Correspondent Bill Wheeler was awarded the first annual GroundTruth fellowship for field reporting on emerging democracies in the Middle East. In this final segment of a five-part blog series for GroundTruth, Wheeler goes inside the militias that are still holding sway in the chaotic aftermath of Libya’s civil war (see links to all five pieces at the end of this segment).
BENGHAZI, Libya — One blazing summer day in June, hundreds of men stretched alongside a row of freshly dug graves in a parched field outside Benghazi. They had come in convoys of cars and flatbed trucks from some 27 or 28 individual funerals (the body count was rising by the hour), creating a traffic jam outside a nearby cement factory. In Muslim tradition, the dead are buried quickly, in rows aligned so that their heads point toward Mecca. A long straight trough had been dug for the new arrivals.
At one spot along it, close relatives squatted, encircled by a crowd of friends and family. They lowered the shrouded corpse into the ground and scooped loose dirt over it with their hands. Young men in polos and t-shirts sniffled, struggling to hold back their emotions. From somewhere down by the grave, one man's whimper became a wailing sob, and others began to break down.
The chronology of Libyan history could be read in the cemetery's lines. A few rows back was the war that brought down Gaddafi — small rebel flags dotting the simple grave markers. But the roots of the conflict that had claimed its latest casualties stretched back even farther.
The day before, a group of protesters confronted the first division of the Libya Shield Forces (LSF), an Islamist brigade commanded by Wissam Ben Hamid, (the leader of the Supreme Revolutionary Council), demanding that they disband.
It is unclear whether any of the protesters were armed. Rather than disband, the LSF opened fire on the crowd with antiaircraft guns, drawing armed residents, and eventually the special forces, into several hours of gun battle.
A video later surfaced that appears to have been shot by a LSF fighter as his comrades calmly unleashed multiple RPG attacks against their opponents. More than 30 people were killed, including two LSF fighters, and more than 100 injured.
Unlike in the west, where regional militias sprung up from city to city, revolutionaries in the east largely fell into two camps: the official rebel army, led by defecting soldiers, and Islamist brigades. As a result, the postwar conflict there has not been regional but ideological — between Islamists and the former members of Gaddafi’s security forces who had once been assigned to persecute them. The Islamists are likely behind dozens of car bombings and drive-by shootings targeting security officials. While partly about revenge, according to a recent report from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) these assassinations should also be understood as "a unilateral political purge" of the hardliners' opponents: politics by other means.
Two years after Gaddafi's toppling, a great rift has emerged between rebels once united against a common enemy.
Filing out of the cemetery, one mourner, 27-year-old Ahmed Abuagila, told me he had lost two friends the previous day. Like many, he was convinced that local militias were allied in an Islamist plot to take power through the force of arms. Abuagila had returned to Libya from the United States during the revolution and since watched job prospects dwindle as security deteriorated. Things were now worse than ever. What was the point of so much sacrifice to remove Gaddafi, he asked, if the dictator has been replaced by militias that gun down civilians in the street. “Gaddafi did the same thing,” he said. “We have a lot of Gaddafi’s now.”
Baset Abdul Shihaibi was born into an anti-Gaddafi family: the regime killed his father, two brothers and nine of his cousins, he said.
Wanted for 23 years, he returned from exile in England in March 2011 and began building his brigade. Since the war's end, he has been working as an intelligence officer in Libyan State Security.
Recently Shihaibi has become a sort of public voice for the opposition to Islamist-aligned security forces. A Misratan leader had appeared on the TV news earlier that day claiming that the commander of the ousted LSF unit in Benghazi — who was in hiding at that moment, with reason to fear for his life — would return even stronger. He called Shihaibi out by name, warning him to leave the country.
Shihaibi was a federalist, a camp that counts among its supporters disaffected former army officers who feel disenfranchised by the growth of the LSF. Today, he puts his trust in a commando unit of the regular army that locals call the “special forces.” The special forces had only recently returned to Benghazi. Shihaibi believed that the LSF had them sent to the south to get them out of the way.
