Democracy Lab

The Battle of the Shrines

The attack on the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi isn't the first time that Libya's ultraconservative Islamists have tried to shake things up. Can the country's nascent democracy rise to the challenge?

The protestors who stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, where the U.S. Ambassador and three others were killed last night, belonged to a group called the Ansar Al-Sharia Brigade. Ansar al-Sharia is part of the ultraconservative Salafi movement in Libya, but until the attack on the consulate they were better known for acts of vandalism against inanimate objects -- namely, ancient Sufi shrines, representing a brand of Islam rejected as blasphemous by these ultraorthodox Muslims. (The image above shows their destruction at the Sidi Abdel Salam al-Asmar al-Fituri mosque in Zliten on August 25.)

Yet the Salafi campaign to "cleanse" Libyan Islam of what they view as pernicious cultural influences has far more in common with the attack on U.S. diplomats than might at first seem apparent. In both cases the ultraconservative Salafis are aiming to undercut Libya's new democratically elected government, which they also deem to be insufficiently Islamic.

Starting last November, Libyan Salafis have staged a series of attacks on Sufi shrines around the country. But the campaign really began to go into high gear in August, when the extremists attacked several shrines in quick succession. On August 25, Ansar al-Sharia even deployed an excavator to destroy the Sidi Al-Sha'ab Mosque (which contained the tomb of a Sufi saint) in the center of Tripoli, unchallenged by government security forces.

That same day, Mohammed al-Magariaf, the president of the General National Congress (GNC) and interim Prime Minister elected earlier this year, denounced the shrine attacks as "disgraceful acts," and said that "those involved were criminals who would be pursued." He was immediately contradicted by the country's Interior Minister, Fawzi Abdel A'al, who commands the security forces who presumably answer to the government. Abdel A'al declared that he was not prepared to "shed any blood for the sake of some tombs." He went on to claim that he didn't have the firepower to compete with the armed Salafi militants in the country. "I won't embark on a losing battle and drag the country to war," he told reporters -- effectively capitulating to the extremist threat.

His claim is hard to believe. By most counts the government's security forces, grouped under a body known as the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), number up to 100,000, which surely ought to be enough to counter the threat from scattered extremist groups. But given these recent incidents, many Libyans are now worrying that the government's own security forces may be penetrated by the extremists. The assault on the Benghazi consulate raises similar questions, given that forces loyal to the government were conspicuous primarily by their absence.

The Salafis are resorting to such acts as a way of countering the effect of the elections on July 7, which didn't go the way they would have preferred. When Islamist parties were roundly trounced in the elections (Libya's first free vote in half a century), many observers rejoiced at the clear indication that Libya was "bucking the Islamist trend." Libyan voters had categorically and democratically rejected extremist and fundamentalist Islamic views and opted for a modernist, secular state.

The Salafis, who preach a return to the primal Islamic community of the Prophet Mohammed, are trying to impose their will nonetheless. Their puritanical version of Islam regards the Sufi shrines, where believers sometimes pray to the bodies of buried saints, as "idolatrous." But the Salafi attacks also have a broader political goal, which is to exploit the weakness of the GNC before it takes full power. In the July election, Libyans selected 200 members of the GNC, the legislative body that is to choose a future prime minister and cabinet. Nominations for the prime ministerial post have already been submitted and are currently being considered. The new prime minister and the cabinet members selected by him are due to take power in the coming weeks. The GNC also has the job of appointing a committee that will draft the eagerly anticipated Libyan constitution.

By destroying Sufi shrines across Libya in what appear to be coordinated attacks, the Salafis are demonstrating "a highly symbolic way to assert control," writes Libya expert Stephen Schwartz, the executive director of the California based Center for Islamic Pluralism, in a recent article.

The weakness of the government response to the shrine attacks has given rise to credible claims that the SSC itself, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Justice have a number Salafis among their ranks, as even Magariaf has been forced to admit. "Salafis are now the core of SSC and have branched out in different agencies beyond the Ministry of Interior," says Mazin Ramadan, a bystander who witnessed the attack on the Sidi Al-Sha'ab Mosque.  He identifies one of the men leading the attack as a member of the Ministry of the Interior. "The SSC blocked the street and he managed the tomb raiders," says Ramadan. "I spoke to him and he said that they will not stop until they have cleansed Tripoli."

