Mysterious Killings Hit Libyan City of Benghazi

An Islamist leader suspected in the attack on the U.S. consulate is the latest target for assassination. By Jamie Dettmer

01.08.13 9:45 AM ET

In the four months since heavily armed attackers assaulted the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Libya has gone from wild to unruly. Police stations have been sacked; the building housing the public prosecutor was bombed on New Year’s Eve—for the third time—and, now, a spate of mysterious killings and assassinations attempts is spreading fear.

Men walk downtown in Benghazi after evening prayers, Libya, Monday, May 16, 2011.  Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced Monday that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity.  (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Rodrigo Abd/AP

On Monday assailants targeted a Libyan Islamist leader who has admitted he was present during the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September, planting a bomb under his car that detonated early, killing one of the would-be assassins and injuring another, say Benghazi police. The target of the attack, Ahmed Abu Khattala, 41, who took part in the uprising that ended the decades-long dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, has been linked to Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist group that American intelligence officials suspect was behind the assault on the consulate in September.

With the city engulfed in violence, and the authorities struggling to contain the chaos, the Libyan inquiry into what happened the night of Stevens’s death has stalled. “The authorities couldn’t do anything, even if they could categorically prove who was behind the attack—they don’t have the force to be able to make arrests,” says a European diplomat based in Tripoli.

Over the weekend, the president of Libya’s Congress, Mohamed al-Magarief, claimed on state television that he’d survived an assassination attempt mounted on Saturday in the southern desert city of Sabha. He said three of his bodyguards had been wounded in three hours of clashes. It isn’t clear whether Magarief was being targeted or whether he was just caught up in more generalized fighting in the increasingly lawless country.

The country’s leaders have promised to restore order to Benghazi but have so far been unable to stop the killings and score settling that divides the city. More than 20 senior security and intelligence officials were murdered last year, including Benghazi’s police chief who was shot dead in November in a brazen assassination that underscores the scale of the security challenge. Although two men were arrested in connection with the slaying, the inquiry hasn’t progressed much after the assault on police stations in the city. Last week, masked men dragged a senior police officer from his car at a junction, abducting him, some believe, because he was about to name suspects behind the murder of Benghazi police chief.

Abu Khattala, the Islamist leader who narrowly escaped the attempt on his life, told Reuters that, while he was at home, two men had tried to put a homemade bomb under his car. “One man ran away, the other died,” he said. The motive for the attack is unclear though police confirmed his account. “It seems the men who attempted the assassination were trying to avenge the death of their relative,” said Lt. Col. Younes Ahmed.

U.S. government sources say they’re investigating Abu Khattala for last year’s consulate attack, but top Libyan authorities have told The Daily Beast that the Islamist leader has not been questioned in connection with the assaults on the consulate and on a nearby CIA annex.

Abu Khattala, for his part, has admitted he was outside the consulate as it came under attack by a heavily armed group of gunmen. But he has repeatedly insisted to reporters that he was not a ringleader and didn’t participate in the fighting or the sacking of the U.S. mission. He says he helped later to secure the release of some Libyan guards who’d been fighting with the Americans.

However, he has never renounced the attack and has openly stated that he believes democracy is contrary to Islamic law. He has also said that although he’s not a member of al Qaeda, he’s sympathetic to the terrorist group’s aims.

The failure of the Libyans to question Abu Khattala over the consulate attack has infuriated U.S. intelligence officials. Privately, Libyan officials concede that their investigation is hamstrung, not only by the absence of experienced investigators and a functioning police, but also by the lack of authority the central government wields in Benghazi where militias exert the real clout.

Tripoli authorities have tried to shut down what they describe as rogue militias in Benghazi and to license other brigades to help enforce order and to encourage them to throw in their lot with a fledgling national security regime. But rogue militias such as Ansar al-Sharia still operate and the “licensed” militias have retained their autonomy and often don’t heed what they are asked to do by the ministers of defense and interior.

Tripoli officials say Ansar al-Sharia has been involved with several bombings and assassinations, but the brigade denies any connection with killings.