BENGHAZI, Libya — Suspicion in last week's attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans has focused on members of a hardcore Islamist militia known for its sympathies to al-Qaida, its fierce animosity to the U.S. and its intimidation of other Muslims who don't conform to its harsh ideology.
That doesn't mean Libyan authorities will move against Ansar al-Shariah soon. The group is among the most powerful of the many, heavily armed militias that the government relies on to keep security in Benghazi.
In fact, it guards one of Benghazi's main hospitals.
Libya's militias are a legacy of last year's bloody civil war that led to the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi — and their continued power underscores the weakness of the country's new political leadership nearly a year after the war ended. With a range of ideologies, the militias arose from local groups that took up arms and battled Gadhafi's forces. Across the country, they still resist integration into the armed forces and remain in many places the sole forces keeping a fragile sense of order.
Ansar al-Shariah, which denies it was part of the attack, is not the biggest of Benghazi's militias. But it is viewed as the most disciplined and feared, with links to other militant groups in Benghazi and eastern Libya. They are also the most forceful in demanding that the new Libya be ruled by a strident and intolerant interpretation of Islam and Shariah law not far removed from al-Qaida's.
Its fighters have paraded through the streets in pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, draped with a black flag with the Islamic profession of faith, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is God's prophet" in white — which has also been used by al-Qaida and many ultraconservative Islamists.
The banner, whose origins some say date back early Muslim conquests in the 7th century, became the symbol of the past week's protests around the Muslim world against a movie made in the United States that denigrates Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Only days after the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, around 200 members of the group drove through Benghazi, brandishing automatic weapons, in a procession of cars to "champion the Prophet" in reaction to the film.
"We want Islamic Shariah laws to govern Libya or we will stage a second revolution," one bearded young member of the group at the event Friday told a reporter. "We will be a threat to America." He refused to give his name.
Over the weekend, Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif told The Associated Press that some members of Ansar al-Shariah carried out the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
"At least some of them, not necessarily the militia as a whole," he said, suggesting divisions within the group. El-Megarif said the attack had been planned well in advance to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, adding that foreign al-Qaida members were also in Libya and that he couldn't rule out that they had a role.
The U.S., which is investigating the attack alongside Libyan officials, says a different scenario may be shaping up. Rather than a plot, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said it appeared that armed gunmen hijacked what had been a spontaneous protest against the anti-Islam movie.
In either case, the militia says it did not participate "as an organization" in the protest at the consulate, though that leaves the possibility that members joined on their own. It also says none of its followers have been arrested since.
Ansar al-Shariah, whose name in Arabic means "Supporters of Shariah," broke away last summer from the February 17 Brigade, which was the main militia force in Benghazi in the fight against Gadhafi's forces. Benghazi was the first city to rebel in early 2011 and became the de facto opposition capital. Militiamen battled fiercely to defend the city from a major regime offensive — which was halted mainly by NATO airstrikes — and then they turned the tables and advanced west along the coast.
Now the militias, including Ansar al-Shariah, tout themselves as defenders of Libya's revolution
According to its leaders, Ansar al-Shariah numbers about 300 active members, though other factions say they believe it actually numbers as many as 5,000. Some of its leaders are veterans of the numerous wars in Afghanistan.
Rivalries are rife between militias, but other factions are wary of tangling with Ansar al-Shariah.
In June, it held a major parade through Benghazi to mark its founding. More than 120 of its "battle trucks" — the pick-ups with heavy machine guns bolted in the bed — proceeded through the city. At the city center, some residents pelted them with stones, shouting, "Go home!" The parade turned away to avoid a confrontation.
The group's members have been blamed for a string of recent attacks against Muslim shrines around Libya. The shrines, including tombs of religious figures, are revered by Sufis and other moderate Muslims. But Ansar al-Shariah, which denies responsibility for the attacks, and other hard-liners consider visits to the shrines as tantamount to idol worship and an affront to Islam.
Ansar al-Shariah's prestige was boosted when the militia took over security at the Jalaa Hospital, the city's main emergency hospital. Its fighters are posted at the hospital entrance and in its halls.
"The fact is that things have been going very well in the hospital since Ansar al-Shariah fighters were assigned to be in charge there," said Mohammed Qaeir, a senior member of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood in Benghazi. "Previously, the hospital and the doctors worked under the threat of violence by gunmen. This is not happening there anymore."
But he fears that the consulate attack signals divisions within the militia and its leadership, between a radical wing and a more moderate faction.
One senior figure in Ansar al-Shariah, Youssef Jihani, denied the group took part in the attack. "We never approve of killing civilians, especially those who helped us," he said the day after the attack.
Still, he reflected the group's deeply anti-U.S. sentiment. "All of America's policies are hostile to Islam," he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. "If America is waging war against al-Qaida, then al-Qaida has a right to defend itself."
"We oppose American policies because they are stained in Muslim blood," he said.
Wanis al-Sherif, formerly a senior leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, warns that alienating Islamist militias like Ansar al-Shariah could offer al-Qaida a foothold among their followers. The LIFG was an anti-Gadhafi militant group that once had training camps with Afghanistan, and many of its members have now turned to politics in the new Libya.
Decades of brutal crackdowns under Gadhafi, al-Sherif said, have left them "worried that they will live under another dictatorship that will crack down on Islamists.
"They want assurances on the nation's future, the place of Shariah laws in the new Libya," he said.
Hendawi reported from Cairo.