By Tim Lister and Suzanne Kelly
It might seem like Libya's Islamist militias are reeling in the face of the popular backlash that followed the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11. But Libya analysts say these groups are well-entrenched and used to operating in hostile environments. They may have melted away for now - but maybe not for long.
Before the consulate attack, there was already growing resentment against these groups in Benghazi and places like Derna further east, as reported previously by CNN.
But their autonomy was protected by the weakness of Libya's new government, generally poor security and the absence of effective security forces and a functioning judiciary.
The backlash against them has included the sacking of the Benghazi office of Ansar al-Shariah on Friday by a large crowd, and attacks by crowds on the compounds of other militia in the city.
In Derna, a town long associated with Salafi-jihadi groups, several militia - including Ansar al-Shariah and the Abu Slim Brigade - abandoned their camps, possibly fearing popular protest or U.S. military action. And in the capital, Tripoli, the army issued an ultimatum giving unauthorized militias 48 hours to withdraw from military compounds, public buildings and other property.
But it's unlikely that this will be enough to uproot Salafi brigades and assert the authority of the state, according to Libya analysts.
"Violence in Libya is evolving from predictable militaristic violence characteristic of guerrilla warfare to include Salafi-jihadi terrorism," writes analyst Geoff Porter, a long-time watcher of Islamist trends in North Africa.
These are groups "that harbor deep hostility toward the United States," he says.
Writing in the latest edition of the CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Porter perceives different goals among the different militia. Some have limited aims: they try to get a grievance addressed, get no response from the authorities, and sharply raise the stakes. One militia briefly seized Tripoli's airport in June; another attacked the prime minister's office in May.
Revenge attacks have mushroomed too - usually assassinations of former members of Moammar Gadhafi's security services. There have been about a dozen in Benghazi alone in recent months, according to local reports. Officials have also blamed Gadhafi loyalists for sabotage attacks aimed at destabilizing the new state.
The situation is aggravated by the huge pool of weapons that were once in Gadhafi's armories but which are now held by competing militia. Porter identifies the Misrata militia, connected to the current interior minister, and the Zintan Brigade, linked to the defense minister, as the most powerful.
Such violence is typical "as various factions seek to find their place in the emerging power structures," writes Porter. But the emergence of Salafi-jihadi groups is more worrisome.
Libya has history in this respect: one of the most capable jihadist groups of the 1990s was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which sought to overthrow Gadhafi and create an Islamic state. Most of its members were ultimately arrested or fled Libya - until the regime agreed to a deal with the LIFG members in 2009. They eschewed political violence and were freed, only to take up arms against Gadhafi when the revolt began early last year.
Salafist-jihadist ideology has especially found fertile ground in neglected eastern Libya, as U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens himself noted in a now-famous diplomatic cable written in 2008. Stevens was among four Americans killed in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi earlier this month. Porter describes the region as a "patchwork of cities and towns linked by potholed roads, dilapidated buildings and failing infrastructure."
Among the groups that have emerged in eastern Libya is the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades - identified to CNN by Libyan sources last week as a "prime suspect" in the attack on the consulate. The Brigades claimed responsibility for a previous IED attack against the consulate in June.
Porter says the group's name - for the blind Egyptian sheikh currently serving a prison sentence in the United States for involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center - is a clear al Qaeda reference. "But there may not be a direct affiliation with al Qaeda as of yet," he adds.
Ansar al-Shariah is also under scrutiny by U.S. intelligence officials in the wake of the consulate attack. The name translates as "Supporters of Islamic Law" but it's not an easy group to define - comprising an amorphous collection of branches and members who have multiple allegiances to various other organizations.
"Until recently there did not appear to be clear links between Ansar al-Shariah in Libya and al Qaeda," says Porter. But a Library of Congress report from August concluded that Ansar al-Shariah "has increasingly embodied al Qaeda's presence in Libya."
As for a broader al Qaeda link to the September 11 consulate attack, the jury is still out. Some U.S. officials and Western intelligence analysts suggest that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may have played a role in the attack, while others distance themselves from such assertions. AQIM has recently consolidated its position in northern Mali, after the central government lost control of an area the size of Spain.
The report from the Library of Congress said that al Qaeda central and AQIM "have sought to take advantage of the Libyan revolution to recruit militants and reinforce their operational capabilities... AQIM has reportedly formed sleeper cells that are probably connected to an al Qaeda network," it says.
U.S. officials are now focusing their investigative efforts on al Qaeda "sympathizers" who may have taken part in the attack. But again, loose affiliations and multiple allegiances make it difficult for investigators to piece together a list of suspects.
The larger question now may be whether the popular backlash against the militias can be sustained and exploited by the central government.
Porter is not optimistic. The GNC (General National Congress or government) "cannot reach a compromise with the perpetrators of the latest violence. Salafi-jihadis not only want to rid Libya of non-Muslim influence... but also refuse to recognize the very notion of a nation-state."
He concludes the new Libyan government has no choice but to confront this ideology - a near impossibility without a functioning military, according to other Libya-watchers and many Libyans themselves.