Libya’s central government exercises little authority outside capital

Abigail Hauslohner reports: Hussein Abu Hameida, the head of security in Libya’s second-largest city, was sacked this week over the attack on the U.S. consulate here that killed the ambassador and three other Americans. But he says he’s not going anywhere.

On the night of Sept. 11, he says, his police were outnumbered and outgunned by the attackers. The blame, he says, belongs not on his own shoulders, but with the central government for its failure to rein in Libya’s powerful postwar militias.

“There has been no strategy in place to remove the weapons from the streets,” Abu Hameida said Wednesday in the sprawling, high-ceilinged chamber that serves as his office in Benghazi’s national security headquarters. “There has been no strategy to contain these [militias] and to move them into either the police or the army.”

Nearly a year after Libyan rebels killed Moammar Gaddafi, ushering in a new democratic era, Libya’s central government still exercises so little authority here in the eastern part of the country that Abu Hameida sees little peril in refusing an order from the Interior Ministry in Tripoli that he step down from his post.

Libyan officials have blamed foreign fighters for the Benghazi assault. On Wednesday, Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called it a “terrorist attack” and said there is evidence that those involved came from extremist groups in eastern Libya and from affiliates of al-Qaeda.

For many here, last week’s violence underscored the security vacuum left by Libya’s anemic central authority. With a far weaker police force than existed before the revolution, people in Benghazi have become “self-disciplining,” said Fatima Aguila, a local English teacher. “We govern ourselves.” Residents go about their daily business, help each other to resolve tribal disputes and continue to stop at stoplights, she said.

But in lawless Libya, weapons also carry clout. Well-armed bands of former rebel fighters make up more than 200 militias nationwide, according to an Atlantic Council study released last week. Some militias claim to have been absorbed, at least symbolically, into the ranks of Libya’s Tripoli-based Interior Ministry and military, but ground-level security is often uncoordinated, decentralized and lacks a hierarchy.

In many cases, including in Benghazi and in the western mountain town of Zintan where Libya’s highest-profile prisoner, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, is being held, the militias hold considerably more sway — and arms — than the Interior Ministry’s police force.

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