When I pointed out the special forces would take orders from military chief Yousef Mangoush, not the LSF, he asked me who I thought Mangoush took his orders from. Then he expounded on a common belief in the area: since the revolution, the chief of staff of the armed forces—as well as the LSF commanders—have all been individuals under the influence of Misratan heavyweights. Behind them, the theory goes, are Turkey and Qatar.
Fear and greed rule Libya. Shihaibi echoed the all too familiar belief that, here, it was his side that held revolutionary legitimacy today while the opposing camp was working only for their own interest or the money they could make off skimming the salaries the government paid to their bloated payroll.
Rather than work through democratic means, he believes his opponents are trying to create their own security services loyal to their interests, not to the state.
“Exactly like in Gaddafi's days. Big Gaddafi, small Gaddafi,” he said.
“This system [Congressman and hardliner] Abdulrahman Swehli is building — Godfather system. Godfather system will not work [for] us. We will not let anybody do that with Libya. If they want really to build a democratic country, not like this. This is militia.”
The traditional thinking on Libya has been that its conflicts are too localized, its dynamics too regional for anything like a national power struggle to develop ("The thing about Libya," former conflict analyst Brian McQuinn told me, "is that you can't talk about it as a thing"). But others see links between the seemingly disparate power struggles.
“There is a big, big divide in the country,” says analyst Claudia Gazzini. It is not yet a matter of clearly unified regional blocs, but she described a patchwork of allied interests dividing Libya.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “the more dangerous thing is that one of the main dividing lines crosses Tripoli itself.” The capital’s eastern neighborhoods are closer in their ideology to the revolutionary camp while the western sections are more old guard-oriented.
Shihaibi also agreed with the potential for a conflict along this dividing line through the capital, one in which “the real blood will be in Tripoli.”
The news that Mangoush had just resigned came via text message.
Shihaibi, at least, took comfort that the balance of power in his own neighborhood was changing. As of his latest reports, he said, two of the three Islamists brigades in the east had been dismantled. “Inshallah,” he said, the last will soon be gone too.
Several analysts agreed that the media description of the competition between "liberals"and Islamists is misleading and overhyped. Islamists do figure prominently in the leadership of the new security forces, especially the Supreme Security Committee and LSF units in Tripoli and the east. And even when they don’t belong to particular political organizations, according to the SWP report, “many explicitly seek to use their influence in the security sector to create an Islamist state of some kind.” But rather than a monolithic bloc, the Islamists are a diverse bunch. They are united by shared interests – along with ambitious politicians like Swehli and another revolutionary hardliners – in challenging the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. But they are also divided among themselves.
Rather than a top-down conspiracy, the lines between the camps represent organically emerging currents — divided over questions about what kind of country Libya will be without Gaddafi and who has the legitimacy to lead it. Such schisms, of course, create openings that opportunistic leaders may be trying to manipulate. And there is good reason to believe that, from a previously shifting cast of actors, the new leaders — and warlords — of Libya are now emerging.
Part of the conflict may be rooted in marginalization and provincial neglect that are the legacies of the old regime. “There are groups that feel left out,” said Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So they use the tools at their disposal, and that means firepower. I talked to Swehli and he said 'this was a revolution of arms and so arms are what we will use.'"
Concern about deteriorating security in Libya has given rise to a debate about what, if anything, the international community can do about it.
“There’s no doubt that foreign boots on the ground could play into the hands of some of the most extreme groups that are creating problems in Libya right now," said RAND Corporation’s Christopher Chivvis. "But I think we have to do what we can in order to steer the situation in a direction that averts the worst case scenario. Which is a complete collapse of Libya and also, frankly, Tunisia, and potentially Algeria.”
He advocated the US deploying a small team to train a Libyan security force (perhaps modeled roughly on a British effort in Sierra Leone in which a few hundred foreign officers trained thousands of local troops).
But on the ground in Libya, amid wild rumors of US Marines in warships off the Libyan coast or impending US drone strikes, I encountered a widespread belief that foreign intervention would only rally a divided country and strengthen the hand of extremists.
