An Abduction in Benghazi: The Revenge of the Islamists?

Is Ansar al-Shari'a retaliating for the popular uprising that ransacked its bases? Will the violent tit-for-tat continue in the aftermath of the death of the American ambassador?

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ABDULLAH DOMA / AFP / Getty Images

A Libyan demonstrator flashes the victory sign near the burning headquarters of the hard-line Islamist group Ansar el-Sharia‘a in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 21, 2012

When a revolution in Libya erupted last year against Muammar Gaddafi, Colonel Hamid Bilkhayr was among the earliest military defectors to join the rebels. He helped organize civilian volunteers into cohesive brigades and directed units at the front. Civilian leaders used his military expertise for plotting their battlefield strategies. And all the contributions and sacrifices he made for the revolution may have saved his life Saturday, after masked gunmen kidnapped him.

The abduction took place the day after a demonstration of 25,000 to 30,000 people calling for disarming the secular and Islamist militias that overthrew Gaddafi broke out into small groups of men who seized a number of the bases belonging to those militias. Among those ransacked was a compound belonging to Ansar al-Shari‘a, an Islamist brigade believed to be behind the Sept. 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that left four dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

(PHOTOS: Benghazi: Life During Wartime)

Saturday’s events appeared to be revenge for the sacking of the militia bases. When a bearded man showed up at the colonel’s house at 8 a.m., asking for help, saying his neighborhood was still paralyzed by the violence that had gripped Benghazi on Friday, the officer naturally complied.

But when they took him to the Shari‘a Ishrin neighborhood, Bilkhayr quickly learned that he had fallen into a trap. About a dozen armed and masked men covered his head and shoved him into a car. When they reached their destination, the gunmen berated Bilkhayr for his lack of piety. “They said I don’t believe in God and the Prophet and that I am a bad person,” Bilkhayr said, hours after his release. “They were Islamic extremists who said I am not a Muslim. They said they were giving me another chance to go back to God.”

It was not only his kidnappers’ line of questioning that led Bilkhayr to conclude that they were Islamic radicals. His abductors used the literary Arabic Muslim fundamentalists known as Salafists speak, because they believe it to be the language of Muhammad and his companions. Most Arabs prefer a colloquial Arabic that no longer has what the pious call the “purity” of the language that dates back to the Koran written in the 7th century.

(MORE: The Revolt of Benghazi’s Moderates: Will the Rest of Libya Follow?)

When Bilkhayr’s captors set him on his knees, placed a gun to his head and began swearing at him, a dispute broke out between them. “One said I should not be treated like this, that I defended Benghazi when Gaddafi sent his brigades here. He might have saved my life.” The ordeal ended when one of the gunmen received a phone call. Minutes later, Bilkhayr was shoved back into the car and dropped off near a traffic circle.

Though Bilkhayr’s brush with death was averted, his troubles were far from over. When he returned home, he discovered that six of his soldiers from the First Infantry Brigade had been executed, their corpses dumped in Mashrua Quwasha, a secluded part of town where rows of trees provide privacy for couples and isolation for people seeking solace.

Suspicion immediately fell on Ansar al-Shari‘a. Though the group’s fighters evacuated their headquarters without a fight, another Islamist brigade linked to it did open fire on their besiegers. Four people died when fighters from the Rafalla al-Sahati brigade resisted attempts to overrun their barracks.

(PHOTOS: Libya’s New Regime: The Fight for Gaddafi’s Hometown)

The bodies of the six executed soldiers were found less than a mile away, shot in the head with their hands bound. Their deaths lead many in Benghazi to believe that they were killed in retaliation for Friday’s protests that left the Islamists battered and bruised. “Ansar [al-Shari‘a] killed my brother,” Muhammad Sheriff said at the funeral for his sibling Ahmad, one of the soldiers whose bodies were found in a pile of garbage.

Scorn for Ansar al-Shari‘a has united together the grieving families at the Hawari cemetery, where the six soldiers were buried. “There is no God but Allah, and Ansar Shari’a is the enemy of God,” a family shouted as their pickup truck carrying a corpse slowly meandered through the cemetery. “We don’t want any more killing,” said a man who only gave his name as Munir. “We just want the government to take over.”

But with the Islamists bent on retribution and a central government too weak to impose order, more blood will likely be shed before the violence ends.

MORE: Timeline: What Happened in Libya and How the U.S. Reacted