CAIRO — The attack Tuesday on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was the climax to weeks of rising insecurity in Libya that saw assassination attempts against government officials, standoffs between militias, car bombings in the capital and threats against diplomats, including Americans.
The increasing instability caused the U.S. State Department in late August to warn Americans against all but essential travel to Libya. It’s unclear whether that warning led to any change, at least outwardly, in the security procedures at the consulate, which was as much the seat of the U.S. diplomatic presence in that country as the embassy in Tripoli.
When the mob of gunmen arrived at the consulate, a rented two-building complex at the end of a long road in a residential neighborhood of Libya’s second-largest city, there were no U.S. Marines stationed outside to ward them off; U.S. consulates throughout the world are not routinely provided with Marine guards.
In recent months, threats against foreign embassies from Islamic extremists had become a regular feature of Libyan news reports, and attacks on foreign diplomats happened with surprising regularity. In June, a British diplomatic convoy was attacked, and last month gunmen in Tripoli attempted to seize a vehicle carrying U.S. Embassy staff, though it remains unclear whether that attack was an attempted carjacking or an effort to kidnap the embassy staffers. Robberies and carjackings have spiked in Libya as general security has deteriorated in the year since Moammar Gadhafi was toppled.
At 4 a.m. Sunday, two bombs were thrown at the Benghazi home of a military commander in Sebha, 40 miles south of Tripoli. Only one went off, the other failed to explode. Nobody was hurt.
But other Benghazi attacks have been deadly. Earlier this summer, a Libyan military intelligence officer was killed when the car he and a colleague were traveling in blew up in Benghazi, the same day several large arms caches were uncovered by security forces in the eastern city. The intelligence officer’s colleague was seriously injured.
Fourteen other current and former military officials, many of them defectors from Gadhafi to the rebels, have been assassinated in Benghazi so far this year, and there have been numerous other attempted assassinations. Libyan intelligence officials allege that a hit list containing more than 100 names has been drawn up, most likely by Islamists, though Gadhafi loyalists haven’t been ruled out as the perpetrators of some of the attacks.
Libyan security and intelligence buildings in Benghazi also have been bombed or have been the targets of attempted bombings over the last year.
Tripoli has also seen a rise in violence. In the last two months, five car bombs exploded in and around the capital, killing two people and injuring more. Several other car bombs were deactivated before they could explode. Gadhafi loyalists were behind the rigged vehicles, which were planted outside or near military or security-related buildings.
In other violence, conservative Islamists known as Salafists over the past month have attacked and destroyed several shrines, graves and mosques of the Sufi branch of Islam. Members of the police and the Supreme Security Committee, which oversees the country’s nascent military, watched as Tripoli’s Sidi Shaab Mosque and the Abdel Salam al Asmar shrine in Zlidan, 100 miles east of Tripoli, were razed by armed Salafists. A mosque in Misrata, 90 miles east of Tripoli, was also destroyed.
Some of the attackers were reported to be serving members of the Supreme Security Committee, an amalgamation of militias and Libyan security forces. Some members of the government accused Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel Al, whose ministry oversees the country’s police functions, of collusion in the desecrations.
Emboldened by the lack of state intervention, the Salafists attacked several other mosques near Benghazi and Tripoli last week, though local residents fought back, killing several Salafists and injuring more. The Islamists have promised revenge.
Armed religious vigilantes have also warned Libyan women to dress more conservatively and cover their hair, while others are pushing for gender segregation in educational institutions. Several days ago, groups of Islamists targeted women with uncovered hair in several coffee shops in Tripoli. The women had their hair pulled and were warned not to go out at night without male relatives.
During the last few weeks, other acts of violence have included a militia, allegedly comprising Gadhafi loyalists, setting up a fake checkpoint on the road to Tripoli international airport. In what was said to be a dispute between several militias, one man was shot dead and seven others abducted when a vehicle carrying rivals was stopped and searched.
Another group of armed militia members forced the joint Libyan-Spanish oil company Akakus to significantly reduce its oil production in southwestern Libya when they attacked personnel from the company, temporarily abducting one of them. The militia members had been employed by the oil company as security guards.
In another recent incident, a group of armed men was arrested in Tripoli after a failed attempt to sell four SAM-7 missiles and five mortars. The rockets reportedly had been stolen from Tripoli’s Hamza military base. Many militia members are involved in the selling of arms on the black market to Islamic extremists from neighboring countries.
One of Misrata’s largest commercial centers was destroyed by arsonists who doused it in gasoline. Firefighters attempting to battle the blaze were shot at.
Meanwhile, militias meting out their own forms of justice still abuse, kill and abduct people from sub-Saharan Africa, accusing them of being Gadhafi sympathizers. Militia members guarding a refugee camp in Homs, east of Tripoli, recently shot dead three African migrants after the migrants complained about conditions in the camp.
Frykberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.