By CNN's Paul Cruickshank and Nic Robertson
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the shooting death of American teacher Ronnie Smith on a morning jog in Benghazi Thursday, but a leading Libyan terrorism analyst believes it was most likely the work of groups linked or sympathetic to al Qaeda.
Libya’s Interior Ministry said four unidentified assailants in a black Jeep opened fire on Smith, killing him instantly.
“You need to analyze the target,” Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, told CNN. “It was most likely he was targeted because of his nationality, and the groups most interested in doing that are al Qaeda and local Jihadists allied with them in Benghazi.”
Benotman points to a 17-minute Arabic language video released last week in which American al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn called for al Qaeda supporters in Libya to take revenge for the capture by U.S. special forces of veteran Libyan al Qaeda operative Abu Anas al Libi in Tripoli in October.
“I say to the people of Libya in particular and the sons of the Ummah in general: Do not leave this criminal cowardly act to pass without punishment,” Gadahn stated, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence group.
Al Libi's capture also prompted calls for revenge by militant outfits in Libya. A Facebook page entitled “Benghazi is Protected by its People” reportedly called for Americans to be abducted.
Groups sympathetic to al Qaeda have a significant presence in Benghazi, most notably Ansar al-Sharia, an umbrella group that includes militant outfits suspected of launching the attack that killed four Americans in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.
Earlier this week in a Libyan television interview, Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi, a leading figure in Ansar al-Sharia, described the attack on the U.S. consulate as “revenge” by Muslims against the West and castigated the Libyan government for "crying" over the attack, but denied the group had any role in the 2012 attack.
Since then, Ansar al-Sharia has entrenched and extended its presence in eastern Libya. According to a recent analysis by Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East policy, by the summer of this year, the group had built up a presence as far west along the coast as Adjdabiya and Sirte by offering locals social welfare services.
But a backlash against the group has gathered force in recent weeks by locals tired of being oppressed, extorted, and bullied by its fighters. The residents of Benghazi and Derna have taken to the streets to protest their presence. Last week, clashes erupted in Benghazi between the Libyan army and Ansar al-Sharia after militants affiliated with the group beat a local man at a checkpoint they controlled in the city. On Sunday a clinic belonging to the group was bombed in Benghazi.
“We’re talking about a huge rejection of the Islamists. For the most part these are ordinary civilians protesting against their presence, often armed with nothing more than cell phone cameras,” Benotman told CNN.
Benotman believes it is possible Islamist militants in Benghazi targeted Smith to try to restore their popularity - and deflect attention from the growing criticism of their activities – by provoking the United States into a heavy-handed response. “But it won’t work – people are fed up with them,” he said.
Given the weakness of Libya’s central government and army, Benotman believes that despite the recent backlash, there is a long road ahead in the battle to free eastern Libya from the grip of Islamist militias. According to his sources, after the attack on the U.S. consulate, militant groups began to move fighters and weapons away from Benghazi and Derna to the remote “Green Mountains” between the two towns. He said jihadists currently operate six to seven training camps in the area outside Derna, which also house foreign fighters, including jihadists previously based in northern Mali.
Al Qaeda linked jihadists also have a significant presence in southern Libya, running three camps south of Sabha, according to regional security sources. Jihadists who previously operated in northern Mali, including Moktar Belmokhtar, the Algerian leader of a Saharan al Qaeda affiliate, are believed to be now present in the "Salvador Pass," the triangle border region between Libya, Algeria and Niger.
The war in Syria has energized Libyan jihadists and provided them with new networking opportunities within the broader al Qaeda network. Hundreds of young fighters are thought to have traveled from eastern Libya to fight in Syria. Those who come back are not only battle-hardened but armed with new connections to jihadists from across the Arab world.
"It's going to take at least five years for any government to win this fight," Benotmam told CNN.
CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.