Mohammad Hannon, File, Associated Press
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.
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