Instead of stopping the destruction of the mosque, the Ministry of Interior sent the SSC to "protect" the Salafis, who then proceeded to finish the job. Instead of arresting the perpetrators, SSC members intimidated protestors and arrested journalists who were trying to document the destruction. "I was harassed and they actually took my camera from me, but luckily I managed to get it back," one female Libyan photojournalist told me. "They also told me I should cover my hair." The government's security forces even allowed the Salafis to abduct one of the Sufi leaders who was protesting the demolition. This abuse of power highlights the SSC's increasing tendency to restrict some of the fundamental freedoms won by the Libyan revolution.

Over the past few months the SSC has been steadily increasing its power and authority even as the government remains mired in the turmoil of transition. On the day of the Tripoli attack, Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur issued a statement openly admitting that the security forces had defied his order to protect the site -- prompting additional questions about the extent to which the government remains in control of its own security forces.

Abdel A'al's Interior Ministry says that battling Salafi vandals is entirely secondary to the bigger task of waging war against pro-Qaddafi insurgents. But the two problems have more in common than is at first apparent.

Saadi Qaddafi, one of the deposed leader's sons now living in exile in Niger, has publicly allied himself (in Arabic) with the Salafis and pledged repeatedly to return to Libya to lead a counter-revolution. Despite his widespread reputation as a playboy under the old regime, Saadi recently declared: "I am not a politician. I am a Salafi." By refusing to tackle the Salafis head-on, the security authorities are thus potentially allowing pro-Qaddafi elements to undermine stability in Libya.

Concern about Saadi doings has much to do with the fear of rising Saudi involvement in Libyan politics. Saadi also has well-documented links with the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia, which has been promoting the Libyan Salafi movement. The Libyan Salafis desecrating the shrines base their actions on fatwas, Islamic legal pronouncements, from Saudi clerics. Libyan Islamic scholars have issued a statement blaming Saudi Arabia for the attacks on Sufi shrines, noting that the Saudi scholar who issued one of the anti-Sufi fatwas receives a salary from the Saudi government. The transitional government has complained to the Saudi government, which it accuses of interfering in its internal affairs.

The attacks have deeply shocked many Libyans -- who, after all, voted overwhelmingly for secular political forces in the July election. "These acts of destroying religious and educational sites are the most dangerous events to take place in Libya since last year's war," Hafed Al-Ghwell, a long-time opponent of the Qaddafi regime, told me. "They demonstrate that we have a force that is outside the law that can impose its will on both the government and people of Libya with impunity."  Last night's shocking attack on the U.S. consulate confirms such fears.

There have been some encouraging signs of a backlash against the rise of the Salafis. Last Friday, residents of the Libyan town of Rajma, 30 miles southeast of Benghazi, took to the streets to battle a group of ultraconservative Islamists who had arrived on the scene with a peculiar mission: to destroy an ancient Sufi shrine. The townspeople held the outsiders at bay until government security forces arrived to lock the place down -- but not before the fighting had taken three Salafi lives, leaving another seven people wounded. (Similarly, the Libyan government statements on the tragedy in Benghazi have been admirably straightforward in their condemnation of the attack.)

For their part, Western governments, who were highly vocal in support of the Libyan revolutionaries, have been notably silent about the shrine attacks. Perhaps the rise of Islamic extremism as a response to the Arab Spring is an inconvenient truth some would prefer not to acknowledge. But the international community should take note: Salafism is the fastest- growing Islamic movement in the world. Western governments ignore this threat at their peril. We have now seen where this has led: to the deaths of Americans on Libyan soil. 

James Wheeler, an American who came to Libya to help the wounded during the revolution, has stated the issue clearly. "Extremists did not win the war in Libya," he wrote in a recent tweet. "They cannot and must not win the peace."  

Al Jazeera

Democracy Lab

It's Time to Act in Syria

Yes, it's true: Military involvement in Syria has its risks. But the costs of non-intervention are growing by the day.

The conflict in Syria now appears to be in stalemate; the Assad regime is unable to repress its opponents, but the Syrian opposition is also unable to overthrow the Assad regime. The conflict, then, rages on with no end in sight.

