Libya’s New Crisis: A Wave of Assassinations Targeting Its Top Cops

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Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters

Libyan police officers carry the body of Colonel Faraj al-Dersi, head of the Benghazi police force who was assassinated by gunmen, from the morgue in the Libyan city of Benghazi on Nov. 21, 2012

When Muhammad bin Halim stepped out of his front door in Benghazi one September morning, he waved at his neighbor before walking toward his candy-apple-red Hyundai. When the head of the financial-crimes unit in the Libyan Interior Ministry opened the door, a bomb exploded, sending him to the ground and showering him with debris. Luckily, he was uninjured; the same is not true for many of his colleagues.

A wave of assassinations targeting security officials has become the latest setback for a country still reeling from a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead. Eight months of a revolutionary war in 2011 decimated Libya’s already deeply flawed civic institutions. With no security organizations to ensure order and an ineffective justice system unable to prosecute suspects, Libyans fear their country is slowly crumbling around them.

(PHOTOS: Benghazi: Life During Wartime)

Around midnight on Nov.21, three gunmen jumped out of a car and pumped eight bullets into Colonel Faraj al-Dersi, temporary head of the Benghazi Police Department. Days earlier a caller into a local radio station threatened to kill al-Dersi, claiming his group had been following him. At a mourning tent outside his house Thursday, grieving relatives lamented his passing. “He went out of his way to help people and he gave back,” said his son Muhammad. On Friday, a colleague of al-Dersi’s in the Benghazi police force said that two American investigators had visited him to discuss the killing.

Al-Dersi was the latest security official to die in the line of duty. More than 20 have been killed in car bombs and shootings this year, mostly in the eastern city of Benghazi, once the center of the rebellion that toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi but now dominated by rival militias. Some, like Colonel Adil Baqramawi, were targeted for their links to the Gaddafi regime. But most of the deceased worked with the revolutionaries who toppled him.

“There are elements who want to disturb security,” says Wanis al-Sharif, an Interior Ministry official responsible for eastern Libya. “It is obvious that Takfir wa al-Hijra is behind this,” he says, referring to an extremist Islamist movement prevalent in Libya that declares certain fellow Muslims infidels and hence permissible to kill.

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American and Libyan officials believe such Islamic extremists were responsible for the Sept. 11 attack as well. In the chaos that followed Gaddafi’s fall, these tight-knit ideological groups exert a great deal of influence on Libyan society. Today, they seek to prevent the emergence of strong security services that could curtail their activities. “They want to frighten the security services to prevent them from becoming tough enough to stop them,” al-Sharif says.

But al-Sharif and others believe another culprit lies behind assassinations targeting army officers — the very rebels who spearheaded the revolution. Their militias fear the emergence of a national army will force them to disband, thus eroding both their influence and stature in the new Libya. “There are unsatisfied militias that don’t want things to succeed,” explains Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, deputy chairman of the former interim government. “If an army is created, they will be the biggest losers.”

But the biggest loser today is a Libyan state stumbling from one crisis to the next. The government has not investigated the bombings and no one has been prosecuted. “We are capable of stopping these attacks, but the government doesn’t help us,” complains bin Halim who survived the assassination attempt. “We’ve requested things from the government but haven’t received enough. We are lucky if we get walkie-talkies.”

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Both the interim government that sprouted up during the revolution and the elected body that replaced it have failed to build the institutions necessary to establish law and order. These failures are largely due to Gaddafi’s quixotic policies of state devolution, dismantling the control of the central government in certain areas while turning over the responsibilities of governance to municipalities. Gaddafi implemented such changes to eliminate a bureaucracy he believed was stymieing his revolutionary program. A politicized justice system with no real power took its cue from Gaddafi’s political henchmen. Today prosecutors and judges are unsure how exactly to try cases or where to even begin the process. “We are learning life from zero again, and that includes all the judicial people too,” notes Salah Sanussi, a political-science professor at Garyounis University in Benghazi.

With so many challenges ranging from disbanding the militias to learning Civics 101, Libya’s politicians are overwhelmed. But that does not deter bin Halim: “This bombing won’t stop me from protecting the Libyan people. I will keep protecting them, and we will arrest these people and try them fairly in court,” he says. Libya’s postrevolution aspirations for peace and stability hinge on that resolve.

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