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Extremists return to Benghazi

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By McClatchy Newspapers
Friday, June 21, 2013, 7:00 p.m.

BENGHAZI, Libya — The September deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were supposed to mark the end of Ansar al-Shariah, the extremist militia that was suspected of being behind the terrorist attack.

Three days after the popular envoy's death, hundreds of outraged Libyans stormed Ansar al-Shariah's headquarters, demanding that an Islamist country emerge from the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. They threw everyone out and set the building ablaze. Members of Ansar al-Shariah disappeared, “like sugar in water,” as one Libyan explained. The militant group's checkpoints came down around the city and its threats against residents stopped. Libya, the people of Benghazi seemed to say, would not tolerate extremism in the nation's second-largest city.

That was then. Nine months later, Ansar al-Shariah is back on the streets of Benghazi.

This time, the group is rebranding itself as a social organization, opening a health clinic and a center for Islamic exorcism. It provides aid to the poor. Its Facebook page shows the group's vehicles patrolling the streets and its members constructing buildings and handing out money to the needy. Ansar al-Shariah signs mark the clinics and the cars are emblazoned with the black Ansar al-Shariah flag. Its flag flies from many apartment balconies.

Local officials see no reason to stop the militia's return, despite accusations that its members orchestrated the Sept. 11 attack that killed Stevens and State Department computer specialist Sean Smith when the unofficial consulate they were hiding in was set ablaze. Two former Navy SEALs working for the CIA, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died hours later in a mortar attack on a nearby CIA station.

“They are offering social services after the murder of Chris Stevens,” said Col. Hamad bin Khair, commander of the 1st Brigade of the Libyan Army, based here. “They are Libyans. They have that right.” He added: “How do you know if the people working in the clinic are the same ones who killed Chris Stevens?”

It's not lost on residents that Ansar al-Shariah has been reborn and that none of the 70 men involved in the U.S. consulate attack has been charged. It reinforces their ideas about who's in charge — and it's not the nascent Libyan government.

“The government is weak. Everyone is afraid,” said Ali Tarhouni, who served as the minister of oil and finance in the transitional government in 2011 and now is president of the Central National Party. The government leadership “never really used the power the people gave them.”



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