Benghazi, Libya - The killings at the US consulate in Benghazi earlier this month have laid bare a cultural war between ultra-conservatives and the rest of the population that has been brewing in Libya ever since the early days of the rebellion that ousted Muammar Gaddafi
||Led by Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi
||The group says it has 100 members in Benghazi, but at least 3,000 supporters came to its protest on September 21
||Some of its members are suspected of being involved in the attack on the US consulate on September 11, but the group denies any involvement
||Ansar al-Sharia only gained notoriety in recent months, and is linked to other more well-known ultra-conservative militias, including Rafallah el-Sehati, February 17 Brigade and the Abu Slim Brigade
On Friday, about 10,000 civilians, sick of what they view as the increasing impunity and lawlessness of militias, evicted Ansar al-Sharia, and several other similar armed groups that have rejected recent moves from authorities to integrate them into the nation’s nascent security forces, from their compounds in central Benghazi.
The military was in control of the sites at the time of writing.
In interviews with Al Jazeera, dozens of people in Benghazi said that the killings of Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador, and three other US staff members during a protest over a video deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad on September 11 were carried out by individuals who are not representative of their country, or their religion.
Abdu Hamid Sayed Lakhdar, an elder of the al-Ferjani tribe from eastern Benghazi, said that local tribal leaders were united in their calls for the government to be more proactive in asserting law, justice and security.
"This is not just about Benghazi. The government has made a lot of mistakes and all Libyans are being ignored," he said, calling for national unity.
"We are doing this [taking a public stand against the militias] because of what happened to the American consulate, and also what happen to the foreign graves."
Libyan authorities and the FBI are currently investigating who was behind the attack, and many details remain unclear.
Many locals blame individual members of Ansar al-Sharia, an ultra-conservative militia that splintered from its more prominent fellow armed group Rafallah el-Sehati earlier in the year.
'Security and morality'
Days before the demonstrators forced Ansar al-Sharia from their Benghazi headquarters, Al Jazeera interviewed a senior member of the militia, and visited a hospital where it was, until Friday, providing security.
The spokesperson, who asked to be quoted by the pseudonym Abu Mohammed, said that the militia had nothing to do with the attack. Ansar al-Sharia was against the killings and looting of the consulate, he said, denying reports from witnesses that its members were photographed at the September 11 protest.
"We are busy guarding our bases and the hospital [on the night of the attack]. We did not order our members to go to the protest," he said. "We welcome all the Western countries that help us."
Abu Mohammed rejected the assertion by President Mohamed al-Magarief that a sub-faction of Ansar al-Sharia linked to al-Qaeda had planned the attack. The assault was orchestrated by Gaddafi loyalists in the government, he argued.
"The top priority for Ansar al-Sharia is to protect Benghazi and to encourage people to respect sharia law," he said.
Asked about the recent attacks on Sufi shrines, which many said his group was responsible for, Abu Mohammed said that Ansar al-Sharia is opposed to the way Sufis practise Islam, but that it was not behind the destruction of the graves or shrines.
"We have a problem with the Sufis because they supported Gaddafi's regime and they believe in magic," he said.
He declined to elaborate on whether the brigade sees it as part of its mission to force Sufis to change the ways they practise Islam, or unveiled women to cover up, saying these issues get misconstrued by foreign media.
"Some people are trying to pressure Ansar al-Sharia, in the government, in the army, in the interior ministry," he said.
"Some Gaddafi loyalists are working in the government and the army, especially in Tripoli and the west of the country."
Abu Mohammed said Ansar al-Sharia had refused to come under the control of the defence ministry because it is a civilian group, and that it would give up its arms when the security forces were established.
|In addition to security, Ansar al-Sharia put posters along the corridors of the hospital advising patients not to smoke and how to pray [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]
His confidence in his comrades' trustworthiness rang slightly hollow when, informed that we had attempted to request an interview at one of the Ansar al-Sharia headquarters the previous day, he scolded my Libyan fixer.
"You took her there?!" he exclaimed, a shocked expression crossing his face.
He need not have worried, as his comrades had informed us that the movement did not speak to foreign journalists, or random women.
Our visit to the Jalaa Hospital was more successful. The hospital is Benghazi's only emergency medical facility, and treated thousands of rebels during the fighting last year.
The Ansar al-Sharia guards had an imposing presence. None deviated from the uniform of a black T-shirt, camouflage trousers and beard.
The men were working as volunteers, hospital staff said. They provided 25 guards at the hospital at a time, with dozens more on call if needed, they said.
Until they were kicked out by demonstrators on Friday, the militia had at least three bases in Benghazi.
They controlled a former military barracks, a base in the neighbourhood of Benina, and had inherited the former headquarters of Gaddafi's internal security forces from other ultra-conservative militias.
Their main base is in Derna, another eastern coastal city with a history of resistance to the Gaddafi regime.
In the absence of fully functional government security forces, the hospital administration said they had little choice but to call in the militia in June after constantly being forced to close because of shootings.
"We requested help from Ansar al-Sharia only after we had repeatedly been to the defence ministry, the government, the police … [Ansar al-Sharia] was our last resort," said Fadia El-Bargati, a spokesperson for the hospital.
"A lot of people don't like Ansar al-Sharia, but their behaviour here has been faultless," she said. "Most of them are unemployed, they do all this without pay."
This does not necessarily mean the members are not receiving some other salary. Other sources, including Libya's deputy defence minister Mohamed Taynaz, say it is likely that Ansar al-Sharia and Rafallah el-Sehat are receiving foreign funding.
The group's role in the hospital was not just about security. They also acted as "moral guardians".
