The attack and killings at the US consulate in Benghazi — killings orchestrated ostensibly around the protest against the Innocence of Muslims film — were, in reality it seems, long-planned.
Many in Benghazi saw it as a reprisal attack for the US drone killing of a high-ranking Libyan al-Qaeda operative in Afghanistan.
The attacks were widely seen as the work of Ansar al-Sharia, a recently emerging hardline Salafist grouping who have some support in eastern Libya and Benghazi specifically. They have been condemned for their attacks on Sufi shrines and the demolition of holy sites dedicated to Sufi saints. The long tradition of Sufism in Libya is seen as heretical by the Islamists and it echoes the destruction of Sufi sites in other parts of Africa such as Mali and Niger.
The interim leader of Libya, Mohammed Magarief, has condemned the attacks and has initiated a more robust project to dismantle the independent militias in the country, including the Abu Slim brigade, who recently downed arms and abdicated their power base in Derna. The renunciation of the power of the militias and the de-militarisation of the country is vastly popular in Libya with one poll indicating that 95% of the population supports such policies.
In the aftermath of the killing of the US consul 30,000 protestors gathered to expel Ansar al-Sharia from Benghazi and chanted slogans against terrorism and Salafism such as “You terrorists, you cowards. Go back to Afghanistan!”
This is not just a rhetorical gesture of outrage. Since the early 1980s the Salafists, backed by the Saudi dictatorship, have been importing their own cadre into mosques and schools throughout North Africa. Largely unsuccessful in Libya, where Qadaffi’s brutal security services largely physically liquidated the Islamists, it was more successful in Algeria, where Salafists, many of whom had fought against the Russians in Afghanistan, became the central ideological and military backbone of the Islamic opposition.
The anger against the Islamists for their destruction of Sufi holy sites, the attacks on the consulate and for attacks on ordinary Libyan citizens has for many been focused towards a positive programme of freedom of expression if not outright secularism. It is secularism that Ansar al-Sharia most fears. Its leader Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi has called for Islamists to do battle not just against Qadaffi loyalists but against the “liberals and secularists”.
The vicious Salafist international has been booted out of Benghazi at the hands of ordinary protestors who condemn their intimidation and violence.
This makes a mockery of the Sharia socialists who side with them against working-class organisation and social and sexual liberty in Cairo, Bradford, and in Benghazi itself.