Counting the Dead in Benghazi

The steady drumbeat of killings has left Libyans despairing about whether anyone can bring security to their war-torn country.

TRIPOLI, Libya — When I think of Benghazi, in my mind I am counting the dead: How many today, how many the week before, how many this year, how many since 2011? In my three years in Libya, this is one of my most depressing duties. The number of unlawful killings has been steadily increasing, and has now reached an average of one murder a day. The killers' brutality is also growing.

The failure of authorities to deal with the violence now threatens to bring about a total collapse of Libya's key institutions. In May, retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar took matters into his own hands, launching "Operation Dignity" -- an armed campaign aimed at fighting Islamist militia "terrorists," and thus ending the bloodshed. The operation began in Benghazi and has spread to Tripoli and elsewhere. At least 75 people were killed in militia clashes in Benghazi on May 16 and 17, and 140 were injured. On May 19, militias said to be from the western city of Zintan joined Haftar's campaign and attacked the parliament building in Tripoli, resulting in at least four dead and 90 injured.

The government's reaction -- declaring the operation a "coup" and calling for a no-fly zone over Benghazi -- did little to slow events. On May 28, the air force in Benghazi, which is aligned with Haftar, again targeted headquarters of Islamist militias, including the February 17 Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia. Haftar's forces renewed their airstrikes on Islamist militia bases on June 1, triggering clashes that injured dozens and resulted in the deaths of at least eight people. 

This latest spasm of violence is not unique. Benghazi is marked by near-daily assassinations and attacks on military and security posts. The eastern region, in and around the city of Derna, is notorious for the prevalence of Islamist militias.

The steady drumbeat of violence over the past three years has undermined the authority of successive governments, and laid the groundwork for Haftar's campaign. The earliest attacks were straightforward, targeting the Qaddafi-era state security forces and judiciary. But that has now changed: The victims now include journalists and activists who opposed former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi during the 2011 uprising, but who dare to criticize the militias, Libya's new masters.

I have heard dozens of judges, activists, and journalists in Benghazi express helplessness and fear of being next in line. Many have fled as a result. Some have also voiced concerns that inaction by authorities means acquiescence. "What are they [the government] waiting for?" one prominent former judge asked me. "Do they want us all to get killed before they respond?"

Popular protests against the militias have only led to more bloodshed. In November, a largely peaceful demonstration turned violent in Tripoli, as demonstrators marched to a neighborhood occupied largely by militias from Misrata and called on them to quit the capital. According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Misrata militias were the first to open fire on the unarmed protesters. At least 48 people were killed in ensuing clashes, which have yielded neither an investigation nor any prosecutions.

Total figures of victims are hard to come by under the current situation of lawlessness. In January, a report prepared a Libyan parliamentary committee listed 643 killings in 2013. That same month, Libya's general prosecutor told me his office had files on 206 killings since the end of the 2011 uprising, but had not concluded any investigations. He blamed the police and Interior Ministry's lack of authority to conduct arrests for the stalled justice process, but assured us the investigations were "ongoing."

In Benghazi and Derna, HRW found that roughly 35 people have been killed in seemingly targeted assassinations each month, on average, from January to May of this year. The violence is also spreading: The capital has witnessed several assassinations and attacks on security forces, while the northeastern city of Sirte has also been wracked by violence.

In Benghazi, top state security officials and outspoken journalists and activists have been targeted for death. Miftah Bouzeid, the editor-in-chief of Burniq newspaper known for his vocal opposition to Islamist militias, became the latest high-profile victim when he was shot dead on May 26. Ibrahim al-Senussi Akila, head of intelligence for the eastern region, was gunned down in his car on May 8. On July 26, 2013, prominent political activist Abdelsalam Elmessmary, who had denounced the murders and criticized Islamist groups three days earlier during a TV appearance, was killed while walking home.

There have been at least 12 attacks against media headquarters in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Derna, in addition to dozens of threats, assaults, and kidnappings of journalists this year alone. For example, Hassan al-Bakush, a young journalist with a local TV station, survived two assassination attempts in Benghazi this month.

Foreigners living in Libya have not escaped the violence. An American schoolteacher, seven Egyptian Copts, a couple from New Zealand and Britain, and a French engineer have all been killed in Benghazi during the last six months.

The assassinations have been driven by revenge killings, score-settling, tribal feuds, religious disagreements, and ordinary criminal acts. However, families of many victims, as well as media outlets and commentators, often point the finger at Islamist militias -- particularly when the victims are members of state security forces and the judiciary.

Others accuse Qaddafi "loyalists" of responsibility. When I met then-Interior Minister Ashour Shuwail in February 2013, he blamed pro-Qaddafi "sleeper cells" outside Libya for stoking the violence. He said the interim government had entered into negotiations with "Islamist groups" about their presence and activities in Benghazi. However, the negotiations, such as they were, have not slowed the killing.

