TRIPOLI, Libya — An estimated 200 heavily armed Islamists destroyed 30 graves at a historic Turkish school in Tripoli’s old city early Wednesday and an unspecified number of other mosques also were attacked, further signs that Libya’s NATO-installed government is facing a major challenge from extremists less than a month after the first elections in this country in 50 years.
Details of the destruction at the Othman Pasha Madrassa, a boarding school, were sparse, but school staff said the attackers also damaged as many as 1,000 books they found on the premises and destroyed a tree that the attackers said people had been worshipping in contravention of Islamic teachings.
The attack at the school, which was founded in the 19th century by a Turkish official who is now buried there along with members of his family, was another in a string of assaults that have targeted mosques and other sites associated with Sufism, a mystical brand of Islam that some conservative Muslims consider heretical.
On Tuesday, Libya’s interior minister, Fawzi Abdel Al, said that heavily armed Islamists posed a serious threat to Libya’s security. He said he was withdrawing the resignation that he’d tendered after the General National Congress, the elected assembly that now rules Libya, criticized him for failing to protect several Sufi shrines and mosques that were destroyed over the weekend.
Members of the police and the Supreme Security Committee, an amalgamation of militias that is the country’s military, stood guard and watched as armed Salafists, followers of a fundamentalist strain of Islam, razed Tripoli’s Sidi Shaab Mosque and the Abdel Salam al Asmar shrine in Zlitan, 100 miles east of Tripoli, over the weekend. Some of the attackers were reported to be serving members of the Supreme Security Committee.
“If we deal with this using security we will be forced to use weapons, and these groups have huge amounts of weapons,” Abdel Al said. “They are large in power and number in Libya. I can’t enter a losing battle to kill people over a grave."
Who exactly is behind the attacks is unclear. The IHS global information company, which specializes in geopolitical risk and security issues, tied the rise of armed Salafist groups in Libya to a broader trend of radical Islamism in the region.
Suspected jihadi groups also have been accused of being behind recent attacks on foreign interests and Libyan security bases, as well as the assassination of dozens of former high-ranking supporters of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was forced from power a year ago after a five-month NATO bombing campaign.
There is little doubt, however, that fundamentalist militia groups, and the other militias making up the Supreme Security Committee, have become a significant threat to Libya’s security and future since Gadhafi fell a year ago.
Militia groups still control large swaths of Libya, and while they are all supposedly overseen by the Supreme Security Committee, they have varying loyalties and competing ideologies.
Libya’s interim National Transitional Council, which governed Libya after the revolution until it handed control to the General National Congress after July’s elections, formed the Supreme Security Committee in November in an unsuccessful attempt to bring the militias under a central authority. Similarly, the General National Congress’ Interior Ministry under Abdel Al appears also to have failed in subsuming the militias into Libya’s other security forces.
The Supreme Security Committee’s authority also is being challenged by the Libyan National Shield, a group made up of militia members from the eastern part of the country.
Analysts say the militias control the lion’s share of weapons in the country and that they operate independently of the Libyan government and Libya’s weak military and police forces.
“Libya is awash in weapons, ranging from bullets and mortars to torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles,” said a recent report by the Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
Concern has been expressed internationally about Libya’s heavy armaments falling into the hands of Islamists fighting in regional conflicts.
Libyan weapons also are reaching other Islamist militants in Africa. Nigeria’s defense minister, Olusola Obada, said that weapons traced to Libya have been captured from militants belonging to that country’s Boko Haram terrorist group, and news reports have said that a key leader of al Qaida in the Mahgreb, the North Africa affiliate of the group founded by Osama bin Laden, was recently seen buying weapons in Libya.
Libyan weapons also have been reported in the Sinai, where Egyptian forces recently battled extremists after an attack that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead, and have been tied to the takeover of northern Mali by Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists.
Frykberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.