The Bomb Attacks in Libya: Are Gaddafi Loyalists Behind Them?

Or are the jihadists? The incidents pile up even as the newly elected government has not quite established a security regimen.

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Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters

The car of Abdelahim Rifai, first secretary at the Egyptian consulate, is towed away after an improvised explosive device on it exploded in front of his residence in Benghazi, Libya, Aug. 20, 2012.

When a bomb planted under a car exploded in a hotel parking in Benghazi last June, residents dismissed fears their city would be transformed into an urban battlefield.  “Libya won’t become Iraq,” said Abdallah Faraj as a fire crew extinguished the flames. A year later a string of bombings has kindled worries that this historically quiet desert country is facing a surge in violence. And it is unlikely to end soon as an interim government which did little to address security concerns having handed power to an elected government yet to find its footing.

Just this week two car bombs planted outside security installations in the capital of Tripoli resulted in two deaths. The next day another bomb placed under the vehicle of an Egyptian diplomat exploded but caused no casualties. Libyan authorities were quick to point the blame at supporters of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi. Though he was killed at the end of last year’s eight month revolution, he still commands silent admiration in many parts of Libya.

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“We know that Gaddafi loyalists are behind these bombings” says a source close to the country’s newly elected president Muhammad Muqaryef.  In the last few months, the security services have intensified the campaign against the late dictator’s loyalists in strongholds such as Bani Walid and Tarhuna. In a recent interview with TIME, Prime Minister Abdel Rahmin al-Kib noted that abomb making cell in Tripoli was captured, yielding much information about how the loosely organized cells operate.

Security officials note that senior Gaddafi regime figures in neighboring countries of Algeria, Egypt and Niger are behind the budding insurgency.  At the top of their list are Gaddafi’s son Saadi in Niger and his nephew Ahmad Gaddaf al-Damm in Egypt. “We know these people are sending in large quantities of money and support to the loyalists,” explains Colonel Khamid Bilhayr of the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Residents from cities like Bani Walid have reason to be angry with the new government. Gaddafi drew on its inhabitants to staff key positions in his security services.  It was the last city outside of Gaddafi’s birthplace of Sirte to fall to the rebels; and his son SaIf al-Islam passed through after the regime collapsed. In January, residents attacked a military camp associated with the interim government on the outskirts of the city.  Meanwhile, other parts of the country have seen loyalists tortured and persecuted.  “Beatings and other ill-treatment are common,” Amnesty International noted in its report entitled Detention Abuses Staining the New Libya.

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Some however believe jihadists are behind the bombings because many of the attacks have singled out Western targets such as the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and convoys carrying the British ambassador and the United Nations special envoy to Libya. An anti-Gaddafi group called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) waged a campaign against him between 1995-8.  Following its defeat, many cadres fled to Afghanistan where they mingled with al-Qaeda operatives. Though the LIFG’s leaders have embraced the democratic process, some fringe elements oppose it.  Other Libyans traveled to Iraq to fight American forces.  Records captured there by the United States military at an al-Qaeda safe house revealed that more foreign suicide bombers came from the eastern Libyan city of Darna than any other in the Arab world.

Today Western intelligence sources believe Libyan and foreign jihadists have gravitated to the city, exploiting the country’s political instability to establish training camps. The Umar Abd al-Rahman Brigades, a murky group named for the blind sheikh convicted of conspiring to blow up American landmarks in 1995, has claimed credit for some of the attacks. Libyan security officials however dismiss the claims that the country has been transformed into a jihadist Mecca. “(The Umar Abd al-Rahman Brigades) is a name created by the loyalists who are trying to create friction between Libya and our friends who helped us in England and America,” claims Colonel Bilhayr.

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Some Libyan analysts believe the government has found a convenient scapegoat in the disgruntled loyalists.  “It’s easy for the government to blame Gaddafi supporters for the violence,” explains Anas El Gomati, Director of Governance and Security at Al Sadeq Institute.  But the real culprit is government negligence he says.  “It’s a case of violence in a vacuum.”

The National Transitional Council (NTC), the interim government that overthrew Qaddafi received low marks for its handling of the post revolution security situation.  It failed to stabilize the country and demobilize the morethan 100,000 fighters who toppled the former regime.  “The problem is that Libya is awash in groups with grievances against the central authorities combined with easy access to guns, money, and bomb making materials,” notes Jason Pack, a researcher of Libyan history at Cambridge University.

Though a new government has taken over for the NTC, it will be months before it has put in place ministers and security officials to tackle the security dilemma.  But until the government does, its enemies will have more time to reinforce their terrorist infrastructure and plot additional attacks.

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