In a recent report, Wehrey laid out measures to address many of the complaints I heard: downsizing the bloated senior military ranks to open opportunities for a younger, more competent officer corps; taking back the purse strings from the militia leaders; raising the pay of police and army to at least that of the LSF and Supreme Security Committee; and integrating these parallel forces into the National Guard as a temporary transitional force.
To avoid what happened in Iraq, the report recommended that Libyan authorities end the purge of all high-level officers who served Gaddafi. To avoid the fate of Lebanon, it says, military forces should be mixed to break up ethnic, regional and political factions and reverse the current trend toward warlordism.
The report also recommends relaunching a US program (derailed by the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack) to embed advisers with senior defense officials, but cautions that NATO countries working to train the Libyan army should do so abroad, avoiding putting any foreign boots on the ground.
But the report's top prescription was a push for political reconciliation and national dialogue.
Ultimately, the challenge of negotiating compromise between Libya's many armed groups and their contrasting visions of national identity will necessarily fall to Libyans.
The scale of that challenge is growing by the day.
Mohammed Bosidra is a prominent and well-connected ultraconservative preacher in Benghazi who shares the ideology of groups like Islamist militia Ansar al Sharia.
He spoke the day after the shooting about a coalition of “secularists" and Federalists working against an alliance of the Islamists and the "real thuwar" ("thuwar" — or "revolutionary" — is the preferred nomenclature in Libya; "militia" connotes a criminal gang), and blamed the groups for collaborating to stage the initial protest that triggered the shooting.
He claimed his side best represents the national interest but that Benghazi is dealing with the situation in the worst possible way.
“If you go to Misrata, Misrata is very safe, secure, no problem. Why? Because thuwar are leading the security scene there in Misrata. Here in Benghazi they are not willing to give thuwar a chance.”
He blamed secularist fear-mongering about the country becoming a terrorist haven — with an alleged al Qaeda base in Derna — for Western governments’ growing concerns about Libya, an effort to brand themselves as the West’s natural allies and win their support.
France’s President François Hollande recently claimed that Libya’s southern desert is becoming a haven for the Islamist groups that French troops expelled from Mali. Concerned about the threat of a similar intervention, Bosidra warned that the moment foreign boots touch Libyan soil, “everything will be finished,” he said, clapping his hands. “We [must] either be as one country united or we will all die."
Long before the Islamists had access to massive weapons caches, they proved a thorn in Gaddafi’s side, Bosidra continued, putting up such fierce resistance that Gaddafi lamented that he hadn’t been able to sleep for five months because of the Islamists. Now Bosidra sees Jbril’s camp and the federalists as working together to sideline the revolutionaries.
“So I think those people are pushing the Islamists and the thuwar to deal with them the same way they have dealt with Gaddafi,” he said.
Under the new order, they fear the anti-Islamist elements will persecute them even worse.
“I wouldn't be surprised if one day we see ourselves in Abu Salim prison again,” said Bosidra, who himself spent 22 years captive there under the regime. “And I think it is the case that thuwar still have the weapons, and I don't think they will let it go as simple as that.”
He had his own theories about international involvement in Libya, alleging that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the CIA were backing the federalist cause.
What is needed now, he said, is a national dialogue to restore trust and remind Libyans they all share a homeland. And a constitution that respects sharia, he continued.
“Any law that doesn't contradict with sharia,” he said, “we will consider it as sharia itself.”
I asked him to explain what that would mean in practice.
“Now if we talk about sharia, everyone will think ‘oh, cutting hands and necks.’ I can tell you one thing, that now you just can’t cut [off] anybody’s hand.”
He said it is still too early to implement hadud, the statutes governing corporal punishment: The kind of poverty that would drive a person to steal is still too prevalent, and people must be properly educated about sharia. “That will take years,” he said.
Because most of Libyan society is traditionally conservative, and 90 percent Sunni Muslim, religion has not been considered a likely source of conflict.
