In boost to IS, Libya jihadists Ansar al-Sharia announce dissolution
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In boost to IS, Libya jihadists Ansar al-Sharia announce dissolution

With Manchester, Egypt attacks linked to North African country, collapse of group responsible for Benghazi US embassy onslaught points to growing strength of Islamic State

Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) gather in the coastal city of Sirte, east of the capital Tripoli, during their military operation to clear IS jihadists from the city, on October 14, 2016. (AFP/Mahmud Turkia)
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) gather in the coastal city of Sirte, east of the capital Tripoli, during their military operation to clear IS jihadists from the city, on October 14, 2016. (AFP/Mahmud Turkia)

The Libyan jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is linked to al-Qaeda and deemed a terrorist organization by the UN and United States, announced its “dissolution” in a communique published online on Saturday.

Washington accuses the group of being behind the September 11, 2012, attack on the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, in which ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

Ansar al-Sharia is one of the jihadist groups that sprung up in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, in the chaos following the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. They overran the city in 2014.

East Libyan military strongman Halifa Haftar earlier this month launched an offensive to oust jihadist fighters from their two remaining strongholds in Benghazi.

A Libyan man investigates the inside of the US Consulate, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens on the night of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya (photo credit: AP/Mohammad Hannon)
A Libyan man investigates the inside of the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens on the night of September 11, 2012. (AP/Mohammad Hannon/File)

In a communique, Ansar al-Sharia said it had been “weakened” by the fighting.

The group lost its leader, Mohammed Azahawi, in clashes with Haftar’s forces in Benghazi at the end of 2014.

Most of its members then defected to the so-called Islamic State group. Ansar al-Sharia later joined the Revolutionary Shura Council of Benghazi, a local alliance of Islamist militias.

At its zenith, Ansar al-Sharia was present in Benghazi and Derna in eastern Syria, with offshoots in Sirte and Sabratha, western Libya. The organization took over barracks and other sites abandoned by the ousted Gaddafi forces and transformed them into training grounds for hundreds of jihadists seeking to head to Iraq or Syria.

But despite the group’s collapse, the Libya connection in the May 22 Manchester concert suicide bombing and Friday’s attack on Christians in Egypt has shone a light on the ongoing threat posed by militant Islamic groups that have taken advantage of lawlessness in the troubled North African nation.

In addition to wide swaths of territory once controlled by Ansar al-Sharia, at its own peak, the Islamic State group controlled a 160-kilometer (100-mile) stretch of Libyan coastline and boasted between 2,000 and 5,000 fighters, many of them from Egypt and Tunisia.

CCTV image of Salman Abedi in an unknown location on the night of the attack he carried out on Manchester Arena, May 22, 2017. (Greater Manchester Police via AP)
CCTV image of Salman Abedi in an unknown location on the night of the attack he carried out on Manchester Arena, May 22, 2017. (Greater Manchester Police via AP)

It is that Libya that the Manchester bomber, 22-year-old British citizen Salman Abedi, found when he and his family moved back from Britain after Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011.

Monday’s bombing left 22 dead, including an 8-year-old girl, and was claimed by IS. Abedi’s brother Hashim has been taken into custody in Tripoli and, according to Libyan authorities, has confessed that he and Salman were IS members.

On Friday, in Egypt, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sent his fighter jets to bomb militant positions in eastern Libya just hours after IS fighters shot dead 29 Christians on their way to a remote desert monastery. The military said the attackers were trained in Libya.

Egypt also has long complained that weapons smuggled across the porous desert border with Libya have reached militants operating on its soil. It also has claimed that militants who bombed three Christian churches since December received military training in IS bases in Libya.

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