"They are armed, I am not going to fight a losing battle and kill my men over a demolished shrine," said Fawzi Abd al-'Aali, the former Libyan interior minister, before he "resigned" last August. He was referring to the armed Salafi groups that were accused of destroying Sufi shrines. One of the accused groups was the Ansar al-Shariah Brigade, which was quick to support the demolition, but denied any responsibility for it.
Ahmed Jibril, Libya's deputy ambassador to London, has now accused the Brigade, headed by Muhammed Ali Al-Zahawy, of perpetrating the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, which killed the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other US personnel, as well as Libyan guards. Others have quickly embraced and promoted Jibril's allegation. But the picture is more complex.
Self-proclaimed guardians of the Sharia
The Brigade denied responsibility in a written statement, as well as in a brief interview with its spokesperson, who at the time was in charge of guarding Al Jala Hospital in Benghazi.
Like its statement on the destruction of Sufi shrines, it denied involvement in the attack on the US Consulate, but stressed the gravity of the insult against the Prophet that putatively triggered it.
The Brigade attracted public attention last June as well, when around 300 armed members staged a rally in Benghazi, sparking outrage among Libyans. "We wanted to send a message to the General National Council members," according to Hashim Al-Nawa', one of the Brigade's commanders. "They should not come near the Shariah. It should be above the constitution, and not an article for referendum."
But was the Ansar al-Shariah Brigade really behind the attack on the US Consulate? The nature of Libya's post-revolution armed Islamist forces is by no means straightforward. Salafi jihadism is not an organization, but an ideological trend based on the core belief that armed tactics of all kinds are the most effective – and, in some versions, the most legitimate – method of bringing about social and political change.
Last year, its adherents did play an important role in the removal of Libya's brutal dictator, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. Many subsequently matured politically, revised their worldview, and shifted from armed to unarmed activism, forming political parties and contesting elections.
By Omar Ashour
[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text]