For all these crimes, there have been no real investigations, no known arrests (except of one man, who managed to break out of prison in May 2013), and no known prosecutions. The insecurity has also forced the closure of courts and prosecutors' offices in Benghazi and Derna. As a result, Libya's justice sector is teetering on the brink of collapse. And the growing impunity only fuels the violence.

Libyans are tiring of the chaos. A taxi driver in Tripoli told me recently he "hated Qaddafi," but wished for a Qaddafi to bring back some order. This nostalgic thinking is not unique, and could derail Libya's progress.

Ever since Qaddafi's fall, Libya's government has failed to afford its citizens the protections and security they deserve. The laws passed by the General National Congress (GNC), the first elected parliament, served to inflame a tense political environment: Instead of reforming a host of Qaddafi-era laws that violate Libyans' basic freedoms, the GNC simply pushed through a political isolation law, which fostered further divisions through its vague criteria excluding Qaddafi-era officials and government employees from public office. The GNC also failed to reverse a 2012 law that grants immunity from prosecution for acts "promoting or protecting the [2011] revolution," which in practice propagated a culture of impunity and selective justice.

But the international community -- and particularly those countries that participated in the NATO-led air campaign -- has also failed to make good on its repeated promises to help Libyans rebuild their country. The U.N. Security Council authorized military intervention in Libya in the name of the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, and therefore has a special responsibility to address grave ongoing crimes, including crimes against humanity and mass unlawful killings. And yet despite its own resolution pledging to remain "seized" of the situation in Libya, it has tragically failed to do so. To send an unambiguous signal, it should add Libyan officials and militia leaders responsible for serious human rights abuses to the U.N. sanctions list, as envisioned in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970.

Instead of patting a weak government on the back, concerned countries should focus on Libya's fragmented justice and security sector. They will need a broader vision than what has so far been on display: The current crisis can't be fixed with only the usual post-conflict capacity-building and training workshops.

There is no easy answer to what happens next, and no magic wand. Libyan officials should make every effort to support the justice sector and keep the prosecutions ongoing -- and the international community should help them. Since security is a key factor, it is vital to significantly strengthen the judicial police, responsible for protecting prisons and courtrooms. Without a functioning legal system, the house of cards that is the Libyan state will collapse.



Libya's Rogue 'War on Terror'

Is retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar finally reining in out-of-control Islamist militias, or is he dealing a body blow to this country's hope for democracy?

TRIPOLI, LibyaThe boy was only a teenager when the Libyan revolution erupted. As hundreds of youths began streaming to the front lines, he quit his university studies in pharmacology to join them. The experience, however, changed him.

"He came back a different person," says his aunt, an activist from the eastern city of Benghazi now living in the United States. "He later joined Ansar al-Sharia, and they brainwashed him."

She now vocally supports retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar's rogue campaign against Islamist militias -- including Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line group whose members are accused of involvement in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, and which the U.S. State Department designated as a terrorist organization in January -- even though it puts her own nephew in the cross-hairs.

"Haftar's actions are the only way out of this," she says. "Most of these extremists are crazy. You cannot have a dialogue with them."

It's a frequently heard refrain in Libya, as Haftar's campaign gathers endorsements from a motley range of figures, from disgruntled current and former army and police officers to tribal militiamen and armed federalists seeking autonomy for the country's eastern region. Former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan -- a fierce critic of the Muslim Brotherhood -- and the country's ambassador to the United Nations have also expressed support. This unlikely alliance has been brought together by a perceived common enemy: Libya's powerful Islamist militias and their alleged political backers, whom Haftar accuses of taking over the country's nascent democratic institutions.

In interviews with Western media, Haftar has divulged few details on the goals of his campaign. The septuagenarian general refers to his effort as a "war on terrorism" and speaks vaguely about how this battle is "on behalf of the whole world."

When Haftar speaks to Arab media, however, it is evident he is targeting Islamists more generally. "The main enemy," he told the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, "is the Muslim Brotherhood," whose affiliated political party holds the second-largest number of seats in Libya's elected national congress. Haftar vowed to purge the Islamist movement from Libya, referring to it as "this malignant disease that is seeking to spread throughout the bones of the Arab world." He insisted he does not want to seize power, but would run for president if "the people demand it."

According to one Libyan who has known him for decades, Haftar developed an intense animosity for Islamists of all hues when he served under Muammar al-Qaddafi, before defecting in the 1980s. "Haftar's hatred for the Islamists is almost visceral, and he doesn't distinguish between the extremists and those who engage in politics," this Libyan says. "He believes they must all be tackled in the same way -- through force."

Haftar's offensive, which opened with air and ground assaults on Benghazi bases belonging to several Islamist militias, has not only triggered deadly violence, but it has also led to some of Libya's largest demonstrations since the fall of Qaddafi. Thousands have taken to streets of Tripoli, Benghazi, and other cities inspired by Haftar's push against the Islamist militias.

