Libya struggles in fight against terrorism | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 14.09.2012
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Middle East

Libya struggles in fight against terrorism

The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi has exposed the continued weakness of the Libyan state, and suggests that foreign extremists are trying to impose an Islamist ideology on the unstable country.

The attacks on the Sufi shrines were only the beginning, that much was expected in Libya. The question wasn't if, but when and where the terrorists would strike with greater force. Despite this foresight, the realization that the US consulate in Benghazi should have been better protected came too late, in the words of Libyan leader Mohammed Magarief.

"We ask the American people and the whole world for forgiveness," Magarief said shortly after the attack on Tuesday (11.09.2012).

"What happened today is linked to 9/11," he said, referring to the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. "We reject in every way that our territory is being misused for such operations."

Grief and shock

This undated photo released by the U.S. State Department shows U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens (Foto:U.S. State Department/AP/dapd).

US ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in Tuesday's attack

Grief, dismay and a sense of powerlessness are now the prevailing sentiments in Libya. Following the attack, the online newspaper Al watan al Libia published a black-bordered portrait of slain US ambassador Christopher Stevens, along with a commentary.

"Where do these people want to drive Libya? Into the abyss!" wrote the paper, saying the terrorists were aiming to take Libya in the direction of unstable nations like Somalia, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

"They're turning our country into a home for mercenaries, they corrupt our people and our land. This is their alternative to our plans to build up our country and let it grow, and achieve prosperity for our people."

However, Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, while also fully condemning the attack, said "the entire responsibility" fell to the Western governments and the international community - an apparent reference to the anti-Islam, US-produced film that appears to have helped spark the protests. The Brotherhood said that it was not enough for the West to demand respect for Islam in official statements while simultaneously staying silent when religions were publicly insulted.

Libyan protesters gather on the rubble of a destroyed section of the mausoleum of Al-Shaab Al-Dahman AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD TURKIA (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/GettyImages)

Sufi shrines in Tripoli were the target of attacks in August

Imported extremism

There are many indications that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was initiated by foreign extremists. Journalist Mustafa Fetouri, speaking with DW, said there had been numerous deadly car bombings in recent months, a previously unknown phenomenon in Libya. The tactic was not even used during the revolution against former dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

"This sort of violence must have been brought into the country from outside," said Fetouri. "It points to fanatical groups that presumably belong to al Qaeda or another terrorist organization." He pointed to the recent desecration and destruction of Sufi shrines as further proof of the actions of foreign extremists.

According to Michel Cousins, publisher of newly launched newspaper The Libya Herald, the perpetrators behind the shrine attacks were Salafists. "But these are relatively small groups," he said. "In the entire country, there are likely no more than 400 or 500." He says these groups would have had to find some local support, but even these supporters would be relatively few.

The majority of Libyans are moderate Muslims, said Cousins. "They are appalled by the violence that has been done to the cultural heritage of their country. The attacks have shocked the Libyans. They are angry and upset."

After being rejected by voters in Libya's parliamentary election in July, it seems the radical faction aims to achieve its goals by other means. "Now they are trying to secure their influence by force," said Fetouri. "This is a serious problem."

Cynical calculations

A grave sits empty after Libyan Salafis Muslims destroyed a Sufi mosque in central Tripoli REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny (LIBYA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST RELIGION)

Most Libyans have a strong emotional connection to their cultural heritage

The storming of the consulate appears to be a continuation of an extremist strategy to weaken the Libyan government and undermine its reputation and legitimacy.

With an area of nearly 1.8 million square kilometers (about 680,000 square miles) and a population density of only 3.3 people per square kilometer, the people of this expansive country are not always well represented. This fact plays into the hands of the extremists.

Their logic is simple: attacks on the cultural heritage of the country, in this case the Sufi shrines, to which most Libyans have a strong emotional connection, make the state appear weak.

As the attacks continue, Fetouri thinks the inability of the state to enforce law and order becomes more and more apparent.. "This erodes the public's confidence in their government, leading them to form their own militias," he said.

If their confidence in the government is shaken, Libyans could make their voices heard in the coming elections. The calls for a strong leader could become louder, and a strong candidate may improve his chance if he represents extremist views.

Until then, if more and more citizens turn to violence, the state's power will continue to weaken.

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