The events of the past week in Libya have established two things: firstly, that extremist groups have ample room to operate and execute atrocities of the kind that led to the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Secondly, they have proven that Libya’s authorities have been complacent about such a turn of events and put politics before security.
Months before Libya’s elections in July, Alia Brahimi and I argued in the Telegraph that the country’s first national elections in decades should be postponed. Many Libyans disagreed with this position, arguing that only after a functioning and legitimate government was instated could the country be cleansed of its violence and militias disarmed.
This position equated with spinning a roulette wheel, vaguely aiming at and hoping for elections to bring stability and order. Security has been sacrificed in Libya on the hope that it would somehow materialize once democratic politics were in place. National elections did take place in July, producing a western-backed secularist winner, Mahmoud Jibril, in a largely peaceful fashion; last Wednesday, the country selected its new prime minister, who will take the helm of the country for an 18-month transitional period. A new government is expected, resting on a broad coalition of different ideological and political visions.
Yet, winning elections does not mean winning power. Since the former regime’s downfall last year, the failure to accommodate disparate militia groups into the transitional phase was indeed related to several others: the failure to disarm them, to develop a functioning army and to reconcile factions among groups currently in power and their predecessors. These issues have opened the ground for groups like those responsible for last Tuesday’s attacks to consolidate their military clout, to grow in confidence and consequently to exploit the security vacuum to full effect.
Eastern Libya can be described as fertile ground for jihadis, many of whom took part in the post-2003 Iraq insurgency and are thus experienced, battle-hardened individuals with the capacity to build on last week’s attacks, as well as those carried out in June against US and UK diplomatic missions in Benghazi. It therefore becomes imperative for Libyan authorities to ensure that the momentum does not continue to shift in their favour.
Yet in the absence of a real army the Libyan state will continue to lack the capacity to target autonomous militia brigades. To complicate matters further, the most organized and sophisticated militia groups have extensive links with the new government and enjoy financial and military support from resource-rich Gulf states.
Concerns about the extensive links between militias and the current ruling powers were exacerbated further last week by the issuing of an independent news report suggesting that the killing of the US ambassador may have been the result of a security breach. The ambassador had been in Benghazi for only a short period and had retreated to a supposedly secret safe house in the city, which had then come under sustained mortar attack.
In this broader context of security gaps, Al-Qaeda’s statement claiming indirect responsibility for the attack sees its significance somewhat dwarfed. If a security breach was in fact the reason why US diplomats could be targeted, it points at far more serious problems for Libya, as these gaps are being exploited and even sustained at government level.
Nevertheless, it is at times of crisis that post-conflict governments prove their worth. The Benghazi attacks have propelled national security to the forefront of the government’s agenda, thus creating new opportunities for Libya’s democratically elected officials. The president of Libya’s parliament, Mohammed al-Magarif, already commented that the government is considering military action against Ansar al-Sharia, the group linked to the attacks. Such statements are encouraging but actions will more than ever have the last word in the new Libya.