Benghazi — Speculation about Ansar al-Sharia's plan for Libya ended this week when the al-Qaeda proponents released a mission statement demanding the imposition of Islamic law.
The agenda is clear: today, Derna, tomorrow, all of Libya.
"Stability and security are dependent on the application of Sharia," AFP quoted the Islamist organisation as saying on Tuesday (November 13th).
The group, which began as a brigade of revolutionary fighters, advocates Sharia as the sole source of legislation. At the same time, it refuses to recognise state institutions, including the security services. The jihadist organisation accuses anyone working for the government of apostasy and of being "taghuts" (evil forces in the service of tyranny).
Ansar al-Sharia Libya members control neighbourhoods in Benghazi and Sirte, and most of Derna, with an arsenal of weapons looted from Kadhafi's stockpiles. They made it a point to say in their statement that their arms would "not be aimed at children".
Meanwhile, an eight-year-old boy was among the victims of the recent surge in Benghazi violence. He died after unknown gunmen opened fire on his naval officer father.
A day before the Ansar al-Sharia statement's release, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan pledged to beef up security forces to combat the unrest plaguing Benghazi and other eastern cities.
"There are those who want to sow chaos in the country to prevent the development of the state, to govern Libya in their own way and make it like Somalia," he said.
As the premier promises action against the violence, Ansar al-Sharia members have been working on ways to increase their visibility.
On October 24th, they officially opened their Derna branch under the slogan, "A step toward building the Islamic state".
Ansar al-Sharia also set up new accounts on Twitter and Google Plus to promote their outreach campaigns.
The group used the social networking sites to denounce the recent capture of al-Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi (Nazih Abdul Hamed al-Raghie), calling for his liberation "by all possible means".
Ansar al-Sharia has been blamed for a spate of deadly unrest in eastern Libya, including the September 11th, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
In Benghazi, where citizens are already facing car bombings, carjackings and other crimes, a group that publicly disavows law officers and state institutions raises concerns.
"Libya does not need more extremist ideologies, no matter where they come from," Libyan officer Mohsen Ali tells Magharebia.
Activist Najat Omran, 42-years-old, says: "Any active political movement outside the framework of the state, or any groups surrounded by question marks remain suspect. Besides, they don't recognise the army and police."
"We hope that they explain their position on assassinations and bombings in Benghazi, as well as clarify whether there are non-Libyan elements among them or not," she adds.
Abdel Nasser Muhammad, 48, says: "Why Derna? First of all, the city of Derna is considered an active salafist jihadi stronghold. And who are Ansar al-Sharia? They are currently working on recruiting young people and sending them to Syria."
"Their ideology is pure jihadist and of course like any Islamist organisation they have a Shura Council, political and military councils, and a known leader," he adds.
Sadek Ben Ali says, "Although they are divided inside - some are radicals, others are jihadi and some preach only - their goal is one and that is the application of Islamic Sharia in the country."
"Derna constitutes fertile ground," Zine El Abidine Abdul Hadi tells Magharebia. "The city hasn't seen for a while the presence of regular police and army forces; hence it is easy to have a grip on it."
"The city of Derna is captive to al-Qaeda," 20-year-old Murad tells Magharebia. "Assassinations and bombings have also been occurring for a while in Derna, yet the media is silent and no one speaks about it."
Talk about al-Qaeda in Derna is based on the presence of Sufian bin Qumu, a former chauffeur for Osama Bin Laden. He reportedly leads an armed battalion in the town.
"Those people don't appear in public; rather, they work in secrecy," local resident Feras Muftah says. "There are a lot of blasts, but perpetrators are never known. It is said that this battalion is the entity carrying out these blasts because they target people who used to work for the state under the former regime."
"This group doesn't want any army; rather, they want to apply God's Sharia as if we weren't Muslims," Muftah added. "For the time being, they are attracting adolescents and paying them money."
"Sufian's creed is extremism to the maximum," Derna attorney Ahmed tells Magharebia. "Besides, there is no security in Derna, neither police nor army."
Another wanted terrorist is also operating in the area, according to local resident Abdul Rahman Nasser.
"Most assassinations and acts of terrorism in Derna and Benghazi are because Ahmed Boukhtala, the mastermind of all these crimes, is in Benghazi," he says.
Ahmed Boukhtala is accused of several crimes, including the 2011 murder of rebel military commander Abdul Fattah Younes and the attack on the US mission in Benghazi.
"Ansar al-Sharia and the Rafallah Sahati Brigade are there also providing support and security for the perpetrators of assassinations. Since bin Qumu and their militias are in Derna, no one objected," Nasser adds.
The Tunisia question
The appearance of al-Qaeda terrorism in Tunisia and Libya may be connected, authorities hint.
Across the border in Tunisia, a jihadist group bearing the same name - Ansar al-Sharia - is led by Seif Allah Ben Hassine (aka Abou Iyadh).
Tunisia officially designated the hard-line salafist movement as a terrorist organisation tied to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In September, an international arrest warrant was issued for the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia. Abou Iyadh is wanted in connection with the killings of Tunisian National Guard members in Jebel Chaambi, the assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid and the deadly attack on US embassy in Tunis.
And according to Tunisian Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui, Abou Iyadh is now in Libya.