A wave of attacks in Libya in recent weeks has fuelled fears that radical Islamists are gaining influence, analysts say, as authorities worry that ex-regime diehards are seeking to derail June elections.
The brief seizure of Tripoli International Airport this week and an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi highlight some of the security challenges facing the country ahead of the June 19 election of a constituent assembly.
The vote will be Libya’s first in almost half a century as Libya’s transitional rulers seek to steer it towards democracy after more than four decades of dictatorship under Muammar Qaddafi, toppled and slain last year.
Security sources say an Islamist group claimed Tuesday’s attack on the U.S. mission, which follows similar strikes in Benghazi on the International Committee of the Red Cross and on a United Nations convoy.
“The multiplication of incidents the past two months leads one to think that these are not just isolated acts but a rise of al-Qaeda, which takes advantage of the central authority's weakness,” Karim Bitar, senior fellow at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques in Paris told AFP.
“This phenomenon is worrying not just for Libya but for the whole Arab world because the leaders of al-Qaeda in Libya believe in international jihad and do not hesitate to export combatants to Syria and beyond,” he said.
The spokesman of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), Mohammed al-Harizi, says there is no evidence of al-Qaeda “going active” in Libya but acknowledges that there may be individual sympathizers.
Some have suggested that the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, birthplace of the revolution that ousted Qaddafi, was to avenge the killing of al-Qaeda’s number two, Abu Yahya al-Libi, by a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan.
Washington U.S. announced the death of Libi, a Libyan, on Tuesday, the same day the embassy in Benghazi was attacked.
“In light of the timing of the attack, of what Abu Yahya al-Libi and the great number of supporters he has is Libya, it is very reasonable to suppose there is a link,” Bitar said.
The U.S. mission attack and others on Western targets have fanned fears that the influence of radical Islamists is spreading across post-revolution Libya.
On Thursday, hundreds of armed men flooded Benghazi’s Freedom Square -- symbol of the 2011 revolt that led to Qaddafi’s demise -- demanding that Libya apply Islamic law and rejecting democracy as “Western.”
Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group, says there are some known al-Qaeda affiliates in eastern Libya where several of the attacks took place.
But she insisted that it was too early to conclude that al-Qaeda carried out the attack on the U.S. diplomatic office.
“Given the very rudimentary nature of the attack -- a so-called “gelatin” bomb, an improvised explosive device -- I cannot imagine it being something al-Qaeda affiliates organized,” she told AFP.
In May, rocket-propelled grenades slammed into a Red Cross office in Benghazi and a courthouse in the eastern city was also hit, while the NTC headquarters in Tripoli came under attack.
“This type of violence can originate from different type of sources, not solely al-Qaeda: disgruntled militias, Qaddafi loyalists or local Salafist groups that aren't necessarily al-Qaeda,” said Gazzini.
On Monday, a group of disgruntled former rebels seized Tripoli’s airport for several hours in protest over their leader's apparent arrest.
The crisis was resolved the same day, without fatalities, through negotiations and an impressive display of force. Flights resumed within 24 hours as promised by the interim government.
The authorities have since stepped up security at the airport and in the capital. Their chief concern ahead of elections promised by the NTC on June 19 are die-hard ex-regime backers.
Security services have informed the interior ministry that supporters of the former regime are plotting to disrupt the vote to elect a constituent assembly that will appoint a committee to draft a new constitution.
“We have received reports of this nature. We are well aware that there are people who do not want the elections to take place,” said Ibrahim al-Sharkassia, a senior interior ministry official.
He said his ministry has drawn up a plan to secure the vote, drawing on 45,000 members of the Supreme Security Committee.
Similar fears of sabotage were also aired when Libya marked the first anniversary of the start of the popular uprising that toppled Qaddafi’s regime that passed off without a hitch.
Staging safe elections, however, is far more complex than celebrations.
The NTC is also tackling periodic flare-ups of tribal violence, mostly in border areas linked to smuggling routes, deadly tensions rooted in differences of allegiance in the war and calls for autonomy in the oil-rich east.