Nonetheless, the federalists (Shihaibi's camp) and the Islamists have a fundamentally different view of what the country should be. When I pressed Bosidra on which of the Islamists’ demands might raise objections from his political rivals, he raised two.
First, he said, the Islamists would never accept a banking system that charges interest, which would violate prohibitions against usury.
Second, “moral principles shouldn’t be violated," he continued. “How women would act in Libya? We Muslims think that women can do whatever they want. In any way they want. No matter what time they want to do whatever they want to do. But under two conditions. Not to be against sharia. Or to be against their nature.”
I asked if that ongoing revolution might be pushing Libya towards regional breakup.
“Well, it is one fear, a real fear they are all thinking about. But the main reason for that is the Federalists,” he said. “But the other thing which I'm really worried about, is that those LSF, those thuwar, if they would be pushed to be out of the scene, that they will go back to the way they used to deal with Gaddafi—by forming secret cells, small groups. At that time, I think assassinations and all these things will be daily.
Later that night, I found Benghazi's security chief, Mohamed Alsharrif, at his compound — a bustle of trucks and troops and guns guarded by a young fighter fingering an RPG. His mood was surprisingly buoyant in spite of the previous day's tragedy-- evidence, he said, that the people had turned against the LSF.
"Now the people want only the army and police, that's it," he said.
Alsharrif downplayed the threat from Ansar al Sharia or similar groups in Derna, saying they were mostly concerned with cracking down on drug or alcohol smuggling and other immoral behaviors. While he might have some small differences in political ideology with such groups — who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Congress in favor of an Islamic caliphate — they are not the al Qaeda types that would consider him a legitimate target, he said.
The day before, Alsharrif said, he had helped broker a ceasefire to end the conflict. Now hundreds of displaced fighters were in hiding, while the other LSF units were scrambling to retrieve their weapons, worried the people were coming to disarm them.
"The people are the ones who are after them," he said, laughing. We’re not.”
I asked if he worried the LSF might retaliate.
“Who is he going to fight—his brothers? At the end of the day the final decision maker is the populace, the street. If the street gives you legitimacy, then you will survive in Libya. If the people don't accept you, you will never survive. In the end, its up to them.”
But time proved Alsharrif wrong.
In the intervening weeks, those battle lines deepened, drawing new casualties around the country. In the following days, an explosive was detonated in Benghazi outside an Islamist-leaning broadcast station. The next weekend, an unknown group of masked gunmen armed with RPGs killed six special forces soldiers in Benghazi — an attack alleged to be retaliation for the LSF’s ousting.
A new wave of assassinations against security officials followed, and the shooting of a lawyer (and outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood) who had played a prominent role in the revolution prompted the looting of several Brotherhood offices around the country.
Meanwhile, congressmen from the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Reconstruction Party began making increasingly strident calls that Othman Mlegta’s Qaqaa Brigade contained elements of Gaddafi’s notorious praetorian units and must be eliminated.
On the heels of this, what began as a protest from some fighters from Zintan who stormed into Tripoli to demand overdue pay for guarding oil fields drew other Zintani groups and the Qaqaa brigade into two days of fighting against the Supreme Security Committee, which killed 10 people and wounded more than 100.
One Tripoli-based analyst described it as "the anti-Islamists coming together.” When I asked if Libya was sliding towards civil war, she thought about it for a long moment.
“Some people already see this as the beginning of the civil war,” she replied. The localized conflicts — targeted assassinations and retaliatory killings against each side — were sure to continue, but whether there would be a return to full-scale war was an open question.
Then, after a moment, she added: “Unfortunately, I’m seeing more and more the Lebanon scenario. Yes, that is, the civil war scenario.”
This reporting was supported by a grant from The Correspondents Fund.
Read Part One of the series: Libya opposition's challenge to Muslim Brotherhood reminiscent of Egypt showdown
Read Part Two of the series: How militias took control of post-Gaddafi Libya
Read Part Three of the series: Libyan militias' new strategy: Occupy Oil Field
Read Part Four of the series: Libya's militia-splintered state