National Security & Defense

The Illegitimate Libyan Government Is Funding the Terrorists Who Killed Chris Stevens

Libya Dawn fighters in Kikla, near Tripoli, October 2014. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty)

On June 14 of this year, American F-15 fighter-bombers struck a meeting of high-level terrorist leaders in Libya, targeting the notorious North African al-Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar but also hitting members of Ansar al-Sharia, an increasingly important terror group in the region. Ansar was behind, among other atrocities, the September 12, 2012, murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.

Meanwhile, progress has been made in U.N.-brokered talks to form a national unity government in the country, which has been chaotic since the NATO-backed overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi and has not had a proper government for months now. The talks have incorporated elements of Libya’s internationally recognized government, based in the city of Tobruk, and Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist insurgents that pushed the legitimate government out of Tripoli last year. The U.S. government has backed the talks, drawing accusations from many Libyans that it is bending over backward to accommodate the Islamists.

That plan might get even more unpopular if, as documentary evidence suggests, Libya Dawn is directly funding terror groups — one of the same groups, in fact, who killed four Americans in Benghazi.

Leaked documents from Libya’s central bank seem to show that Libya Dawn is funding an Islamist umbrella group in Benghazi founded by Ansar al-Sharia, the terror group with American blood on its hands.

Leaked documents from Libya’s central bank seem to show that Libya Dawn is funding an umbrella group of Islamists in Benghazi founded by and including Ansar al-Sharia, the terror group with American blood on its hands. In other words, just last month the U.S. military was bombing the same al-Qaeda-linked group to which the U.S. State Department might give a foothold in the next Libyan government.

The standard apology is that the Dawn Islamist coalition comprises “moderates” who can be distinguished from terrorists — and that we must ally with the moderate Islamists to defeat the terrorists who are daily gaining ground in Libya.

But the existence of these two checks, issued by the Central Bank of Libya, puts the lie to Libya Dawn’s moderation, provides potential evidence of a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution, and confirms what critics have long charged are disturbing, truly extreme ideological sympathies within Libya Dawn.

The payments, assuming they are real, make a farce of U.S. and U.N. support for the Islamist coalition’s claim to be recognized as ruling partners alongside the legitimate government.

The funds appear to be flowing to the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), an extremist coalition in Benghazi dominated by Ansar al-Sharia and founded by Ansar’s former leader, Mohammed al-Zahawi. BRSC has direct ties to al-Qaeda: Mohammed al-Zahawi, the former Ansar emir who started BRSC, once met with Osama bin Laden, and when Zahawi was killed in January 2015, he was eulogized by al-Qaeda as a martyr.

Libya Dawn has long been rumored to provide funds and weapons to this group. “The self-declared government in Tripoli does not hide its continued support by all means to the BRSC in its fighting against the Libyan Army in Benghazi,” Libya’s ambassador to the U.N., Ibrahim Dabbashi, who represents the internationally recognized Tobruk government, told me in an e-mail. Moreover, Dawn-affiliated militias in the city of Misrata are arming BRSC, a former Libyan government minister, Ali Mihirig, says.

Libya Dawn’s leaders have never distinguished themselves ideologically from Ansar. Libya Dawn’s former prime minister, Omar Al-Hassi, praised the group in 2014, calling it “simple, beautiful, and amiable.” The internationally recognized government, meanwhile, has maintained a strict anti-terror stance: After the June 14 air strike, the Tobruk regime announced that the U.S. had acted with its cooperation.

Until now, there has been no evidence of direct payments by Libya Dawn’s defense ministry to BRSC. But BRSC is listed as the payee on two March 24 checks from the Central Bank of Libya on account of the Dawn defense ministry. The two checks, in the amounts of 1 million dinars ($730,000) and 4,990,000 dinars ($3,666,000), appear to include payments to the families of “martyrs,” men killed while fighting for BRSC. A document that seems to be issued by the Libyan government orders the “Ministry for the Affairs of Families of Martyrs and Missing Persons” to make arrangements for payments to BRSC and Libya Dawn. (An English translation of the letter is here.)

If the checks are genuine, they show that one of the parties to the U.N.-sponsored peace talks is violating U.N. Security Council Resolution 2161.

