Bloodshed in Benghazi as citizens confront militias

Four protesters were killed in Benghazi Sept. 21 and over 20 wounded when citizens moved against militia groups in the eastern Libyan city, storming and occupying their bases. Hundreds of weapons were pilfered, and vehicles set ablaze. Among those seized was the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist militia linked to the attack on the US mission in the city that killed the ambassador and three other US personnel. The stage was set for confrontation when Ansar al-Sharia called a rally of its own supporters in the city's central Shajara Square after the "Save Benghazi" rally—to oppose the lawless militias that continue to operate with impunity in the city—had been called for the same time and place. "Ansar al-Sharia have done this deliberately," said Bilal Bettamir, an organizer of the Save Benghazi rally. "We have been planning our march for the past week, and they made their decision yesterday. They knew all about it." But the jihadists apparently retreated as some 30,000 advanced on the plaza after Friday prayers, chanting "No, no, to militias," with banners reading "The ambassador was Libya's friend" and related slogans. After rallying in the square, groups of protesters started to overrun the militia bases. The four were killed while attempting to occupy the base of the Raf Allah al-Sahati Brigade, another Islamist militia.

The atmosphere of chaos in Benghazi was exacerbated as local police mutinied, refusing to serve under Salah Doghman, appointed by the central government to take over security following the consulate attack. Wanis al-Sharif, the deputy interior minister for the east of the country, and Hussein bu Ahmeida, the chief of police for Benghazi, were both fired by the interior ministry in the wake of the attack, and Doghman was named to take up both of their positions. But Sharif and Ahmeida have refused to step down, and local security forces have rallied to them. (Tripoli Post, al-Manar, Lebanon, NYT, AP, Sept. 22; Shabab Libya, Sept. 21; North Africa United, Libya Herald, Sept. 20)

Unnamed "US intelligence sources" say a key suspect in the consulate attack is Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qumu, who was held in Guantánamo Bay for six years, before being released in 2007, on condition that he continued to be detained by Libyan authorities. In 2010 he was released from Abu Salim prison in Tripoli as part of an amnesty. During last year's revolution, he led the resistance in Derna and established Ansar al-Sharia.

In his secret Guantánamo file which surfaced via Wikileaks in 2011, bin Qumu was assessed as: "A former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a probable member of Al Qaida, and a member of the North African Extremist Network (NAEN)." The report also stated that the Libyan government itself considered him to be a "dangerous man with no qualms about committing terrorist acts. He was known as one of the extremist commanders of the Afghan Arabs."

Bin Qumu first escaped from prison in Libya in 1993, where he was serving a ten-year sentence for murder, armed assault and drug-dealing. He headed to Egypt and eventually to Afghanistan, where he reportedly received training at Osama bin Laden's Torkham Camp. (Libya Herald, Sept. 21)