist group’s HQ in Benghazi

Tens Of Thousands Of Libyans Stage Anti-Militia Protest In Benghazi, Zack Beauchamp

Wingnut Bloggers Claimed Photos Showed ‘Muslims Dragging Stevens’ - Actually Showed Libyan Rescuers, Charles Johnson