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Violence Takes Root In Post-Gadhafi Security Vacuum

A member of the Libyan security forces secures the area around the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi on Sept. 14. Benghazi, and other parts of eastern Libya, are suffering from an acute lack of security, making it vulnerable to militant violence. (AFP/Getty Images)

The deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel has highlighted the serious post-Moammar Gadhafi security vacuum in the country.

The problem is much bigger than a few rogue militants: Eastern Libya is awash with heavy weaponry; security forces are weak; assassinations are plaguing Benghazi; and the people with the biggest guns rule.

Raouf Mohammed knows all of this from personal experience, and he wears a silver ring as a reminder: It belonged to his father, Mohammed Hadiya, who was wearing it the day he was shot down outside a mosque.

Hadiya and at least 11 other former officers of Gadhafi's army have been assassinated over the past two months.

Nobody knows exactly why or by whom. But most believe it's because of their service to Gadhafi or their decision to defect.

Mohammed says his father asked his murderers, "Why?" before they shot him; they told him he was a traitor.

Hadiya, an officer in Gadhafi's army, defected last year and joined the revolt.

Raouf Mohammed's brother Nizar chimes in.

There is no security here at all, he says. The government is in Tripoli, and they ignore us, he says, adding that Libya is more than Tripoli.

The assassinations are just one disturbing sign of a breakdown in security in Libya's second-largest city. In Benghazi, there is no functioning justice system and no formal police force, and members of a government security contingent left their posts because they weren't getting paid. In the wake of the consulate attack, the deputy interior minister in charge of eastern Libya was sacked.

Fawzi Bokatif heads the powerful Feb. 17 brigade in Benghazi, which led the rebel fighters in the area against Gadhafi.

"Who is securing the streets? Nobody. The police don't do their jobs, and they still insist they are the official structure," he says. "The police [do] not fulfill their obligations."

The brigade is now one of the paragovernmental militias patrolling Benghazi. Bokatif's men were part of the rescue team for the Americans under attack last week.

Bokatif says extremist militants are armed, tribal violence is unchecked, and there is no government authority to hold anyone accountable. So people have resorted to violence and tribal law

"Everyone in Libya has weapons," he says. "It's not only Benghazi, all over Libya."

His men are unpaid fighters who have no real function in the government. But they are the only ones who appear to be securing the city.

"Nobody is protecting — nobody," he says. "There is a vacuum."

Bokatif says it isn't only a problem of the proliferation of weapons and bad governance, but also with the spreading of the Takfir ideology. Takfiris are extremists who decry other Muslims as unbelievers, or kafirs, if they don't agree with their extremist ideology.

Many of the young men who fought off the militants outside the consulate say the attackers were Takfir who accused them of being unbelievers as the assault unfolded.

Mohammed Jweifi, 24, was among those fighting the militants that night, and is the only one who will speak to NPR about it on tape.

"They say, 'You're a kafir, and you must die. You're protecting the Americans, you must be a kafir,' " he says.

Members of an extremist militia called Ansar al-Sharia have been implicated in the attack on the consulate. They are well known in Benghazi and have a base not far from the airport.

Bokatif says the government is too weak to take them on. But he says it's not something his fighters can do, either.

"This is a problem of legitimacy. If my people go there to attack them, we will have killing, have blood," he says. "Once there is blood, the government is not there, so we have to go through a tribal system and pay money."

Disputes in Benghazi are now solved with guns, kidnappings and hijackings, he says.

Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif acknowledges that there is a security vacuum. In an interview over the weekend, he said some radical groups have infiltrated security forces.

But the biggest problem, he said, is that the government has no control over the heavy weaponry that flooded Libya during the days of the rebellion.

While most Libyans are appalled by what happened at the consulate, they are also afraid that the attack was part of a trend of violence by militants that, if left unchecked, could engulf this new Libya.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

We go first this hour to Libya in the aftermath of the deadly attack on a U.S. Consulate. Libya's president claims that al-Qaida took advantage of the security vacuum in Libya and worked with local militants to carefully plan and stage the assault. The U.S. says there's no evidence the attack was planned.

