Libya was among the first to give in to the Arab Spring popular uprisings. The ensuing civil war that toppled Muammar Gaddafi resulted in the emergence of a strong Islamist movement advocating the implementation of strict Sharia law in the country.
One of the most prominent groups in Libya, Ansar Al-Sharia, whose name means “Partisans of Islamic law” in Arabic, came to the forefront after organizing an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attacks. The attack killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US nationals, drawing condemnation from the international community and earning Ansar Al-Sharia the status of a terrorist organization.
Though the group claims to have no affiliations with Al-Qaeda, it is perceived as an organization with similar tactics and objectives. Ansar Al-Sharia operates at the grass-roots levels to build a public support base. If a terrorist group has no connections with Al-Qaeda, it doesn’t mean it is any less dangerous and threatening, says Dr. Theodore Karasik, Research and Consultancy Director at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“We know that there’s been discontent in Benghazi as well as in Egypt and it’s been led by quote-unquote Muslim fundamentalists which can be translated over to the more hardened core of what would be called an Al-Qaeda type sympathizing movement, although it is not Al-Qaeda itself, it is more of a hardline Muslim fundamentalists movement,” Dr. Theodore Karasik said.
Ansar Al-Sharia operates mainly in Benghazi and denies having presence in other parts of Libya. Opposition to Muammar Gaddafi’s rule was particularly strong in eastern Libya as many people there accused him of centralizing power in the capital ofTripoli and neglecting the east socially and economically. Though there has not been an Islamist-led government after the elections, the trend of broadening Islamist movement is very alarming, says Silvia Colombo, an expert on the Middle East with the Italian Institute of Foreign Relations in Rome.
“There is a new landscape of Islamist forces, moderate and non-moderate, who are gaining prominence next to the formal institutional structure. In both cases this is something which brings the transition a step further to a certain extent because it shows that there is much going on under the surface of institutional building,” Silvia Colombo said.
In May 2014, military forces loyal to General Khalifa Belqasim Hftar launched a large-scale offensive codenamed Operation Dignity on Islamist militant groups in Benghazi, including Ansar Al-Sharia. The group’s leader, Mohammad Al-Zahawi vowed to fight back and warned the US not to intervene, threatening that “it will see worse from Libya that what it has seen so far”.