Libya’s Ansar al Shariah, expelled after Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death, is back in Benghazi

The September death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was supposed to mark the end of Ansar al Shariah, the extremist militia suspected of being behind the attack and that had controlled the streets of this city for months beforehand, demanding that an Islamist country emerge from the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Three days after the popular ambassador’s death, hundreds of outraged Libyans stormed Ansar al Shariah’s headquarters, routing everyone inside and setting the building ablaze. Members of Ansar al Shariah disappeared, “like sugar in water,” as one Libyan explained. The militant group’s checkpoints came down around the city and its threats against residents that its members had seen as too liberal stopped. Libya, the people of Benghazi seemed to say, would not tolerate extremism in the nation’s second largest city.

That was then. Nine months later, Ansar al Shariah is back on the streets of Benghazi.

This time, the group is rebranding itself as a social organization, opening a health clinic and a center for Islamic exorcism. It provides aid to the poor. Its Facebook page shows the group’s vehicles patrolling the streets and its members constructing new buildings and handing out money to the needy. None of this is clandestine: Ansar al Shariah signs mark the clinics and the cars are emblazoned with the black Ansar al Shariah flag. The same flag can be seen flying from many apartment balconies.

Ansar al Shariah members are manning checkpoints as well, including a main one leading into the city, though residents say they are friendlier than before when they force drivers to stop their cars and explain who they are.

Local officials see no reason to stop the militia’s return, in spite of the accusations that its members orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed Stevens and State Department computer specialist Sean Smith when the building they were hiding in was set on fire. Two former Navy SEALs working for the CIA, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died hours later in a mortar attack on a nearby CIA station.

“They are offering social services after the murder of Chris Stevens,” said Col. Hamad bin Khair, commander of the 1st Brigade of the Libyan Army, based here. “They are Libyans. They have that right.”

He added: “How do you know if the people working in the clinic are the same ones who killed Chris Stevens?”

Col. Wanis Bukhmada, 53, the commander of special forces in Benghazi, was nonchalant about Ansar al Shariah’s presence in what is supposed to be a city secured by his forces. “We need time to rebuild,” he said.

Ansar al Shariah’s push for Libya to be Islamist is part of a three-way debate happening here over Libya’s future. While the government in Tripoli is liberal, Islamists dominate the Libyan Congress. And in the streets of Benghazi, the majority support what Libyans call federalism – a system in which Benghazi would rule its local affairs but leave foreign policy and national defense to the central government in Tripoli. Some want that local government to be an Islamist state within Libya, while others call for a liberal, secular government.

Khair insists Ansar al Shariah is simply part of the discussion.

“We don’t have anyone in the brigade afraid of Ansar al Shariah,” Khair said. “They are regular people. They want good for Libya. They just want to be a nation governed by Islam.”

It’s not lost on residents that Ansar al Shariah has been reborn and that none of the 70 men involved in the U.S. consulate attack has been charged. It reinforces their ideas about who’s in charge – and it’s not the nascent Libyan government.

“The government is weak. Everyone is afraid,” said Ali Tarhouni, who served as the minister of oil and finance in the transitional government in 2011 and now is president of the Central National Party. The government leadership “never really used the power the people gave them.”

As for efforts to get to the bottom of the consulate attack, “I am not sure there is a serious investigation,” Tarhouni said. “I don’t see anything visible.”

Ansar al Shariah evolved in Libya during the 2011 anti-Gadhafi rebellion as a religious offshoot of the 17th of February Brigade, one of the primary anti-Gadhafi groups. Once a furtive organization, it quickly became a public force, staging protests in downtown Benghazi and announcing itself as the pre-eminent defender of the city. Residents knew who in their neighborhood belonged, and in the summer of 2012, the group had an office, a spokesman and control in Benghazi.

For some residents, the group offered a chance of revenge after Islamists of any kind were oppressed under Gadhafi’s four-decade rule. Even everyday Muslims feared wearing a beard under Gadhafi; with his demise, Libyans finally could discuss openly the role of Islam in both their lives and their government.

But as Ansar al Shariah increasingly employed violence and intimidation to push its views, a backlash emerged. Stevens’ death was a tipping point. With no trustworthy judicial or security apparatus here, Libyans took on a form of vigilante justice, storming the compound. The Ansar al Shariah spokesman’s phone stopped working around that time.

Ansar al Shariah’s push to present itself as a social organization is not a move limited to Libya. Indeed, Islamist groups across the region are seeking to appeal to supporters as they instill fear in their opponents with their armed groups, much like Hezbollah. The al Qaida-linked Nusra Front in Syria is seeking to expand its social outreach, as are al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali and al Shabab in Somalia.

Many in Benghazi, however, predict that Ansar al Shariah will find itself hard-pressed to win influence by simple acts of charity. With large oil reserves and a population of no more than 6 million people, Libyans are not suffering economically in the same way as Syrians or Somalis. Few people visited Ansar’s clinics over the course of a week.

Moreover, Ansar al Shariah must compete with other Islamist-based militias, such as the Libyan Shield, which up until residents stormed and destroyed its compound a week ago was backed by the government.

“They have some ideas” similar to ours, Ahmad al Jaziwi, a Libyan Shield spokesman, said of Ansar.

What remains unclear is how much their central message – a state dictated strictly by the Islamic laws of Shariah – appeals to residents here. During the 2011 revolution, Libyans who insisted they wanted a liberal secular state dominated the front lines and the transitional government. Since then, Benghazi has evolved into a considerably more Islamic city. Bearded men and veiled women fill the streets in a way one did not see six months ago. And, as Khair explained, Ansar al Shariah gets some of its funding from public donations.

Still, liberals insist that Ansar al Shariah is foisting its views on a frightened population and that liberals have the disadvantage of not being armed. There can be no honest discussion, they said, until the pattern of militias popping up and fading away in the face of controversy stops.

As one Libyan activist, agreeing to speak anonymously because he felt threatened, explained: “The thing I fear most is when they disappear, (because) they always come back.”

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