After experiencing the enormous costs and meager rewards of intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is understandable why the U.S. and many of its allies are wary of intervening now in Syria. Nor does their successful intervention in Libya last year incline them to do so in Syria now, since a) the Libyan operation took much longer and was much costlier than they anticipated, and b) toppling Assad appears likely to be a far more formidable task than toppling Qaddafi.

Not intervening in Syria, though, has serious costs as well. The indefinite continuation of the conflict there not only means continued suffering for the Syrian people, but also for neighboring states that are partners with the West. Turkey and Jordan are having difficulty dealing with refugee flows from Syria -- which will only continue so long as the conflict continues. Little Lebanon not only risks being swamped by refugees, but the inter-communal conflict in Syria exacerbating its own inter-communal tensions. In addition, continued turmoil in Syria is going to have a negative impact on Israel at some point.

In order to halt or at least limit the harm that continued conflict in Syria is doing to the people there, and to the West's partners and interests in the region, America and its allies are going to have to do something to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime -- and do so sooner rather than later. A large-scale, American-led intervention, though, is not the only means available for doing this.

Arming the opposition is one option. But since the Assad regime is so well-armed and the Syrian opposition is so divided, arming the latter may do little to hasten the downfall of the former.

Something that the U.S. and its allies should do is to take measures that reduce the advantages which the Assad regime now has vis-à-vis its opponents. One of the most significant of these is that the Assad regime is able to employ air power and other heavy weaponry against its own people. The U.S. and its allies could impose a no-fly zone over Syria in order to deter the Assad regime from bombing its own citizens. But given the concern about Syria's dense Russian-supplied air defense system making it difficult for Western air forces to safely patrol Syrian air space, America and its allies could instead launch a missile attack aimed at destroying Syrian military aircraft on the ground as well as their airfields. This alone would considerably reduce the regime's military superiority.

In addition, the U.S. and its allies can do much to raise the costs to Assad's security forces of continuing to defend the regime, as well to provide incentives for them either to defect to the opposition, or simply drop out of the conflict by exiting the country. The U.S., after all, has now acquired considerable expertise in the use of drone missiles. Just the serious possibility that Syrian units or security force commanders themselves could be the targets of American drone attacks would provide a powerful incentive to the regime's security force commanders either to switch sides or just bug out. If enough of them can be incentivized in this way, the security services will become a less reliable means of oppression for the regime.

Further, America and its allies could target the leadership of the Assad regime itself. Those willing to kill large numbers of people (as well as put those they order to do the killings at risk by carrying out their orders) often prove remarkably averse to endangering their own precious lives. Just the prospect that they might be targeted will induce some to flee or defect. And the elimination of those who refuse to do either will serve to hasten the downfall of the regime.

Some might question the morality of targeting the leadership of the Assad regime. In my view, though, there is no morality at all in refusing to stop by whatever means necessary those who have harmed so many of their own people and will continue to harm them unless they are physically prevented from doing so.

Finally, it should be noted that not all of America's allies are as reluctant to intervene in Syria as the U.S. France in particular has indicated a desire to take more active measures against the Assad regime if only the U.S. would support its efforts. Washington should explore this with Paris as well as any other ally willing to actively work for the downfall of the Assad regime. To not do so will only undermine confidence among its allies in America's willingness to lead them (even if only from behind) -- something that the U.S. cannot afford.

Bringing down the Assad regime, of course, will not by itself end the divisions within the Syrian opposition. Indeed, the divisions among them are likely to increase after the demise of their common enemy. But this is a problem that cannot be avoided whether the Assad regime falls sooner or later, or whether America and the West help to bring it down or not. American and Western involvement in the downfall of the Assad regime, though, seems more likely to give them the opportunity to shape the post-Assad order than if they are not involved.

Similarly, many have expressed fear that al Qaeda and its allies are gaining ground with the Syrian opposition. Clearly, though, America and the West can do more to prevent this through getting involved in the Syrian conflict than not doing so and thus clearing the field for al Qaeda.  It should be recalled that in the 1990s, one of the aims of the Clinton Administration in aiding the Bosnian Muslims was not to let Iran be their principal external supporter. The same logic applies now.

Intervention is costly. But non-intervention is not a no-cost option. Indeed, it can lead to very high costs both for those pursuing this policy and for those depending on them. The task at hand, then, is not to try to avoid the potential costs of intervention through non-intervention, but to try to avoid them through more intelligent intervention.

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GettyImages