The Ansar al Sharia Brigade, the Islamist terror group linked to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, continues to operate freely in that Libyan city, according to U.S. military officials.
The group remains active in the Mediterranean port city, operating patrols and checkpoints, and earlier this year reached an agreement with other Islamist groups allowing it to operate openly, said military officials familiar with intelligence reports from North Africa.
The group "continues to spread its ideology in the Benghazi area, particularly targeting youth," said one official, who noted that the lack of central government security was the key reason the militia has not been suppressed.
The officials disclosed details of the group’s activities on condition of anonymity.
Ansar al Sharia also is using Facebook to publicize its activities, including charitable work in poor areas, and is constructing some buildings. It also claimed to be operating a medical clinic in Benghazi. Other activities include repairing schools and holding conferences for local youth.
According to the officials, the group successfully exploited the weakness of security authorities in Benghazi and Libya in general to boost its presence. The group is attempting to reinvent itself as a humanitarian and charitable organization after the Sept. 11 attack.
A series of terrorist attacks in Benghazi on the night of Sept. 11 killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and government employees Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty. The U.S. Special Mission was destroyed and later abandoned during the attack, which featured mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and assault rifles.
President Barack Obama said the day after the attack that the United States would pursue the attackers. "Make no mistake, justice will be done," he said.
However, at least one of the suspects in the attack was detained in Tunisia and released before the suspect could be captured or questioned by U.S. investigators.
According to news reports from the region, Ansar al Sharia leader and former Guantanamo Bay prison detainee Sufian Ben Qumu was the target of an assassination attempt on April 14 and was wounded in the shootout with unidentified gunmen.
Days earlier, an Ansar al Sharia commander, Yahya Abdel Sayed, was reportedly killed in Sirte.
Fox News reported May 1 that the mastermind behind the attack has been identified and is free in Libya.
The FBI last week posted photos of three men wanted in connection with the attack on the diplomatic compound and asked for help in locating them.
State Department officials are scheduled to testify on the administration’s handling of the attack during a congressional hearing set for Wednesday.
According to an interim report by the House Republican Conference made public last month: "The attackers were members of extremist groups, including the Libya-based Ansar al-Sharia (AAS) and al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)."
The House report said the State Department Operations Center issued an alert Sept. 12 that stated, "Al Qaeda linked Ansar al Sharia (AAS) claimed responsibility for the attack and had called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli."
Additionally, the CIA had drafted talking points for members of Congress to use in discussing the attack publicly that initially mentioned the terrorists had "potential links to Ansar al Sharia," the House report stated.
The military officials said the Ansar al Sharia Brigade was formed from Islamists who were part of the 2011 revolution to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in early 2012 as an offshoot of the February 17 Brigade.
The goal of the organization is to create a state in Libya run by fundamentalist Sharia law. The name means Supporters of Sharia in Arabic.
Like other Islamist groups, it is committed to conducting jihad or holy war against the United States and Western interests in pursuit of its objectives.
According to a Pentagon-sponsored study of al Qaeda in Libya, the Pakistan-based central al Qaeda terrorist group does not have a formal affiliate in Libya. However, that report said Ansar al Sharia "could be the new face of al Qaeda in Libya."
After the Sept. 11 attack, protesters drove out Ansar al Sharia from a base it operated in Benghazi and as a result the group assumed a lower public profile.
The Brigade reached an agreement with other Islamist militias in Benghazi in January 2013 to set out clearly defined areas of the city where the militias conducted patrols and operated vehicle checkpoints.
The agreement coincided with reports that Ansar al Sharia was seeking to brand itself as a humanitarian relief organization and to play an open role in Benghazi. The group has downplayed its military activities and played up its social service work.
It opened a women’s clinic in late 2012 and has reported on its Facebook page that it delivered food to needy families in regions outside the city. The group also hosted youth conferences.
An insignia used by the group and posted on Facebook states "Ansar al Sharia Patrols/Your Sons At Your Service." Among its boasts online were claims the group has intercepted illegal immigrants and seized shipments of illicit drugs from patrols and checkpoints.
News reports from Libya stated that in February Ansar al Sharia commanders were said to be negotiating with the Libyan Interior Ministry on an agreement to hand over detainees to Tripoli government.
According to the officials, the weak central government fears Ansar al Sharia and lacked adequate security and police personnel. As a result, the group has been able to increase its access to both territory and local populations.
Ansar al Sharia militants in March raided the Benghazi European School and searched for textbooks they claimed contradicted Sharia law.
The private school is mainly for children of non-Libyans and raised concerns about the group’s Islamist agenda.
The group is also attempting to generate support for Islamists in Gaza and Syria and has conducted demonstrations demanding the release of Libyan terrorists held in foreign prisons, including Iraq, Russia, and the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.
A second military official who specializes in the region said militias of all types are rampant in Benghazi and Libya because of the weakness of the central government.
"The first problem is capacity: They have none," he said of the central government in Tripoli. "They can’t even control events in the capital of Tripoli."
Recently, there was a militia standoff at the Libyan Foreign Ministry with militiamen demanding the removal of officials linked to the ousted regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
"Until the Libyan government is able to stand up a reliable and independent security force of army and police, they will not be able to control Benghazi or anywhere else," the official said.
Another problem hampering efforts to control militias is the great reluctance of the new Libyans in power to use force against other Libyans, unlike the Gaddafi regime, which cracked down ruthlessly on opponents.
"There is an incredible reluctance on the part of the Libyan government to put themselves in the position where they might draw the blood of Libyan citizens," the official said. "Nobody in the new government wants to be seen playing the same role as Gaddafi."
Among the various militias currently operating are the Islamist militias, several rogue militias, and even criminal militias. Some of the militias are pro-government and working with Tripoli.
The official said the pro-government militias are weak or not strong enough or willing enough to impose stability.
The Benghazi attack continues to be the focus of attention on Capitol Hill after a State Department review panel made public in December it found "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department."
The Obama administration has sought to play down the deadly attack, initially identifying the attack as a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Islam video. White House spokesman Jay Carney said May 1, "Benghazi happened a long time ago."