The tragic assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was the latest in a series of attacks by the country’s increasingly active Salafis. In late August, armed Salafi groups demolished Sufi shrines, mosques, and mausoleums in Tripoli, Misrata, and Zliten.  Earlier this year, Salafis desecrated British World War II graves, attacked the Tunisian consulate over an art exhibit in Tunis they deemed offensive, bombed the offices of the International Red Cross, and detonated an improvised explosive device at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.  But such attacks are hardly proof of Salafism’s growing influence over the country.  Rather, they are symptoms of an intense re-composition and fractionalization of the movement, between quietist, “politico,” and militant strands.  More importantly, they reveal the Salafis’ anguished search for relevance in a country that is already socially conservative, but that has soundly rejected dogmatic political actors in favor of technocratic ones. 

In the July 7 elections for the General National Congress (GNC), Libyan voters effectively shunned the “politico” current of Libyan Salafism represented by the al-Watan party—which counted former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) emir Abd al-Hakim Bilhaj as its most prominent luminary—and Umma al-Wasat, whose candidates included LIFG figures such as Sami al-Saadi and Abd al-Wahhab al-Ghayid, the brother of slain al-Qaeda deputy Abu Yahya al-Libi. Tellingly, Umma al-Wasat secured only one seat; al-Watan, zero. Bereft of the political platform of Egypt’s al-Nour party and lacking the stark secular-Islamist social divide that has enabled Tunisian Salafis to play the role of provocateur, militant Salafis in Libya are trying to muscle their way to prominence using violence. The country’s rich Sufi heritage (regarded by Salafis as anathema and idolatrous) has been the most recent object of their wrath. But the history of Salafi militancy extends farther back and encompasses a broad array of causes and targets.   

By many accounts, Salafis’ most visible entrée into the public sphere occurred on June 7, when the militia Ansar al-Sharia (based in Darnah and Benghazi) led a rally of armed vehicles along Benghazi’s own Tahrir Square and demanded the imposition of Islamic law. Its leader, Sheikh Muhammad al-Zahawi later gave an interview on a local TV station forbidding participation in the July 7 GNC elections on the grounds that they were un-Islamic. It was the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade that was initially implicated in the consulate attack this week in Benghazi, although the group issued a statement on its Facebook page denying involvement. Another, more shadow underground group, the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades—which claimed responsibility for the Red Cross attack and previous bombing of the consulate—is suspected in the recent assault.   Elsewhere in Darnah— long-regarded as a hub of Islamic conservatism—Salafi militias have reportedly carried out assassinations of Qadhafi-era officials, taken over radio stations, and shut down beauty parlors. All of this has occurred in a worsening security vacuum where, in the absence of a professional police force and army, power has fallen to local militias—many with a Salafi bent.

Libyans’ public reaction to such strong-arm tactics has been vociferous and damning. Tribes, women’s groups, and civil society—as well as the country’s increasingly active social media community—have all mobilized to condemn the recent attacks on Sufis, while mounting demonstrations of their own against the Salafis’ shows of force. Counter protests in Benghazi were held in response to the Salafis’ own armed rally on June 7, with many participants arguing on local TV that Libyan society was already sufficiently Islamic, and that Ansar al-Sharia should leave their weapons and Afghan dress at home. In Darnah, a thriving NGO and civil society community have counter-balanced Salafi activism, as have the town’s local tribes, who at one point chased a Salafi brigade out of town, burning down the checkpoints it had set up. The recent attacks on Sufi sites have provoked even greater outrage, especially on Libya’s thriving social media scene. In one Facebook exchange, Libyan activists noted the irony that during the 2011 revolt NATO had avoided bombing a venerated Sufi mosque in Zlitan even though it was observed to house a loyalist rocket launcher. “Our own idiots did the job themselves,” lamented the poster.  

Taken in sum, much of the violence suggests a movement in search of a cause; failing to achieve local resonance, Libyan Salafis have expanded beyond their traditional turf of social issues and are now grasping at foreign causes they believe will excite Libyans’ emotions. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict figures high on their agenda; there are allegations that Libyan Salafis are moving weapons and material to Gaza via Sinai. In a video of the June 7 Salafi rally in Benghazi, one of the participants riding in a “technical” with an anti-aircraft gun can be heard yelling, “These weapons for the Israelis.”  Syria, of course, is another cause celebre. In August, the Rafallah Sahati Brigade from Benghazi—which had earlier desecrated British WWII graves in Tobruk— announced it was sending volunteers to Syria. 

Most recently, anti-Americanism has risen to the fore. The Omar Abd al-Rahman Brigade has been the most active in targeting U.S. interests and claims credit for an earlier bombing of the consulate. In the run-up to the Benghazi attack, there were alarming discussions in Salafi social media that attacked the U.S. for using Libya as a base for flying drones. Prominent Salafi-jihadi ideologues from al-Qaeda (most notably Ayman al-Zawahiri) have long seen the country as ripe for exploitation and have urged Libyan Salafis to avenge the U.S. killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi. According to one report, Zawahiri dispatched a longtime Libyan al-Qaeda member, Abd al-Basit Azuz, in the aftermath of the 2011 revolts to establish an al-Qaeda foothold in Darnah. An online video (probably from the spring of 2012) shows Azuz openly speaking at a rally there.

What is most worrisome about the recent attacks on Sufi sites has been the government’s reaction—a response that has blended toleration and active collaboration. Much of this ambivalence results from the weak legitimacy and resources of the country’s provisional government, the National Transitional Council (NTC). Bereft of an effective army and police, the NTC was forced to co-opt the country’s numerous revolutionary “brigades,” deputizing them into provisional security forces like the Supreme Security Committees (SSC) and Libyan Shield Forces, which nominally report to the Ministry of Interior and the Army Chief of Staff, respectively. Invariably, these poorly trained bodies contain a number of Salafi militias who have used their warrant from the government to enforce draconian social mores, conduct vendettas against Qadhafi-era intelligence officers, and attack Sufis.  

The real threat, therefore, is not Salafism per se, but Salafism as a failed litmus test for the new government’s legitimacy and capacity. In the wake of the shrine demolitions, many Libyans indicted the lame-duck cabinet of the NTC and the newly installed GNC as the true culprits for failing to provide security. Calls for more government resignations and even martial law have only increased in the wake of the attack on the Benghazi consulate and the death of the U.S. ambassador. Although the GNC had initially demanded the resignation of several SSC commanders in Tripoli for their complicity in the recent shrine demolitions, they subsequently reversed course and issued a letter of commendation after these commanders threatened a general strike. When the government has responded, it has usually been late or ineffective.  

For the citizens of Tripoli, Benghazi, and other cities, all of this is a stark and tragic reminder of the perennial problems of poor governance and the security vacuum. Moving forward, what is needed is less of a focus on Islamism itself and more attention to the building of effective, representative governance and accountable, professional security forces.  

Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and focuses on security affairs in Libya and the Gulf. He has conducted numerous visits to Libya—the most recent in July 2012.

Correction 13 Sept, 2012: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Libyan Salafi parties al-Watan and Umma al-Wasat received no seats in the elections for the General National Congress. This article has been amended to reflect 
Umma al-Wasat's one seat. 

Wehrey’s research focuses on security affairs, civil-military relations, and identity politics in North Africa and the Gulf.