By Elizabeth Arrott
The United States is said to be weighing the option of a military strike against those found responsible for the September 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya that killed four American embassy personnel dead, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
One of the first hurdles they face is identifying who carried out the attack. The main suspects in the case, the militant Ansar al Sharia, have denied responsibility, despite witness accounts of their involvement. They are but one of dozens of militias across Libya that lie beyond government control.
But some analysts warn of the consequences to the fledgling Libyan state should the United States intervene. The former opposition spokesman during last year’s uprising, Mustafa Gheriani, argues any justice must be served by Libya itself.
“If you want to be a country of law and not to be like Afghanistan or Pakistan, then we need to take matters through the proper channels,” Gheriani said. “It might be later date if there is a question about their strength at the present time, but definitely not to have anything irrational taking place at this moment.”
The compound attack plays large in the American presidential campaign, raising concerns the United States could act soon. But Washington also has longer term plans in Libya, including training a core Libyan military group aimed at reining in the militias.
Political analyst Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo says a danger of this tack is it could make the Libyan government appear a puppet of the Americans. It also would negate a key point of the NATO mission that helped bring the new government to power – keeping foreign troops off Libyan soil.
Sadek believes a faster and more practical solution would be a political effort to unite competing militias against extremists – a practice dubbed al sahawat, or awakening – that the United States tried in Iraq.
“It will take a long time to prepare and get a professional force ready for action and stability in the country,” said Sadek. “So the only option for them in the short term, in the immediate urgency of the matter, is to try al sahawat experience from Iraq and try to apply it in Libya,” he said.
Libya’s prime minister-designate has vowed to tackle the security problem, calling it the nation’s foremost problem.
Ali Zeidan said earlier this week the key will be an inclusive government.
But Islamist militias are not the only groups whose role is threatening to undermine Libya’s democratic future.
Human Rights Watch Wednesday presented evidence of a massacre last year of men captured with ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi by then-rebel militias.
The rights group’s emergencies director, Peter Bouckaert, said despite promises by the Libyan government to investigate, there is no evidence they have.
“They have to try to bring all of these different militias under centralized control to stop them from committing abuses but also to investigate them and to bring them to account when serious abuses are committed,” Bouchaert said. “They fought a revolution for a better Libya where people could live in security and free of the kind of fear that they lived under Gadhafi.”
He argues the greatest challenge in any post-conflict situation is to try to move from the rule of the gun to the rule of law.
One year after the death of Gadhafi, that challenge remains undiminished.