Security in Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city where four Americans were killed Sept. 11 in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate, has decayed to the point where Westerners are fleeing, assassinations and kidnappings are rife and residents worry that U.S. drone strikes on jihadist targets are imminent.
"The situation has obviously deteriorated. It is a systematic deterioration," said longtime Benghazi resident Jalal Elgallal, who was spokesman of the now-defunct National Transitional Council.
Mr. Elgallal recently escaped harm from a nearby bomb blast as he waited in his car at a traffic light.
"We don't do a lot of going out now," he said in a phone interview from Benghazi. "There is uncertainty about what is going to happen in the very near future."
In the 15 months since dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed, Benghazi — the cradle of the Libyan revolution — has been besieged by rampant violence, much of it resulting from score-settling between the heavily armed militias that control the city and those who served in the Gadhafi regime.
"It has been a series of attacks, kidnappings and assassinations," William Lawrence, director of the North Africa project of the International Crisis Group, said in a phone interview from Morocco. "The general situation in Libya continues to be bad, primarily because of the weak security infrastructure that existed before and after Gadhafi."
In January, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Canada urged their citizens to leave Benghazi. The British Foreign Office said it was aware of "a specific and imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi."
Several nongovernmental organizations already have left.
The violence has spread to the western city of Misrata and the south, where Mohamed Yousef al-Megariaf, president of Libya's General National Congress, escaped an assassination attempt early in January.
Over the past year, militants in Benghazi have attacked the British envoy's motorcade, the offices of the International Red Cross, the U.S. Consulate and Italy's top diplomat in Libya. The Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Westerners are not the only targets.
At least two dozen security officers, including Benghazi's police chief, have been killed over the past year. The head of the criminal investigative division, who was investigating the police chief's death, was abducted and is still missing.
A regional concern
Libya's weak government, police force and judiciary have done little to arrest or prosecute those responsible for the attacks.
"The Libyan government does not have the strength" to tackle this problem, said Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. "The government has been paralyzed and has allowed the jihadist groups to establish camps in the south and in the east."
The conflict in Mali has heightened security concerns in Libya. Western and Libyan officials are worried that Islamist militants fleeing the French military offensive will cross Algeria's porous borders and seek safe havens in Libya.
The U.S. is tracking the jihadists using surveillance drones. Flights have been stepped up over the eastern and southern parts of Libya.
In Benghazi, residents worry that drone strikes are imminent.
"Drones bring together Libyans of different political stripes who don't agree on other issues," Mr. Lawrence said. "There is a great deal of concern about the drones."
Drone flights also have been reported over the eastern cities of Derna and Bayda.
"People were puzzled by the timing of the European warnings, but they are now connecting the dots," said a Libyan source who spoke on background. "They believe that the Europeans are leaving out of fear of retaliation for a drone strike."
The drones can provide a clearer picture on the nature of the support for militants in Algeria and Mali from Libya, which is awash with weapons left over from the revolution.
"It seems [the drones] have been pretty successful in localizing many of the jihadist camps," Mr. Mezran said.
The CIA, which uses drones to kill militants in Pakistan, declined to comment.
No cause for concern?
Libyan officials have been taken aback by the Western warnings to their citizens.
"We are surprised by the decision of the Europeans," said Usamah Al-Sharif, a spokesman for the Benghazi local council. "We were partners in the time of war against Gadhafi, and now we are looking to the world to build a real partnership."
Ibrahim Sahad, who represents Benghazi in Libya's General National Congress, conceded that there are "security issues" in the city.
"But I do not see any reason to justify the warnings of the Western countries," he said. "Maybe they know something that we don't know, but I am here, and I see no reason for concern."
The militias, many of them remnants of the revolutionary brigades that fought Gadhafi's forces, have filled a security vacuum and often act as if they are above the law, human rights monitors say.
"Unfortunately, the government has failed to rein in all the militias or bring in a proper mechanism for security reform," said Hanan Salah, a Tripoli-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. "This is why we now have this situation."
But some Libyans say the violence is par for the course.
"There are remnants of the old regime in every city," said Aly Abuzaakouk, who heads the Citizenship Forum for Democracy and Human Development in Benghazi. "The question is: Are they dormant or are they planning to disrupt life?"
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