The Battle for Benghazi
Fred Wehrey of the Carnegie institute has just written a very detailed, very interesting, American-centric and security-centric narrative about the struggle between extreme Islamists and the security forces in Benghazi for The Atlantic online. He is brave in the way he has conducted the research and the conclusions he draws.
To enter Benghazi is to enter a city under siege. Unseen assailants spray checkpoints with automatic weapons; security men and military officers perish in booby-trapped cars. The staccato of nightly gunfire and pre-dawn explosions have assumed a customary quality. The culprits go undiscovered and unpunished.
Every day, Bukhamada’s special forces struggle for power and authority with a constellation of Islamist militias with deep roots in the city. Sa’iqa soldiers have been the targets of an assassination campaign, and Bukhamada’s own son was kidnapped in late January. The outcome of this contest will have an impact not only on the city, but also on the future of Libya’s army—and on the country’s democratic transition…..
Today, many Libyans point to the Shield project as the original sin of the National Transitional Council—a Faustian bargain that put the country on a downward trajectory. In the space of two years, the Shields rapidly became a shadow army with greater power than the country’s regular forces. The monthly government salary for a Shield member exceeded that of a regular policeman and army recruit, giving militia members or would-be recruits little incentive to join the government’s security forces…
For the Islamist militias and Shields, Bukhamada’s Sa’iqa is at once an uneasy partner and an implacable foe, in part as a result of historical memory. Under Qaddafi, the special forces spearheaded a ferocious crackdown on an Islamist uprising in Benghazi and the Green Mountains during the late 1990s. Although many leaders of that uprising fought side-by-side with the Sa’iqa during the 2011 revolution, the bad blood runs deep.
Today, many Islamists are dismissive of the Sa’iqa’s capabilities and suspicious of its motivations. Ismail Sallabi, the former commander of the Benghazi-based Rafallah al-Sahati Companies, asserted in an interview with me last spring that nothing could get done in the city without the Islamists and revolutionaries. The Sa’iqa’s ranks were filled with “drug users and womanizers,” and their contributions to security and policing were frequently heavy-handed and clumsy. “They still think they are fighting in Sirte,” he charged. “They would use Grad rockets to go after drug smugglers.” ….
I asked the 22nd Battalion commander about Benghazi’s worsening violence and what should be done about it. He shrugged. “We offered the 22nd Battalion to help Bukhamada but he declined. He said he has it under control,” he explained. And then: “I guess he’s a hero there and he doesn’t need any more heroes.”