CAIRO — Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, was reported tense Thursday ahead of two major rallies called for Friday, one to show support for the United States and its slain ambassador, who died last week when gunmen stormed the U.S. consulate compound, and the other by the Ansar al Shariah militia suspected of involvement in the attack.
Ansar al Shariah called its rally for the same time and the same place as a group of moderate Libyans who call themselves “Save Benghazi.”
“Ansar al Shariah has done this deliberately,” said Bilal Bettamir, one of the organizers of the Save Benghazi rally, which in addition to marking the passing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens is intended to call for freedom of expression and religious moderation. “We have been planning our march for the past week, and they made their decision yesterday. They knew all about it.”
The stark differences between the two sides were evident in an interview with the head of Ansar al Shariah aired Thursday by the United States’ National Public Radio network. Mohammed Zahawi showed nothing but contempt for Western ideals.
"As for those bankrupt calls for Western democracy, liberalism and secularism, what did democracy give to the West?” he said, according to an account of the interview posted on the NPR website. “Social collapse, moral collapse, economic collapse?"
Ansar al Shariah is by far the dominant armed group in eastern Libya, where the national government in Tripoli has so far been unable to establish a security presence. The group has denied that it is responsible for the assault on the consulate, but witnesses have told McClatchy that the 100 to 125 gunmen who stormed the consulate compound with grenades, rockets and automatic weapons fire were carrying the Ansar al Shariah flag.
"The liberals and secularists were all raised in the West,” Zahawi told NPR. “They were raised in openness, nakedness and decay. They know that in an Islamic state, they can’t get to their vices. That’s why they are waging a war against Islam."
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the formation of a panel to investigate the deaths of Stevens and the three other Americans: computer expert Sean Smith and two former Navy SEALs, Greg Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who were working as security contractors at the consulate.
The panel – the formation of which is usually pro forma in such cases – is to be chaired by Thomas Pickering, a retired diplomat who served in the third highest post at the State Department and as a U.S. ambassador to Russia, India, Israel and the United Nations.
Clinton made the announcement before going to Capitol Hill to provide closed-door briefings to the Senate and the House of Representatives on the consulate attack. She was joined by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and other senior officials.
A House subcommittee chairman, meanwhile, informed Clinton that his panel would conduct its own investigation, and he cited the differences in the U.S. and Libyan versions of what happened.
"The universe of known facts . . . remains small and confusion has overshadowed certainty in this matter," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign operations, wrote to Clinton in a letter. "The American people have a right to know precisely what happened."
Chaffetz asked Clinton to provide the committee by 5 p.m. on Oct. 4 all classified and unclassified analyses and other assessments of the security situation in Benghazi, the preliminary findings of an FBI team that is due to inspect the consulate compound, and other materials, including documents on which the administration based its public assertions that the attack appeared to be a spontaneous action and not a long-planned operation.
There is little doubt that the security situation has been deteriorating for months in Bengahzi. The U.S. consulate was the target of a bomb June 6, and there were subsequent attacks on British and Tunisian diplomats that same month. In August, the offices of the Red Cross were hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. Benghazi has been the scene as well of a wave of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations.
Save Benghazi has called on Libya’s central government to withdraw the authority it’s given to militias in police matters and has called on the General National Congress to pass a law criminalizing armed militias.
That, however, is unlikely in a country where militias exercise broad powers and the central government is unable to assert authority.
In Benghazi, for example, the city’s police force went on strike over the appointment of a new security head, Col. Salah Doghman, who was to replace former deputy interior minister Wanis Al Sharif and former police head Hussein Ahmedia, who’d been fired by Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel Al for incompetence in the handling of the consulate assault.
The last straw for the central government was Sharif’s assertion that there was no organized assault on the consulate, an explanation that was derided as “ridiculous” by influential Congressman Salah Ajouda Jawdah and contradicted by the country’s top elected official, National Congress President Mohammed Magarief.
Police serving under Sharif, however, said his dismissal was intended to mask Abdel Al’s own incompetence.
“We see the decision taken by the minister of the interior as an attempt to find a scapegoat for the minister’s own failure to address the security issue and to cover up the ineptitude of his administration,” said the spokesman for a union of senior police officers, Izzedin al-Sazzani.
Both Sharif and Ahmedia refused to step down, and Doghman responded by calling for the army to remove them by force.
Meanwhile, it was reported Thursday that a number of the leaders of the attack on the U.S. consulate had escaped from Libya across the border into neighboring Egypt before they could be arrested.
Nevertheless, other chief suspects who haven’t escaped don’t appear to be fazed about being arrested, further underlining the government’s unwillingness or inability to take strong action against well-armed militias.
Ahmed Boukhatala heads the Abu Ubaidah Brigades in Benghazi, a sub-group of the larger Ansar al Shariah militia. He was interviewed by CNN in a Benghazi restaurant where he appeared relaxed. When told he was one of the main suspects in the Benghazi attack, he replied that if the Libyan authorities wanted to arrest him they could try, but it would be a losing battle for them.
Frykberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington.