While US officials debated and politicized this past September’s Benghazi incident, Libyans were often having, and continue to have, a markedly different conversation about who is behind ongoing violence. Though rogue militias and Salafists remain key culprits, a potentially greater force is often seen as playing a lead role: elements of the former Qaddafi regime. This accusation, if true, may explain both the Benghazi incident and much of the country’s ongoing security challenges.

Groups on the ground

The embassy attack in Benghazi was by no means an isolated incident. Over the last six to eight months, the newly-born Libyan state has been the target of myriad attacks by forces working to undermine the country’s newly established democratic institutions. Understanding the disparate groups behind these violent acts is key to building the case for former regime complicity.

The individuals executing attacks on the ground can be organized into three groups. First there are the pseudo-jihadist organizations. These organizations, located predominantly in the eastern region of Cyrenaica, potentially hold ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They have continuously carried out assassinations of high-level officers of the Libyan army and police; at least twenty officers have been killed and several wounded. They have also targeted foreign consular officers and security buildings; car bombs have been placed in Tripoli and elsewhere at police headquarters, market squares, and other public places.

Second there are the Salafists, a group of religious purists who remain largely withdrawn from Libyan society and are purportedly funded by various Saudi businessmen. Originally numbering in the tens during the days of Qaddafi, over the past few months they have multiplied, reaching upwards of 50,000-80,000 according to the estimates of some Libyan security sources. Salafists may be divided into various groups, but they enjoy an unusually high degree of coordination. Lately they have shown great efficiency in their ability to carry out destructive attacks against Sufi mosques and shrines, which they believe are against Islam. Among average Libyans their attacks have caused great public concern and fear for the radicalization of religion.

Thirdly there are criminal organizations. In the past, it was common practice for the former regime to use these groups to carry out criminal activities that would benefit the state; the trafficking of human beings and drugs, for example, was often supported by the Libyan mukhabarat, or secret police.  After the revolution and the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime, gangs have taken the place of the state in organizing and carrying out these criminal activities. Today entire parts of the country are affected by these criminal gangs, which often intimidate, bribe, and even attack weak state officials who are supposed to keep them in check.

The Qaddafi Glue

Breathing organizational and financial life into these disparate groups is a single principal enemy: members of the former Libyan regime who are hiding or in exile. It is calculated that there are about 500,000-600,000 sympathizers of Qaddafi that have escaped and live abroad, and probably as many living quietly or hiding in the country. Qaddafi’s sons remain active from Algeria and Niger, while Qaddafi al-Dam, the right arm of the deposed Libyan leader, remains in Egypt along with many other dignitaries, and has at his disposal near unlimited funds. It is no coincidence that prominent religious cleric Ali Sallabi was sent to Cairo by then-NTC head Mustafa Abdul Jalil to meet with Qaddafi family members last May. Libyan authorities believed then, as they do now, that the Qaddafis had to be stopped from utilizing their resources, contacts, and support base to destabilize the Libyan state and–however unlikely–attempting to return to power.

Libyan officials have often acknowledged, and taken limited actions, to curtail this threat. Last spring, for example, thirty Qaddafi sympathizers were arrested in connection with a car bombing in Tripoli. More recently, a suspected terrorist cell in Tripoli was broken up; the Interior Ministry claimed the group was taking orders from former regime members in the pro-Qaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid. The key point, and what is often noted by security officials, is that unlike any of the component actors carrying out violence on the ground, it is the Qaddafis that have a very specific and motivating agenda: the destabilization of the state.

That these component groups all tie back to the former regime is not obvious, but can be supported by what is known about them. For example, the so-called jihadist groups are likely hired guns. Their violent attacks have the cover of Islamist attacks but are quite clearly, given the specific identities of those being assassinated, revenge killings targeting officers who defected in favor of the revolution.

Moreover, it is known—and as the League of Libyan Ulema stated publicly following the Sufi shrine attack–that behind the strength and organization of many Salafist groups stand a number of Saudi businessmen close to Saadi Qaddafi, the late dictator’s son, who remains in Niger. Again, Salafist groups might not even know they are acting on behalf of Qaddafi. Through their radical vision of Islam and violent destruction of cherished Islamic buildings, however, they contribute to the destabilization of the state.

The connection between criminal organizations and the Qaddafis is even more direct, as the latter were in charge of trafficking in the past and are happy to see their business continue.

The Benghazi Attack

The theory that higher echelons of the former regime are trying to reconquer their positions by destabilizing the country works well to explain the Benghazi attack. There is no doubt that it was a highly sophisticated, well-planned, and coordinated attack whose purpose was to further destabilize the Libyan institutions, create a rift between the US and Libyan governments, and possibly even cause a US military intervention. Such an intervention would have provided cover to incite a rebellion against the Tripoli authorities, and accuse them of selling the country to the Americans. 

Of course, it is still quite possible that members of AQIM were used to carry out the attack. In fact, many former soldiers of the Libyan regime from the southern tribes have moved to Niger, Mali and Mauritania, some to fight against the legitimate governments in these countries–see Mali in particular–with some possibly having joined forces with AQIM. It is in this very region where Saadi al-Qaddafi remains active. But perhaps even more tellingly, it is in the style of the Qaddafis to hire mercenaries from all over the world to fight their battles; they did it while in power, why not now?

It is in this context that independent action by AQIM against the embassy becomes less plausible. As noted, it is still quite likely that capable elements of AQIM were called in to plan, organize, and execute–possibly with support from local Libyan extremist organizations such as Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi–the attack. In fact, this type of outside involvement has been corroborated by reports of eyewitnesses, in particular those of Libyan guards at the embassy who noted that attackers spoke different Arabic and were dressed differently from normal Libyans. From all that is known so far, it is clear that foreigners were present along with Libyans in carrying out the attack.

This scenario, that posits the design of the Qaddafis, the utilization of skilled members of AQIM, and the cooperation of Salafists in Benghazi, is not only highly plausible given the larger context but also has important implications: it indicates that to target AQIM would miss those ultimately culpable for the death of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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