If the checks are genuine, they show that one of the parties to the U.N.-sponsored peace talks is violating U.N. Security Council Resolution 2161, which originally banned aiding al-Qaeda, and was expanded in November 2014 to cover Ansar al-Sharia as well.

It has not been possible to prove that the checks are genuine, but key experts find them believable. “We are in the process of checking on the authenticity of the checks, but the feeling is that they are genuine,” a senior official from an international body monitoring the Libya situation, who could not be quoted publicly, tells NR.

“While forgery is used intensively these days in social media by different parties in Libya,” Ambassador Dabbashi says he’s especially inclined to believe the checks are real because Libya Dawn defense minister Khaled al-Sharif is known to harbor Islamist sympathies, stretching back to his involvement in a Qaddafi-era terror organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. (The government Dabbashi represents, of course, would probably stand to gain from the international community’s decisively turning on Libya Dawn.)

The Central Bank of Libya has so far declined to confirm that the checks are real. “All spending decisions are made by the relevant line ministries and public sector organizations and not the Central Bank of Libya,” the media office said in June when asked about the authenticity of the checks. Of course, if the bank wanted to deny the authenticity of the checks, it could have done so.

If Libya Dawn wants to fund BRSC, it’s unsurprising that they’d use the central bank to do it: The bank claims neutrality in the country’s current low-intensity civil war and makes payments on behalf of both the internationally recognized Tobruk government and Tripoli’s Libya Dawn. As the majority of working Libyans are on the state payroll, the bank’s neutrality has been vital in allowing everyday life to continue during the hostilities — and, some suggest, in prolonging the conflict.

Libya Dawn’s defense ministry did not respond to repeated attempts by e-mail and phone to verify the checks.

The American-approved, U.N.-mediated talks between Libya Dawn and the Tobruk government are aimed at ending hostilities that began when Libya Dawn seized Tripoli in August 2014 from the elected House of Representatives, driving that group into exile in eastern Libya.

The group Libya Dawn appears to be supporting, Ansar al-Sharia, has been behind much more than just the murders of Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans in Benghazi. In December 2014, for instance, a U.N. Security Council report noted that Ansar has been responsible for the systematic targeting of human-rights activists and members of the post-Qaddafi governnment’s judiciary and security forces in Benghazi. Now, BRSC and Ansar are engaged in pitched fighting against the legitimate government in Benghazi, killing dozens in recent days.

The Benghazi and Derna chapters of Ansar, generally now considered the same organization, were designated by the U.S. government as terror groups in January 2014. Ansar remains active in Libya, controlling territory in Derna (where it’s fighting the Islamic State) and Benghazi (where it’s fighting the Tobruk government’s Libyan National Army). Ansar cells are said to exist in many other towns.

In recent months, Libya Dawn’s most powerful militias, based in Misrata, have moved closer to ending hostilities with the legitimate government. Misrata, a trading entrepot on the Mediterranean, has suffered greatly during the extended civil war, and in June, several local militias retreated from the area west and south of Tripoli to their home city, signing treaties with local towns. “If the U.S. can give a strong message to [the] Misrata [militias,] ‘Are you in support of Ansar or of Libya?’ then they will do the right thing,” Mihirig says.

But even as the Misrata militias pulled away from Ansar this spring, Libya Dawn’s defense ministry seems to have still been funding the terror group. That loyalty raises questions about just how deep Libya Dawn’s Islamist sympathies run. Although Ansar is part of a coalition now fighting the Islamic State for the eastern city of Derna, and has so far refused to swear allegiance to the Islamic State’s “caliph,” the underlying ideology of the groups has more commonalities than differences.

Supporters of the internationally recognized government say that both the Islamic State in Libya and Ansar emerged from the same Qaddafi-era underground extremist militia, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, of which Zahawi was a member. “It is very difficult to distinguish Ansar from the Islamic State ideologically in Libya,” Ambassador Dabbashi has said repeatedly.

In other words, it’s not inconceivable that the U.S.’s support for a unity government including Libya Dawn wouldn’t just amount to putting funders of terrorism into power — it could create the first national government anywhere in the world that shares real ideological sympathies with the Islamic State.

— Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. She works as a consultant to a branch of the Libyan government that is neutral in the current conflict.

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