- The Washington Times - Monday, November 25, 2013

Libya’s deteriorating security was evident Monday when troops and armed civilians in Benghazi clashed with members of a militant group blamed for the attack last year that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.

At least nine people died in fighting Monday with the terrorist group, Ansar al-Sharia, according to multiple sources in Libya’s eastern city.

The Libyan army’s special forces joined the civilians in the attack against the militants, as Prime Minister Ali Zeidan rushed to Benghazi.

The clashes in the chaotic North African nation marked the latest outburst against militants, who have flourished since the overthrow of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi two years ago.

“What we have is civilians standing up in the name of the revolution saying, ‘We have had enough,’” said William Lawrence, a North Africa analyst and a professor at George Washington University.

U.S. officials have blamed Ansar al-Sharia for the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.

Angry Benghazi residents drove Ansar al-Sharia out of the city after the attack last year, but the militants have returned.

Security in Libya has steadily deteriorated as Mr. Zeidan’s government has tried, but mostly failed, to bring militias under its control.

Extremists have exploited what one U.S. official described as a “fluid” situation.

“The extremist footprint in Libya is growing,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official explained that local terrorist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia operate alongside al Qaeda-linked militants like the Jamal Network in Egypt and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa.

“This extremist universe lacks coherence, but the threat to Western interests is serious and persistent,” the official said.

Western nations — including the United States and its NATO allies that helped rebels topple Gadhafi’s regime — have been alarmed by the threat posed to Libya by the former revolutionaries who have banded together as lawless militias trying to control pockets of the country.

These concerns were at the top of the agenda when Secretary of State John F. Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague met Mr. Zeidan in London on Sunday.

“The prime minister informed us of a transformation that he believes is beginning to take place and could take place because the people of Libya have spoken out and pushed back against the militias,” Mr. Kerry said after the meeting.

The government relies on some militias to provide security because the army and police are weak. But the militias also flout the law with impunity.

In October, militias on the government payroll briefly abducted Mr. Zeidan from his Tripoli hotel room. Security and military officials, as well as political activists, have been assassinated in Benghazi this year.

Unlike other Libyan cities, the capital Tripoli is guarded by a hodgepodge of militias from across the country. Rival factions are frequently involved in gunbattles and kidnappings.

On Nov. 15, gunmen from the western city of Misrata fired on protesters in Tripoli who were demanding the militias leave the city. At least 47 people were killed and more than 500 wounded.

Washington alarmed

In Washington, the massacre of protesters set off alarm bells.

“It is clear that there has been too much sacrifice for Libya to go backwards,” said a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We definitely recognize the challenges that remain and must be addressed and overcome.”

Citing a lack of a cohesive Middle East strategy, Republicans in Congress have long criticized the Obama administration about Libya — first for the president’s “lead from behind” tactics in dealing with Gadhafi’s aggression against Libyans during the civil war and later for limited U.S. involvement in the country’s struggles in transitioning to democracry.

In the interim, weapons given to rebels to fight the dictator have found their way into the hands of Islamic insurgents who have made significant inroads in the fractious North African nation.

One area of increased militant activity: Benghazi. The Obama administration has been accused of ignoring diplomats’ pleas for more security before last year’s attacks and of not providing a robust, timely rescue of U.S. personnel during the assault.

The Libyan government’s problems have been exacerbated by an oil dispute that started as labor unrest over corruption and has been exploited by militias. Libya’s economy, solely dependent on the oil sector, has suffered as oil production has dropped to 10 percent of the country’s capacity.

Many Libyans and analysts say the government has done a poor job of reining in the militias and integrating them into the security services.

“We are looking at a deterioration in Libya’s security situation as well as the grasp of formal authorities over the country,” said Hanan Salah, a Tripoli-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.

In Tripoli, the security situation started to worsen in May when militias laid siege to the Libyan parliament and some government ministries. The gunmen demanded that lawmakers pass legislation that barred Gadhafi-era officials from serving in the new government. Lawmakers approved the bill, setting a troubling precedent.

“This was the beginning of the end, when it became normal to use force to push through an agenda,” said Ms. Salah.

Angry, armed men

The parliament is packed with many lawmakers who have ties to the militias, which are the main power brokers in Tripoli.

“The political game in Tripoli is a high-stakes game with some level of impunity, which involves militias extracting concessions from the government they work for by taking threatening actions, whether it is occupying the parliament building or kidnapping an official for a few hours or refusing to give up a post they have been guarding since the revolution,” said Mr. Lawrence.

The government’s authority has been further undermined because the militias face no consequences for their actions, including the abduction of Mr. Zeidan.

The government ordered militias from Misrata to leave Tripoli following the attack on the protesters this month, but they got to keep their weapons.

“These men are angry, armed and have not been held accountable for any of the crimes they committed,” said Ms. Salah.

Plans to disarm the militias have faltered because of rampant distrust between the government and some militias who see themselves as guardians of the revolution that ousted Gadhafi.

“Until we have dealt with the underlying issues of distrust at the political level, no one is going to give up their arms and things could get worse,” said Mr. Lawrence.

The fragile security situation is prompting dire predictions of a country headed down a dangerous path.

“Tensions are simmering, and so far the political actors have been able to control things, but this is not sustainable in the long run,” said Claudia Gazzini, a Tripoli-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It is not only a security problem, it is a political problem.”

Some analysts contend Libya is on the brink of a civil war.

“The massacre on [Nov. 15] showed that if things continue this way the country will implode,” said Karim Mezran, a Middle East specialist at the Atlantic Council.

“We are only one inch away from a full-fledged civil war,” he added.

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