While some at the protests insist they support the campaign and not the man -- Haftar's dubious background, including alleged collaboration with the CIA, makes many Libyans wary of him -- others hail the renegade general a hero. "Go, go, Haftar. Show Ansar al-Sharia what you can do," chanted protesters on Tripoli's Martyrs' Square last Friday, May 30, as they smashed up a mock coffin scrawled with the militia's name.

Haftar's slogan for his campaign, "Operation Dignity," has resonated with a public grown weary by lawlessness and the grip of militias, both Islamist and not. Over the past year, militiamen have briefly kidnapped the prime minister, blackmailed the head of parliament, repeatedly assaulted the assembly itself, abducted foreign diplomats, and blockaded eastern oil ports, slashing the country's main source of revenue.

Benghazi, which has been plagued by assassinations and bombings that many blame on Islamist militias, has so far borne the brunt of Haftar's campaign. More than 75 people have already lost their lives in the violence. The population of Benghazi, meanwhile, appears divided. A week after Haftar's offensive began, one protest in the city supported his operation, while another demonstration opposed it. At the anti-Haftar rally, hundreds packed the seafront square (made famous for its huge protests in the early days of the 2011 uprising) to listen to speakers, including militia commanders, denounce the retired general's moves as a coup or counterrevolution.

Haftar appears to have set his sights on a dense patchwork of Islamist-leaning militias rooted in the dynamics of the 2011 uprising. "Once we clean Benghazi, we will go to Derna next," said one of his aides, referring to the troubled eastern city where a number of extremist groups hold sway.

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Eastern Libya was known for its religiously tinged resistance against Qaddafi, and it is now struggling with a new generation of fighters radicalized in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. More than 50 men from Derna went to Iraq with the aim of becoming suicide bombers -- the largest number from any city outside Iraq -- according to a 2007 study by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Those who returned have since made the detention of fellow Libyan jihadists in countries including Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen a cause célèbre and have pressured the post-Qaddafi authorities to lobby for their release. In April, Jordan's ambassador to Libya was seized by militants in Tripoli and used as a bargaining chip to successfully secure the release of one such prisoner, a Benghazi native sentenced to life for plotting to blow up the airport in Amman.

After Qaddafi's fall, many of eastern Libya's Islamist-leaning revolutionary factions splintered or were folded into new, often quasi-official outfits. A number of prominent figures lost influence, in some cases to individuals with a more rigid ideological outlook. However, some of the most radical groups -- such as Ansar al-Sharia, which was formed after the revolution -- remain separate from state-affiliated security structures. These groups draw support from diffuse networks of former inmates of Tripoli's infamous Abu Salim prison, where dissidents, a large number of them Islamists, were incarcerated under Qaddafi. Their orbit also includes Libyans who joined Salafi-jihadi networks abroad, including in Syria, Mali, Algeria, and the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then returned home.

Ansar al-Sharia represents a particular challenge. The group, which began as an armed unit of a few hundred fighters, has transformed itself through charitable and missionary works into a broader movement, woven into the fabric of the fledgling post-Qaddafi state. The movement's ranks contain men from across the socioeconomic spectrum, among them doctors, teachers, and other professionals. In Benghazi alone, mediators estimate its support base runs to at least 4,000.

Libyan authorities face the dilemma of determining where Ansar al-Sharia's armed core ends and the wider social movement begins. Some have advocated a "force-only" approach to it and similar factions, insisting they should be designated as terrorists, while others argue that this will only drive such groups into the shadows and exacerbate the problem.

Haftar's actions brought the debate over all this to a head. Ansar al-Sharia reacted fiercely to the anti-Islamist campaign, condemning it as a "war on Islam" backed by the West. Its leader, Mohamed Zahawi, gave a fiery televised address warning the United States not to interfere, or it would face worse than the conflicts in Somalia, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Zahawi's words revealed the divisions within Libya's diverse Islamist milieu, as Muslim Brotherhood figures, former leaders of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and prominent clerics all rushed to criticize him. Significantly, it was the first time such a wide range of Islamists had publicly denounced Ansar al-Sharia.

"Zahawi and Haftar represent two extremes that will block Libya's progress," says Derna congressman Mansour al-Hisadi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who has been threatened by extremists in his hometown. "What they have in common is they are both against the democratic process -- one in the name of religion and the other in the name of the military."

With Haftar's offensive continuing -- his forces carried out further airstrikes in Benghazi, which were followed by heavy fighting that left at least nine dead -- and Ansar al-Sharia and its supporters growing more belligerent, the stage is set for a long, bloody war of attrition.

The Libyan activist acknowledges this, but isn't wavering from her staunch support for Haftar. "It might get worse before it gets better," she says. "But no one else is offering another solution. That's the problem."