El-Bargati cites the group’s religious values as one of the reasons the hospital administration called on Ansar al-Sharia rather than another militia.
Posters promising patients punishment in the afterlife for smoking, and advising them of the best way to pray, lined the corridors of the hospital.
A Filipino nurse became nervous when asked how he felt about the new guards.
"I have a wife and daughter here," he said, declining to comment further.
Abu Mohammed said the brigade had just 100 members, which is much lower than estimates from locals outside the militia. When challenged on this number, he refused to give further details.
On Friday, at least 3,000 people showed up to a counter-protest which Ansar al-Sharia called, in what amounted to the most open display of its power to date.
Many new members have been recruited in recent months. Few of its members are well-known, most commentators agree, including the group's leader Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi.
Abu Mohammed denied that many of the fighters had spent time in Iraq or Afghanistan, saying they were mostly very young. Neither is the brigade sending fighters to Syria, he said.
In contrast, he acknowledged that Rafallah el-Sehati, the militia which Ansar al-Sharia sprung from, has sent many fighters to battle President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Ansar al-Sharia might be relatively new, but it represents a broader ultra-conservative movement that has deep roots in Libyan society, particularly in the east of the country.
|After Gaddafi carried out his coup in 1969, dissidents initially attempted peaceful protest [Reuters]
Omar Suleiman, a political analyst at the University of Benghazi, said that the contemporary conception of jihad as a form of political struggle against illegitimate government, or foreigners who disrespect Islam, could be traced to resistance to Italian colonial rule.
"This concept of jihad is rooted deeply in our psyche since this period [1911 to 1942]," he said.
After Gaddafi carried out his coup in 1969, dissidents initially attempted peaceful protest. He hunted them down, and had thousands imprisoned, tortured or killed.
"Then people said that we will not try to reason with Gaddafi anymore, because they saw that the people who had tried dialogue had been imprisoned or killed," Suleiman said. "The language of politics was spoken through violence."
Hundreds of Gaddafi's most vocal opponents were further radicalised after joining fellow Muslim fighters in their US- and Saudi-backed fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In the 1990s, the returnees began raiding security forces supplies to arm themselves. They founded the Libyan Islamic Fighters Group [LIFG], and the fight against Gaddafi intensified.
The veterans of this now-defunct movement were integral to the 2011 revolution, forming militias including the Abu Salim Brigade, the Omar Mukhtar Brigade and Rafallah el-Sehati. Ansar al-Sharia emerged, in turn, from these brigades.
The rift between these ultra-conservative fighters, whose leaders faced intense repression during Gaddafi's rule, and the members of the former Libyan leader's military and political establishment, who defected to join them, continues in the post-Gaddafi era.
Both sides participated in the revolution as allies, and yet have very different visions of what Libyan society should look like.
The first clue of the depth and complexity of the divide within the rebel movement came with the murder of their leader Abdel Fattah Younis in July 2011.
Incidentally, his ultra-conservative suspected killer was broken out of prison a few weeks before the attack on the US consulate.
"We are very grateful for all the help from our friends around the world have done for us," Suleiman said.
"Everyone in Libya knows that without the help of other countries, something horrible would have happened in Benghazi."
"When the revolution succeeded, and Libya emerged with new friends, especially in the US, France and the UK, some people here did not agree," he explained.
"They are still focused on what has happened to Muslims in Palestine, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan."
Suleiman argued that the new authorities must be careful not to repeat the Gaddafi-era cycle of repression against a new generation of ultra-conservatives, and that the best way to move beyond the past is to engage them as partners in the new Libya.
Civil society stands up
Ahmed Mustafa, a local sheikh, said whoever was behind the attacks on the US consulate, on Sufi shrines and on the graves had a misguided vision of what Islam meant.
"The people who killed the ambassador, and the people who damaged the gravestones and the [Sufi] shrines are not following Islam and our traditions," he said.
Like many people interviewed in Benghazi, he said that while he was upset about the anti-Islam video, this did not change the gratitude he felt towards the foreign countries that had supported the rebels.
"The Libyan people will never forget America's help during the revolution," he said.
At the same time, he argued it was important not to demonise Ansar al-Sharia. "Some people from Ansar al-Sharia denied that they took part in the protest, but some of their members were there," he said.
"Ansar al-Sharia do some good things, and some bad things," he said, noting their work at the hospital and their fighting against Gaddafi's regime.
Will of the people
Friday's protest underlined the lack of popular support amongst civilians for Ansar al-Sharia, and militias in general.
Libyans had already sent a similar message to ultra-conservatives in the July election, in which the ultra-conservative party led by Abdelhakim Belhaj, who had led the LIFG, did not win a single seat.
Whether the country's security forces are strong enough to stand up to the militias, and enforce what appears to be the will of the majority of Libyans, is another matter.
Colonel Ramadan El-Dressi, a commander of the army acting under the control of the Libyan military, said that the government had been following a policy that promoted the militias and undermined the military and police.
"It's true without a doubt that al-Qaeda has a presence in Libya. We need support from the government to protect our people from these extremists," he said.
"We did not overcome 42 years of dictatorship just to let another form of terrorism take over our country."
To date, the government has avoided direct confrontation with the many militia groups, of all political stripes.
It has continued to attribute a series of assassinations and bombings to Gaddafi loyalists, refusing to even consider the many other possible suspects.
One of the biggest challenges the new government faces is striking a difficult balance between taking a firm stand against the militias, and avoiding the type of brutality and persecution that led to the atrocities witnessed under Gaddafi.
THIS ARTICLE IS PART ONE OF A TWO PART SERIES ON LIBYA'S MILITIAS
You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan