Ansar al-Sharia, the hardline Islamist faction whose fighters are accused of taking part in the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last week, has been a visible presence on the streets of the city that birthed Libya's revolution for months now. Sporting the long beards and cropped mustaches usually associated with the ultra-conservative Salafist strain of Islam, its members drive around Benghazi in vehicles emblazoned with the group's distinctive insignia: two raised Kalashnikovs surrounding a clenched fist with raised forefinger above an open Quran.
The logo also features prominently at the entrance to Ansar al-Sharia's base, a former regime security compound in the center of Benghazi seized by the brigade. Most Benghazi residents eye the heavily armed men who come and go from the base warily. Many fear their uncompromising ideology, which holds democracy to be un-Islamic. Some blame them for a string of attacks, including the desecration of British World War II graves, and attempts to destroy Sufi shrines in the area. Security officials complain Ansar al-Sharia has rejected efforts to integrate its fighters into Libya's nascent government forces.
In the wake of the attack that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last Tuesday night, there are signs that Ansar al-Sharia may have worn out its welcome in Benghazi. It is clear that the Islamist group feels under pressure: Several Libyan officials, including Mohammed Magariaf, president of the country's recently elected National Congress, have suggested the assailants included heavily armed men drawn from Ansar al-Sharia's ranks who had been in contact with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Two members of Ansar al-Sharia's eight-man leadership council -- Mohammed al-Zahawi, considered the brigade's overall leader, and Sheikh Nasser al-Tarshani, who heads its religious committee -- agreed to a telephone interview just hours before they met with the Libyan Army chief of staff, Gen. Yusuf Mangoush, on the night of Sept. 17.
For supposedly radical Islamists, the two leaders have surprisingly mundane day jobs. Zahawi is a 39-year-old Benghazi native who runs a shop selling electrical appliances, while Tarshani, 38, works in construction. What both men, and many others in Ansar al-Sharia, have in common is the shared experience of incarceration in Abu Salim, the notorious Tripoli prison where political dissidents, most of them Islamists, ended up during Muammar al-Qaddafi's rule. Zahawi spent eight years in Abu Salim, while Tarshani was imprisoned for five. Neither man was a member of an established Islamist group when they were jailed, but the bonds they and others forged within Abu Salim run like a thread through Ansar al-Sharia today.
According to Zahawi and Tarshani, Ansar al-Sharia is not an al Qaeda-linked jihadist outfit, but a Benghazi-based katiba, or brigade. They say it was founded earlier this year, and comprises some 250 men. "Our members fought on the front lines during last year's war. At the time they were members of different brigades, including the February 17 brigade," said Zahawi, referring to Benghazi's most prominent fighting force. "A group of us decided to come together to establish a separate brigade under the name Ansar al-Sharia with the goal of supporting sharia [Islamic law] as the frame of reference in Libya."
Zahawi and Tarshani claimed that none of the brigade's members were involved in the consulate attack, and none were among the 50 people Libyan officials say have been arrested in connection with the attack. They justified the assault, during which rocket-propelled grenades were fired into the compound and the mission set ablaze, as an "emotional" response to an Internet film that denigrated Islam and the prophet Muhammad -- but they said they disagreed with this action.
"We don't see this kind of attack as a solution for the problem. It was wrong. The killing of the ambassador was not intentional -- he died as a result of suffocation. It appears people did not even know he was inside the consulate at that time," said Tarshani.
The two leaders painted the accusation made against Ansar al-Sharia as politically motivated. "If anybody says that some of our followers have taken part, we request that they bring forward proof," Tarshani said. "Those who are accusing us and blaming us are our opponents from the secularists who do not want to see Ansar al-Sharia active in Benghazi.