CAIRO — The leader of an Islamist militia whose members are suspected of involvement in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last week, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, has warned that his group will consider American citizens fair game in a holy war if the United States takes action inside Libya against his group.
The statements by Ansar al Shariah leader Yousef Jehani underscore the delicate position both the United States and Libya’s central government find themselves in as they confront a crisis brought on by a group that has become a key part of the country’s security apparatus in a nation that has been unable to establish a national military or disarm the militias that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi last year.
“Libya will turn into an inferno for American troops and Americans will be legitimate targets if Washington sends troops to target any of our groups, thereby forcing Libyans to wage a holy war or jihad,” Jehani said in remarks first reported by the Reuters news agency. "If one U.S. soldier arrives, not for the purpose of defending the embassy but to repeat what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, be sure that all battalions in Libya and all Libyans will put aside all their differences and rally behind one goal of hitting America and Americans."
Ansar al Shariah has a strong presence in Benghazi, which is also a base for many other Islamist militants. Its members forced the closing of the city’s airport in the days after the consulate raid as they fired at U.S. reconnaissance drones flying over the city, possibly monitoring suspected locations of militant groups. Ansar al Shariah controls a large security compound and a hospital in the city.
The militant group’s fears that the U.S. was planning a retaliatory attack follow the deployment of the drones and two warships off the Libyan coast, as well as the sending of U.S. special forces to the country.
Jehani said that he was against the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens because the envoy “hadn’t committed any crimes in Libya.” He said that he didn’t want a confrontation with the U.S. but that his men were ready if provoked.
The Ansar al Shariah leader further denied that his group was responsible for the killings and said none of the 50 men arrested by the Libyan authorities in the wake of the attack were from his organization.
Mohammad al Bishari, the landlord of the leased consulate property, told McClatchy last week that he was present when the assault on the compound took place and that the assailants carried the flag of Ansar al Shariah. The group has also been tied to other attacks on diplomatic facilities in the Benghazi region.
The role of such groups in Libya’s security forces has become a key point of internal tension in recent weeks as the government in Tripoli attempts to assert authority over the better armed militias.
Last month, Libya’s interior minister, Fawzi Abdel Al, resigned, then rescinded his resignation, after the country’s top elected official, Mohammed Magarief, the president of the country’s new congress, questioned his ministry’s involvement in the destruction of several shrines and mosques affiliated with the moderate Sufi strain of Islam.
Magarief accused Abdel Al’s ministry, and the Supreme Security Committee, an amalgamation of militias that are supposed to fall under his control, of failing to protect several of the shrines from groups such as Ansar al Shariah, whose members follow conservative Salafi Islam. Members of the police and the Supreme Security Committee stood guard and watched as Tripoli’s Sidi Shaab Mosque and Zlitan’s Abdel Salam al Asmar shrine, 100 miles east of Tripoli, were razed by armed Salafists. Some of the attackers were reported to be serving members of the Supreme Security Committee.
In recent days, Magarief has championed the view among Libyan officials that the attack on the U.S. consulate was pre-planned by foreigners, and he has rejected the notion that it began as a demonstration against a crude video that insults the Prophet Muhammad. Protests against the video, “Innocence of Muslims,” turned violent last week in Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia.
Importantly, it was a deputy interior minister with responsibility for Benghazi security, Wanis al Sharif, who first said there had been a demonstration outside the consulate. Sharif also at first said that no one was in the mission at the time of the attack and then, after the news of the deaths of Stevens and the other Americans were announced, tried to put the blame equally on the Americans and pro-Gadhafi sympathizers. He said the alleged demonstration outside the mission over the video had been peaceful until U.S. security guards started firing – a version that has been refuted by eyewitnesses and was branded “ridiculous” by influential parliamentarian Salah Ajouda Jawdah.
Sharif, who was responsible for investigating the attack, was fired on Monday.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration appeared to be retreating from its insistence that the Benghazi attack was spurred by the video, with White House spokesman Jay Carney noting that there’s an ongoing investigation and that "the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead."
Carney said the investigation would examine whether there had been enough security at the consulate in Benghazi, in light of warnings of possible violence related to the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The Benghazi attack occurred on the 11th anniversary of 9/11.
"All I can tell you is that steps are taken, both seen and unseen, in advance of and in preparation for times like the anniversary of 9/11 when it is judged that there might be greater threats, and those steps are based on the threat assessments that we have at the time," Carney said.
According to a security guard on duty at the consulate on the night of the attack, the consulate’s outer perimeter was protected by five private security contractors and three members of a local Libyan militia when the assailants appeared and began lobbing grenades into the compound. In addition, there were an unknown number of American security contractors inside the compound. Two of those, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were killed in the attack. Sean Smith, an information technology specialist, was also killed.
Carney also said he was unaware of any advance notice that violence was increasing specifically in Libya before the attack, though news stories published by McClatchy and others over the month prior to the Benghazi assault had detailed the growing number of assaults in Benghazi and Tripoli.
Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.
Mel Frykberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.