The assault on the US consulate in Benghazi could be part of al-Qaeda's strategy to open a new front in North Africa, observers say.
By Essam Mohamed in Tripoli, Asma Elourfi in Benghazi, Monia Ghanmi in Tunis and Jemal Oumar in Nouakchott for Magharebia - 21/12/12
Three months after the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, investigation is well under way to bring the perpetrators to justice.
"A date will be set for the trial," Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan said on Wednesday (December 19th) in Tripoli.
But the list of suspects suggests that the roots of the attack could be traced well beyond Libya's borders and be part of al-Qaeda's plan to establish a new regional wing.
In October, two Tunisian citizens were arrested in Turkey in relation to the Benghazi assault. Ali Harzi, 26, was handed over to Tunisia.
"There are two Tunisians that were arrested by Turkish authorities, who then repatriated them. One of the two is still free, the other has been arrested and is strongly suspected to have been involved in the attack of Benghazi," Interior Minister Ali Laraeydh said in the October 31st television interview.
Harzi refused to be interrogated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His lawyer Abdelbasset Ben Mbarek told AFP that the investigators had asked to talk to Harzi as a "witness, not a suspect".
Earlier this month, Egyptian security forces arrested the leader of a terror network also suspected of involvement in the September 11th attack.
Mohamed Jamal Abu Ahmed, 45, was freed last year from an Egyptian prison after the popular uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
In the 1990s, Abu Ahmed was accused of belonging to the Islamic Jihad Group, which was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. His group was known for its uncompromising rejection of the calls to renounce violence launched by Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and the Islamic Jihad in the mid-1990s.
Since his release from jail, Abu Ahmed has tried to establish a new al-Qaeda wing in Libya, analysts say. He formed a terror cell, named the Jamal Network, and conducted military training for jihadists in Libya and Egypt.
"The arrest of Libyan Mohammed Jamal Abu Ahmed in Egypt and the extradition of Ali Harzi to Tunisia from Turkey undermine the efforts of al-Qaeda to establish a branch in Libya, a country that has experienced instability since its revolution. These are positive steps," said Mohammed Ali Barhoum from Benghazi.
He underlined that Libyans adhere to the Maliki school of Islam which rejects violence. "Those who are stirring up this mess because of their adoption of salafist militant ideology are foreign and Libyan society will not allow them to live among its population," Barhoum said.
"We are well aware that we have to pay a price for a stable country built on democracy and the principles of justice. All countries that have passed through this stage faced saboteurs, and the saboteurs in this case are members of al-Qaeda," he concluded.
Benghazi-based brigadier and security expert Abdullah Drissi had a different opinion. He considered the arrest of Mohamed Jamal Abu Ahmed in Egypt based on unsubstantiated accusations and argued that "al-Qaeda has no roots in Libya".
Drissi mentioned the presence of some agendas now in the country as a result of Libya's security vacuum and conflicts between foreign intelligence agencies plotting to serve their own agendas.
A day after the September 11th attack, National Congress chief Mohamed al-Magarief commented that the incident was "a pre-planned act of terrorism", which had nothing to do with the anti-Islam film.
"The coincidence of the attack with September 11th was not random but significant and clear," he commented. "We do not exclude the option of discovering links between al-Qaeda and the attack on the US consulate."
In a video released on the eve of the September 11th anniversary this year, Ayman al-Zawahiri called for avenging the death of al-Qaeda's chief propagandist Abu Yahya al-Libi.
"With the martyrdom of Sheikh Abu Yahya, may Allah have mercy on him, people will flock even more to his writings and call, Allah willing," al-Zawahiri said in the address, which many viewed as a siren's call for targeting Westerners in Libya.
According to Libyan journalist Ali Shoaib, the video address contained "indications" about the coming attack.
"Unfortunately, the terrorist groups have taken advantage of precarious conditions in our country to intensify their presence by establishing training camps taking advantage of the huge amount of weapons that they put their hands on following the fall of the former regime," eastern Libya resident resident Hamid Chwich tells Magharebia.
"They are doing their best to consolidate their presence and expand their relations with other Islamist groups," he adds.
Witnesses told Magharebia this week that an al-Qaeda flag had been seen hoisted over the former public service building in Benghazi.
"Islamist groups in Libya are trying to establish contacts with al-Qaeda," says al-Motaz el-Aribe, an activist from the Benghazi-based "17 February Media Centre".
But among local residents, opposition is strong to al-Qaeda's encroachment on their territory. Young Libyan man Ali al-Mislati says that his country will not turn into "fertile ground" for armed Islamist groups.
"Radicals don't represent anything in Libya," he argues. "Some of them entered the country at the time of revolution, but they are loathed by society. That's why people took to streets for the 'Rescue Benghazi' protest."
The terrorist group is "exploiting those who are young and idle", according to taxi driver Hisham al-Madani.
"The new, interim government should take this issue into account," he added. "It should also resolve the problem by the sheer force of the army and police. They should provide the police and the army with all that is necessary for their needs in order for them to perform their duties to the fullest."
One way Libyan security forces are keeping an eye on possible al-Qaeda activity is through the use of surveillance aircraft from partner nations.
According to military communications officer Abdel Razzak al-Bakhbakhi, aerial reconnaissance by these unmanned Libya drones provides "major solutions for collecting information".
"They are cheaper and easier to use than regular planes, especially as our country has a large land area and we have long borders with several countries," he said.
The drones are "an important" element in hunting down terrorists, agreed former high-ranking air force officer Asad al-Alem.
This kind of surveillance comes at a critical time for the country's security. As playwright Ahmed al-Obeidi says, "al-Qaeda elements in Libya are seriously looking for a base, a solid one".
"We noticed in the previous period signs and signals of their presence especially in the eastern region," he tells Magharebia. "Jabal al Akhdhar has become a haven and a bunker base for them. We see there in some areas and on top of some vehicles the flag of al-Qaeda."
Al-Obeidi underlines that terrorists are "foreign bodies that threaten the legitimacy" of Libyan people and "have nothing to do with Islam".
"Our Islam is clear and rejects mediators who speak as if they were half gods, rigid and refuse dialogue, logic and reason," he says.
Terror groups are trying to "steal the revolution and to pull the rug out from under the people who sacrificed their blood in order to topple tyranny", according to Tripoli-based teacher Abdelfattah Abu Saida.
"The arrest of Mohammed Jamal Abu Ahmed will mean that the Libyan security forces have eliminated the dreams of al-Qaeda for establishing a terrorist network. This was their goal in concert with the help of al-Qaeda in Yemen," terrorism analyst Mohamed Ould Zein says.
Tunis resident Abdelhakim Milouti tells Magharebia, "If it had the support of all Muslims, al-Qaeda it would have triumphed long ago."
"The lack of victory so far is evidence that this organisation is unacceptable to us," he adds.