The 11 September murder in Benghazi of four senior US diplomats, including the Ambassador Christopher Stevens, precipitated a well-managed surge against the heavily armed militia who have remained beyondgovernment control since Gadaffi was ousted. But its success was short-lived, suggesting that the Libyas recently-elected leaders will need to find new strategies for dealing with its rebels within.
Last weeks backlash against Benghazis three strongest militias saw Military police and ordinary citizens acting in concert.The extreme Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia almost certainly behind the murders were forced to abandon their offices and weapons and leave town.
The leaders of the other two militias the 17 February Brigade and the Rafaala al-S'hati Brigade were replaced by men appointed bythe Ministry of Defence.
These decisive actions demonstrated the resolve of Libyas newUS-educated Prime Minister, Mustafa Abu-Shagour, to deal with the countrys chaotic security situation. He decreed that some militia would have to surrender their weapons and disband, while others could come under government control as part of the state apparatus.
This policy contains the seeds of its own failure, largely due to the ambiguity as to which militias are acceptable as future partners and which are not. Some armed groups are closely linked to the government such as the Zintan militia, which is still holding Saif al-Islam Gadaffi, and which is headed by Osman al-Jueili, Minister of Defence in the NTC. That Abu-Shagour has yet to name his cabinet is another aspect of Libyas on-going administrative chaos.
An additional problem is that the government has been in the habit of contracting the services of some militias to perform security duties for the state, such as policing ballot stations during the recent elections.
There are many reasons here for armed groups, who played a major role in the uprising, to cry foul.
And while the crackdown in Benghazi may have taken the militias by surprise, its impact seems to have been short-lived.
This week, a group of Islamist fighters were able to attack the Tripoli hotel in which a newly arrived group of Americans were housed. The group were there to investigate Christopher Stevens death.
Suggesting a continued refusal by Libyas Islamists to accept a secular leadership, the militants shouted, There is no god but God, and Abu Shagour is the enemy of God as they attacked the hotel.
Meanwhile the fighters in the 17 February and Rafaala al-S'hati Brigadeshave simply refused to take orders their new, government-imposed, leaders. There is widespread scepticism as to whetherthe government-controlled security apparatus has been sufficiently purged of Gadaffi men.
Reports on the ground suggest that the militias are back in control in Benghazi but that the al-Qaida linkedAnsar al-Shariaare conspicuous by their absence.Rather than celebrating this as a victory, I feel the fledgling government should consider it somewhat ominous and reconsider how to deal with militant Islamist groups in general.
It is likely that the Ansar al-Sharias fighters have simply dispersedrather than engage in a fight they perceived as without purpose and which they were likely to lose.
Some fighters will go underground, where they will be very difficult to track, others will have left the country to fight elsewhere for a season there are on-going Islamist operations in Mali and Nigeria, for example, while hundreds, if not thousands of Libyans have gone to fight in Syria. Others will have relocated internally, to otherIslamist strongholds in Dirna and Misrata, for example.
The tactic of relocating, only to return to an existing logistical infrastructure when the situation is more favourable, is referred to as hijra[migration] by jihadists and has become a typical defence strategy for al-Qaida related groups, as I describe in my new book After bin Laden: al-Qaida the Next Generation.We have seen the return of al-Qaida, having been apparently routed, in Iraq among many other examples discussed in my book. Ansar al-Sharia are, then, highly likely to return to Benghazi.
Clearly a situation whereby rival militias, armed to the teeth, act as de facto military, police and judiciary forces in various parts of the country, is untenable. But by going for a confrontational rather than inclusive approach, the new government may have made a mistake which could bring Libya back to the brink of civil war and offer opportunities for the ancient regime to regain a foothold by joining forces with disaffected militias.
The close involvement of the US in the recent clampdown, as well as the presence of US warships and more than twenty drones,may be a further cause for resentment and disappointment among those who celebrated the first free elections for forty years and had every hope that the new Libya would be free foreign interference.
Manyalready fear a replay of the situation in Afghanistan where President Karzai is seen to be closer to Washington than to his own people. Libyas new President Magariefwas the first leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a CIA-trained and funded body established in 1981 to oppose the Gadaffi regime.
Disappointment with the post-revolutionary political landscape is potentially destabilizing. Worse, it could play into the hands of groups like Ansar al-Shariaaby creating more, not less, sympathy for the extremists.
Armed groups of all persuasions, socialists to Islamists, were crucial to the battle against Gadaffi. Somehow they must all be incorporated into the fabric of the new Libya. It will not be an easy job.
After bin Laden: al-Qaida, the Next Generation is published by Saqi books on 3 October