But the problem is much bigger than a few militants. As NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Benghazi, eastern Libya is awash with heavy weapons. Security forces are weak, and people with the biggest guns rule.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Raouf Mohammed(ph) always wears the silver ring his father had on the day he was shot down outside a mosque.

RAOUF MOHAMMED: My father was killed.

FADEL: His father, Mohammed Hadiya(ph), and at least 11 other former officers of Gadhafi's army have been assassinated here over the past two months. Nobody knows exactly why or by whom, but most believe it's because of their service to Gadhafi or their decision to defect.

MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: My father asked them why before they shot him, Mohammed says. They called him a traitor. Hadiya was an officer in Gadhafi's army. He defected last year and joined the revolt.

NIZAR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: His brother Nizar(ph) chimes in. There is no security here at all. The government is in Tripoli, and they ignore us, he says. But Libya is more than Tripoli.

The assassinations are just one disturbing sign of a breakdown in security in the second-largest city in Libya. There's no functioning justice system, there's no formal police force and members of a government security contingent left their post because they weren't getting paid. In the wake of the consulate attack, the deputy interior minister in charge of eastern Libya was sacked.

FAWZI ABU-KATEF: Who is securing the streets? Nobody. And the police are not doing - they're not doing their job, and they still insist that, you know, they are the official structure, they are the one who should be doing so and so, but they're not doing it.

FADEL: Fawzi Abu-Katef(ph) heads the powerful February 17th Brigade in Benghazi, which led the rebel fighters here against Gadhafi. The brigade is now one of the para-governmental militias patrolling Benghazi. Abu-Katef's men were part of the rescue team for the Americans under attack last week. The ambush killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Abu-Katef says extremist militants are armed, tribal violence is unchecked and there is no government authority to hold anyone accountable. So people here have resorted to violence and tribal law.

ABU-KATEF: Everybody has. Everybody in Libya has weapons, not just in Benghazi.

FADEL: His men are unpaid fighters who have no real function in the government, but they are the only ones who appear to be securing the city.

ABU-KATEF: Nobody is protecting nobody, you know? There's a vacuum.

FADEL: Abu-Katef says it isn't only a problem of the proliferation of weapons and bad governance, but also with the spreading of the Takfir ideology. Takfiris are extremists who decry other Muslims as unbelievers or kafirs if they don't agree with their extremist ideology.

Many of the young men who fought off the militants outside the consulate say the attackers were Takfiri who accused them of being unbelievers as the assault unfolded. Mohammed Jweifi(ph) is the only one who will speak to us on the record about that night.

MOHAMMED JWEIFI: All they say, you're a kafir, and you must die. You're protecting the Americans. You must be a kafir.

FADEL: Members of an extremist militia called Ansar al-Sharia have been implicated in the attack on the consulate. They are well known in Benghazi and have a base not far from the airport. Abu-Katef says the government is too weak to take them on, but he says it's not something his fighters can do either.

ABU-KATEF: This is a problem of legitimacy. When I go, my people go there to attack them. Now we will have killing. We will have blood. Once we're getting blood, the government is not there, so we have to go through a tribal solving and pay money.

FADEL: Disputes here are now solved with guns, kidnappings and hijackings, he says. Libya's president, Mohamed el-Magariaf, acknowledged that there is a security vacuum. In an interview over the weekend, he said that some radical groups have infiltrated the security forces.

PRESIDENT MOHAMED YOUSEF EL-MAGARIAF: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: But the biggest problem, he says, is that the government has no control over the heavy weaponry that flooded Libya during the days of the rebellion against Gadhafi. While most Libyans are appalled by what happened at the consulate, they are also afraid that the attack was part of a trend of violence by militants that, if left unchecked, could engulf this new Libya. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Benghazi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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