The murder of the ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens -- along with three other U.S. citizens -- has brought Libya back into the American media spotlight. It should never have left. While our media has studiously ignored "post-conflict" Libya, the situation on the ground has steadily deteriorated, with armed militias fighting each other and the nominal government of the country for control on the ground. "Phase IV" in Libya has involved combat with tanks and heavy weaponry, continuing clashes in Tripoli and Libya's other large cities, and even the seizure of the national airport at one point. Benghazi itself is one of the most dangerous places in Libya. Not only is the city home to a militia, Ansar al-Sharia, whose leaders have linkages to al Qaeda, but in April and June 2012 "militants" carried out a series of attacks in that city on the U.N., Red Cross, the U.S. consulate, and the British consulate, all international entities that al Qaeda has specifically targeted in other countries.
Now Ansar al-Sharia has been implicated responsibility for this latest attack on the U.S. consulate. If this is true, then Libya's security problems are no longer a matter solely of local concern, but have global implications. Even before this attack there was evidence to suggest that al Qaeda was involved in Libya. Although there is no proof of al Qaeda participation in the original uprising against Qaddafi, high-ranking al Qaeda leaders did make their way to Libya at the end of 2011. Not long afterward the al Qaeda flag -- a distinctive black banner adopted officially by al Qaeda in Iraq and other affiliates -- was openly flown over public buildings; al Qaeda's version of sharia was demanded and Sufi shrines attacked; and by the spring of 2012 an al Qaeda military unit was strong enough to hold a public parade in Sirte (Qaddafi's former stronghold) featuring heavy weaponry and dozens of technicals. The entire region was in fact affected by al Qaeda's presence in Libya: AQIM openly boasted of benefiting from Qaddafi's weapons cache and many of the members of a new al Qaeda-linked group, Ansar al-Din, came out of Libya to take over northern Mali and impose al Qaeda's version of sharia on a reluctant population.
It is worth emphasizing that we are facing far more than just further chaos in Libya and the possibility of an al Qaeda terrorism problem. The assault on the Benghazi consulate was a sophisticated and complex attack, involving automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), suggesting that Ansar al-Sharia is preparing for an insurgency and not just carrying out terrorist attacks. The group's imposition of sharia and attempts at shadow governance in Benghazi (see their Facebook page for details), support this interpretation of the group's longer-term objectives.
The death of Ambassador Stevens is a wake-up call to the U.S. The Arab Spring is in the process of being hijacked by al Qaeda and we ignore the spread of violence and of al Qaeda's pernicious vision in the Middle East at our own peril.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.