BENGHAZI - While heads are rolling in Washington over a damning independent report that found the U.S. State Department's security planning to be "grossly inadequate," tensions in Libya's second largest city continue to rise. On Sunday, gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a police compound in the city, killing one officer and sparking a firefight that resulted in the deaths of three others who had rushed to the scene. Images of a patrol vehicle's blood-splattered interior rippled across Libyan TV channels and social media. Not for the first time, Benghazians wondered what had become of the city they proudly describe as the wellspring of Libya's revolution.
More than three months after the storming of the U.S. mission, and with the Libyan investigation into the attack that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans all but ground to a halt, Benghazi remains jittery and tense. Even in affluent neighborhoods, gunfire and explosions form an almost nightly soundtrack. Many residents are wary about where they venture after dark. The American drones that circle overhead prompt bitter complaints -- as well as the occasional attempt at black humor. "That's my brother-in-law up there keeping an eye on me," one man said with a laugh as he pointed skywards.
But there is little levity when it comes to confronting Benghazi's dense knot of security challenges -- which include rogue militias, frequent assassinations, and a fraught political environment made even more flammable by the ready availability of weapons. "I think the security situation is going from bad to worse after the consulate attack," says Wanis al-Sharif, the top Interior Ministry official in eastern Libya. Why that is depends on whom you ask.
For some, Ansar al-Sharia, the hardline Islamist faction which has rejected accusations it was involved in the U.S. consulate attack, is a popular target. "The Ansar people want to kill everybody who is against their ideology or anyone who was involved with Qaddafi," said one Benghazi resident, as he and a friend debated who may have been behind the weekend attack on the police station. His companion begged to differ: "No, no, it was the azlaam (Qaddafi loyalists). They want to destroy the reputation of the Islamists and create chaos at the same time." Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sentiment resonates with many of the former rebels -- Islamist and otherwise -- who still call themselves thuwar, or revolutionaries.
Fourteen months after Muammar al-Qaddafi's death, Benghazi finds itself pulled in multiple directions. Not only are there tensions between powerful militias that pride themselves on their revolutionary credentials and remnants of the old order -- pejoratively referred to as taheleb, the Arabic word for algae and a reference to the green color of the Qaddafi era flag -- but cleavages between Islamists and non-Islamists, and supporters and opponents of the region's nascent federalist movement also threaten to tear the city apart.
These dynamics often overlap, but the deadliest tensions spring from the animosity between security officials who served the former regime and those within the ranks of the thuwar, who experienced its brutality first hand. Eastern Libya's constellation of Islamist-leaning militias, several of which are nominally under the authority of the government, contains commanders and rank-and-file fighters that span a broad ideological spectrum. They range from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, to Salafists, to a handful of radicals who cleave to takfiri ideology, which sanctions the killing of Muslims deemed to be insufficiently pious.
What a large number of Benghazi's militiamen have in common, however, is the shared experience of incarceration in Gaddafi's prisons, in particular Abu Salim, the notorious Tripoli jail where political dissidents, most of them Islamists, ended up prior to the uprising.
"I think it is mostly the Islamists behind these killings because the people that have been killed are mostly those who were working in national security while the Islamists were in prison and were being tortured," says Wanis al-Sharif, the Interior Ministry official. "Now the Islamists are out and I think they are carrying out these revenge attacks."
But others see this as something more than the vulgar pursuit of revenge. They see the violence as part of a larger struggle for Libya's soul as the post-Gaddafi state tentatively takes shape. That battle is as much about ideology as anything else: conversations with those who inhabit Benghazi's Islamist milieu invariably turn to the drafting of the country's constitution, a process due to begin next year. "Many of these thuwar still don't trust the government. They are waiting for the constitution. It is very important for them," says Jamal Benour, a judge who acts as justice coordinator for Benghazi.