Benghazi citizens have had enough of the violence in their city.
One week after armed Islamists laid siege to the Benghazi security directorate, civil society organisations are demonstrating against armed groups.
Held under the title “Benghazi Rescue Friday Is Not Dead”, the rally on Friday (December 28th) aims to remind Libyans that no one is safe unless armed groups disband and surrender their weapons.
Four policemen and one civilian were killed and another ten injured on December 20th when some 100 protestors gathered outside the Benghazi Security Directorate to demand the release of two detainees.
The Islamists demonstrators were also reportedly angered by the transfer to Tripoli of the suspected killer of Colonel Faraj Drissi, the Benghazi security chief appointed after the US consulate attack and gunned down last month outside his home.
In the wake of the police post attack, the Libyan army moved to deploy additional units in the eastern city. Unmanned surveillance aircraft from foreign partners also now regularly patrol the Benghazi skies, ready to assist in security investigations.
“Army units will secure the entrances and exits of the city as well as strategic sites until security is restored,” army spokesman Ali al-Sheikhi told AFP, adding that the decision was in co-ordination with the interior ministry.
Ali Othman al-Fazani, the alleged killer of Colonel Drissi, was arrested a day before the assault in an ambush set up by Benghazi police near the Islamic Call Society headquarters, security official Hamed Abdul Ghafur al-Nouri told Magharebia.
The terrorist known as “The Zorro of Benghazi” is suspected of belonging to groups close to al-Qaeda. And his friends were eager to show their support.
“It was clear from their beards and clothes that the perpetrators of the al-Hawari attack belong to extremist groups,” al-Nouri noted, adding that they were not from Ansar al-Sharia.
“For the time being, Ansar al-Sharia militias are based outside town. They know that they are not welcome here,” he said.
The accused assassin is clearly a major player.
“If this person hadn’t been important for them, they wouldn’t have launched this strong attack on the security directorate, and they wouldn’t have been that determined to free him from prison,” says Abdul Salam al-Mahdoui, chief of the Benghazi criminal investigation department.
“In addition, his cell phone received about 70 calls during the time he was held by us, and they were all from coded names,’” the Benghazi cop adds.
A video found inside the damaged security facility after the attack shows al-Fazani talking about his life. He was arrested in 2008 and was imprisoned at Abu Salim prison where he got to know extremist Islamists. Upon his release after the revolution, he began carrying out terror operations.
Analysts and observers expect that the complete investigation into al-Fazani will reveal more al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cells and networks.
“There are hidden hands messing around with this country and don’t want to see it stable,” student Youssef Mohamed told Magharebia at a recent University of Benghazi sit-in to demand security improvements.
“We still don’t know why these groups are creating this security chaos in Libya,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the former National Transitional Council, recently said that five suspects in last year’s killing of Maj. Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes, commander of Libya’s Liberation Army, belong to extremist takfirist groups.
He also linked the assassination of Younes to the September 11th attack on the US mission in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“A group that doesn’t want to see stability in Libya and wants to rule the country in an extremist way is responsible for killing Abdel Fattah Younes and US ambassador Chris Stevens and the security breaches that are taking place now,” Abdel Jalil said.
Even as Libyans rally against security lapses, security, progress is happening behind the scenes. The noose is tightening around the Benghazi attackers.
Libyan witnesses have identified suspects caught on surveillance cameras at the mission and in photos taken during the attacks, American officials told the New York Times earlier this month.
“This is an intelligence-driven investigation, the goal is to establish the facts,” the official said. “Like this and other cases abroad, we have to be very sensitive. Every country is different when there is investigating on their turf.”
Aiding in the investigation are the Libya drones. “If such planes are respecting our sovereignty and are operating out from our national airports, then they are welcome,” legal activist Amira Jribi said. “If they are roaming our skies under agreements, the people must be advised of the details of these agreements because they are directly related to our country’s security.”
“Citizens object to them because of their noise or because of people’s sensitivity about foreign espionage. To Libyans, they are foreign planes,” military advisor Dhaoui Bouras tells Magharebia.
Despite the inconveniences the drones cause to daily life, they play an important role in holding security dangers at bay, he adds.
