A protest Friday against Libya’s dependence on ragtag militias for security turned into an attack on militia headquarters throughout Benghazi, as thousands stormed militia buildings and demanded that armed rogue groups here disband.
Among the militias targeted was Ansar al Shariah, an Islamist militant group, which Libyan and U.S. officials suspect orchestrated the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate here, killing the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, along with three other Americans. Ansar al Shariah is based in a military barracks once occupied by forces loyal to former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. On Friday, protesters set part of the barracks ablaze.
By 11:35 p.m., protesters chanting “No, no to militias,” had moved to their fourth militia building, where shooting erupted. After looting the militia building, protesters then waited for the Libyan army to regain control.
But whether the storming of militia headquarters would actually improve security in Benghazi remained unclear. Many of the militias had already cleared their buildings and had taken their weapons away by the time the protesters arrived. Indeed, no militia group appeared to seriously attempt to repeal the attacks. That protesters, and not the Libyan army, took over the militia buildings only underscored the lack of a proper security force here.
Since the end of Gadhafi’s regime, scores of militias, including Ansar al Shariah, have been in charge of security in Libya, at times at the request of the Libyan government. With many militias taking over blocks and arming and training themselves, many Libyans complained of a worsening security situation, saying the groups created in the name of liberation had become sanctioned armed thugs.
Friday’s protests were the largest in Benghazi since the 2011 uprising that led to Gadhafi’s downfall. And the city looked much like it did in 2011: Many people were armed and the sound of gunfire cracked in the evening air.