Originally published in The Times
The militant Ansar al-Sharia brigade believed to be behind Tuesday’s attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi is to be disbanded, by force if necessary, a senior source inside the Libyan Government has said.
Anger at the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff has been growing in Libya, and the Government in Tripoli has pledged to find and punish those responsible.
“We are negotiating to dismantle it [Ansar al-Sharia]”, said the source, a senior advisor to the newly elected Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur. “We don’t want bloodshed, but if they do not agree we will have to use force.”
Yesterday officials said that four men had been arrested in Benghazi in connection with the murders, all of them members of Ansar al-Sharia.
The Libyan Government has said it is still pursuing others believed to have been involved. The brigade is one of the most religiously extreme in Libya, and has called for the imposition of a strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) on the country.
Ansar al-Sharia claimed responsibility when the Tunisian consulate in Benghazi was bombed in June, saying that the attack was in response to the publication of pictures by Tunisian artists deemed offensive to Islam.
Tuesday’s attack, which took place on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, has been linked with the release of the controversial Innocence of Muslims film in the United States, which, among other things portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a paedophile.
In response to claims that it was involved in the killings – and possibly trying to deflect moves to eliminate it – Ansar al-Sharia put out a statement today denying involvement and saying that there was a “smear campaign” against it organised by the authorities.
The group also said that efforts to portray it as foreign-influenced were untrue, potentially in reference to claims that it has links with al-Qaeda.
In the past 72 hours numerous protests and vigils have been held in both Tripoli and Benghazi by Libyans condemning the murders and expressing their solidarity with the United States.
A campaign on the social networking site Twitter is under way by Libyans urging their compatriots to change their profile pictures to that of Ambassador Stevens, and there is said to be an effort by Benghazi residents to raise money to help to rebuild the US consulate there.