“These planes can make good contributions to the counter-terrorism effort,” he said. Meanwhile, suspects in the US consulate in Benghazi are being reeled in from far afield. These include alleged ringleader Mohamed Jamal Abu Ahmed, 45, a former Egyptian Islamic Jihad member with suspected ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was captured in early December in Cairo.
Abu Ahmed was freed last year from an Egyptian prison after the popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
In the 1990s, Abu Ahmed was accused of belonging to the Islamic Jihad Group, which was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Since his release from jail, Abu Ahmed has tried to establish a wing of al-Qaeda in Libya, analysts say. He formed a terror cell, named the “Jamal Network”, and conducted military training for jihadists in Libya and Egypt.
Abu Ahmed was said to have asked al-Zawahiri for permission to launch the new al Qaeda affiliate. Operatives from his network were reportedly present at the consulate attack.
Further confirmation comes from Cairo. In October, after Egyptian authorities dismantled a terror cell in Cairo’s Nasr City, authorities alleged that Ahmed was a possible leader of the group. The so-called Nasr City Cell was “connected to Benghazi”, Egyptian authorities said at the time.
The Egyptian connection to the Benghazi attack extends past Abu Ahmed. Another Egyptian suspected of involvement in the attack on the US mission in Benghazi was killed in Cairo last October during a shootout with security forces.
The list of suspects suggests that the roots of the attack could be traced well beyond Libya’s borders and be part of al-Qaeda’s plan to establish a new regional wing.
In another October arrest, a Tunisian citizen was caught in Turkey and held in connection with the Benghazi assault. Ali Harzi, 26, was then handed over to Tunisia.
“The arrest of Abu Ahmed in Egypt and the extradition of Ali Harzi to Tunisia from Turkey undermine the efforts of al-Qaeda to establish a branch in Libya,” Benghazi resident Mohamed Ali Barhoum told Magharebia on December 21st.
“These are positive steps,” he added.
Libya has been facing the threat of al-Qaeda well before the US mission attack. Talk about al-Qaeda in Derna is based on the presence of Sufian al-Quma, a former chauffeur for Osama Bin Laden. He reportedly leads an armed battalion in the town.
“Those people don’t appear in public; rather, they work in secrecy,” local resident Feras Muftah told Magharebia. “This group doesn’t want any army; rather, they want to apply God’s Sharia as if we weren’t Muslims,” Muftah added. “For the time being, they are attracting adolescents and pay them money.”
But according to Sameh Rashed of the Al-Ahram Centre, the risk of al-Qaeda in Libya is “still limited by virtue of the refusal by Libyans of the influx of foreign jihadist elements”.
“In addition, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and other Libyan religious militant groups began to change their strategy after the revolution. This means that armed action is no longer the basic strategy for most of them,” he adds.
“What is new, however, is the increasing proliferation of salafist groups, some of which have begun to adopt jihadist ideas. These may pose a threat in the near future, especially with the ease of proliferation of weapons and the desire to establish Islamic rule,” Rashed adds.
For Libyan academic Mohamed Meftahi, “the arrest of Abu Ahmed is an indication of the beginning of the war on al-Qaeda in Libya”.
“It reflects the commitment of the Libyan government to draining the sources of terrorism and working to prevent al-Qaeda control over arms in Libya and arms smuggling from Libya abroad,” he adds.
For now, al-Qaeda penetration into Libyan society is very limited, he says.
“Al-Qaeda doesn’t have a fully structured organisation in Libya, but rather limited groups of individuals absorbed with jihadist ideology. In addition, Islamic forces are living in a state of conflict with each other, each wanting to present itself as the best and the most able to rule Libya,” he tells Magharebia.
“I do not think al-Qaeda desires to make Libya an Islamic emirate,” he adds. “It wants instead to use it as a springboard to the west, namely Algeria.”
The analyst adds, “If Algeria succeeds in securing its borders with Libya and if Libya limits the spread of arms and the arms trade within its territory, then al-Qaeda’s plans will fail.”
Mawassi Lahcen in Casablanca contributed to this report for Magharebia