Quilliam Briefing - 13 June 2012
By Noman Benotman and Emad Naseraldin
A Libyan armed group called Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks in Benghazi, targeting the ICRC headquarters and the US diplomatic offices in the city, amongst others. The brigade is named after “The Blind Sheikh”, Omar Abdul Rahman, currently serving a life sentence in North Carolina for his alleged connections to the 1993 World Trade Centre bombings. The group is also responsible for the recent attack on the British Ambassador’s Convoy, on 11 June and for a second attack on the ICRC offices in the city of Misrata on 12 June which has led to the injury of a young Libyan, the son of the owner of the complex, and has caused material damage to the organization’s building.
The group claims that the bomb attacks on the American diplomatic offices on 5 June were carried out to avenge the death of Abu Yahya Al-Libi, a leading Al-Qaida official who was killed in a US attack on a militant compound in Mir Ali, North Waziristan. The group said that the attacks came as a response to the “use of American drones in Libyan skies” and promised to continue targeting the US and “the enemies of Islam in the future as long as security is not achieved in the land of the Muslims”. In a statement, the group added that the attack was carried out while the Americans were preparing for the visit of a US State Department official to the consulate.
Unlike the bomb attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and on the ICRC offices in Misrata, the two other targets were hit by rocket propelled grenades. The attack on the ICRC mission in Benghazi on 22 May was carried out after the group accused the organization of distributing Bibles and facilitating missionary lectures aiming to convert Libyan Muslims to Christianity, especially those belonging to the community of Tawergha. The group claim that the ICRC is using its displaced and vulnerable people for missionary purposes and it has avoided using anti tank rocket launchers in an attempt to warn the preachers and to ensure the safety of Muslims that might have been in adjacent offices. The group has also issued a series of demands to the ICRC, calling on the organization to stop the distribution of bibles, to remove its cross emblem and to close its offices in Libya. The other RPG attack that targeted the British ambassador’s convoy was fired at the front of the vehicle carrying the ambassador, from a short distance of 300 meters from the British consulate, and led to the injury of two British protection officers.
This series of attacks mark a direct assault on Western targets operating in the country and ignore the immunity granted to foreign diplomats. They were all carried out by the same group which has been anonymous until recently and is becoming active in a city that serves as a haven to various militant Islamist groups. The groups language and choice of targets reflect a Jihadist influence and the timeframe of attacks shows that the group has been following and actively involved in gathering information about the activities of the diplomatic missions in the country. The group has also been targeting neutral humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC whose activities have been fully supported and approved by the Libyan authorities and civil society.
The recent events in Libya underline the fragile security situation in the country and the difficulties faced by the Libyan authorities in creating a stable environment, thus generating a security vacuum ready to be exploited by various militant groups. Some of these groups are radical Islamists directly influenced by al-Qaeda, such as the Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade. These groups take advantage of the accessibility to weapons, explosives and combat facilities available in the country since the Libyan revolution. Inspired by a Jihadist ideology, the group can also increase its impact and attract dozens of Libyans who were previously involved in fighting to overthrow the Gaddafi regime.
The Libyan authorities still face a serious gap in their attempt to control the security situation between the bureaucratic and the operational levels. This is reflected by the authorities’ difficulty to ensure security when operating as disintegrated government bodies. While the country is preparing for its transitional parliamentary elections to be held on 7 July, the existence and the outreach of extremist militant groups could threaten the process of safe and democratic elections. Previous attacks carried out by al-Qaeda’s networks worldwide, in Iraq, Afghanistan, France and Madrid, have taken place amid electoral processes and the recurrence of similar attacks might be inevitable without an acceptably established level of law and order. The international community must establish direct channels with the Libyan authorities to address the security issues and to offer the necessary assistance needed to facilitate an easier transition of power in the country. Political dialogue between government officials and Islamist armed groups might be considered as a means of ensuring recovery, and the international community is expected to consider various methods of assistance that they can offer the Libyans in their first post-Gaddafi elections.