TOPICS > World

Libyan Salafists Assert Power with Embassy Attacks, Hoping to Catch Public Eye

September 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Since Libya established a secular democracy, conservative Muslims in Libya known as Salafists have felt disenfranchised. Gwen Ifil speaks to Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and journalist Robin Wright about the link between Salafi Muslims and the latest attacks in the Middle East.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: For more on the developments of the last 24 hours, I’m joined now by two people with deep experience in Libya.

Robin Wright is a journalist and author who knew Ambassador Stevens personally and has reported extensively from Libya and the wider Middle East.

And Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Robin Wright, tell us about Ambassador Stevens.

ROBIN WRIGHT, journalist: Chris was an extraordinary envoy, in that he understood the streets as well as the elites.

He spoke the language. He understood the culture. And he had seen Libya through — all through three of its phases. He spent two years as the number two during Moammar Gadhafi’s rule at the American Embassy. And then he was — he spent a year during the transition as the liaison to the Transitional National Council in Libya based in Benghazi.

And then he returned to establish the American Embassy in the post-Gadhafi era. And he really was tremendously thoughtful.

He was willing to get out, even facing the extraordinary dangers of a country with 300 militias, going through a fragile transition, and trying to kind of change a country that had been the nemesis for the United States for 40 years into an ally.

GWEN IFILL: Frederic Wehrey, based on your experience on the ground in Libya and in Benghazi in particular, did any of this surprise you? Did it seem unusual? The latest reports we’re hearing is that this attack was actually planned.

FREDERIC WEHREY, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Tragically, I think there were a lot of indicators that this was coming.

What you had was, since the July 7 elections in Libya, security really declined, especially in Benghazi.

And this was really unnoticed by a lot of Western press. You had almost daily incidents of car bombings, attacks on Gadhafi officials, rocket attacks on Western icons like the Red Cross, and in May, an attack on a consulate in Benghazi.

So, this wasn’t the first of its kind. This is really a problem of the weakness of the government and the weakness of the police forces throughout the country.

GWEN IFILL: But one of the things we have been hearing, to the extent we have been hearing anything from Libya, is how welcoming Libyans were and how — even Ambassador Stevens had been quoted saying how much better things had gotten. Was he misguided, or were we?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, I think the majority of Libyans are overwhelmingly welcoming of the United States and the role of NATO in facilitating the transition to post-Gadhafi rule.

But as you saw in Egypt as well, there are a small group of extremists, hard-liners, ultra-conservatives of different ilks who are sensitive about the role of the United States, in the case of Egypt inflamed by a film about the Prophet Mohammad, that play into passions.

It may also be that you have an al-Qaida affiliate involved in some way in the Libyan attack. We don’t know, but there are early indications that what happened in Benghazi and in Cairo may actually have slightly different causes.

GWEN IFILL: There may have been a retaliatory effect, we think, perhaps. There are so many versions of what may have been the spark.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Absolutely.

And I think — just to echo, I think Libyans, culturally, temperamentally, historically, are not predisposed to support this sort of violent radical Islamism that is motivating these attacks.

In many of the previous instances of violence, you have seen Libyans mobilize in protests or on social media against the violence.

And, as Robin mentioned, this is a country that is still very grateful to the West for the intervention that toppled Gadhafi.

GWEN IFILL: What do we know, Robin, about this video, this film, whatever, however you choose to describe it, that was posted some time ago online and suddenly caught fire this week?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Very little.

There have been different reports in the first 24 hours about who may have been behind it different sources, people from different parts of the world, different religions. And it’s kind of dangerous to get into that turf until we really know more about where it came from.

But it did portray, an excerpt from it that was put on YouTube, actions by the Prophet Mohammad that people in the region felt were sensitive, in the same way that people of other — Christians might feel about the portrayal of Jesus in — controversial.

This is a sensitive issue for people of all faiths. And Muslims at this particular juncture, so sensitive about the roles and tensions of the outside world in countries as they are reclaiming control of their own faith — and fate, political fate, you know, can trigger exceptional or extraordinary responses, but, again, by a tiny minority.

When you look at Egypt, 2,000 people in a country with 85 million people, that’s almost infinitesimally, but it happened on 9/11 and it was something that echoed the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979.

So, it clearly inflames us as well. And it’s — the tragedy is that this is a very small minority of people I think in both countries.

GWEN IFILL: Tell me about the Salafi Muslims. What role do we think they may have played? They have been stirring up some of this?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, they have certainly been behind a lot of the attacks in Libya against Sufism, which is a variant of Islam that they regard as heretical.

They have attacked other Western targets.

My reading of the Salafis in Libya is that they’re such a marginal minority, and Libyans are really predisposed to a more moderate interpretation — and we saw this in the elections — that the Salafis are grasping at relevance and they’re trying to rattle their sabers. They’re trying to muscle their way to prominence through this violence.

And this is not the strategy of a movement that has grassroots support or a winning movement. So again they’re a fringe movement. That said, they can still cause violence. They can still play a spoiler role. And, importantly, they’re highlighting the weakness of the government.

And what you’re seeing is a lot of Libyans, they’re mad at the Salafis for this attack and for other violence, but they’re turning their anger toward the government and they’re saying, why aren’t you providing security?

GWEN IFILL: One of the interesting things is the difference between the reaction in Egypt and the reaction in Libya.

The Libyan government came out. We heard the prime minister denounce this, the U.S. ambassador from Libya to the U.S. also denouncing it. We haven’t gotten the same response in Egypt for the breach of the U.S. Embassy there.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Yes, it was very striking, the different responses in Tripoli and in Cairo.

And I think that was a subtheme of the remarks by both the secretary of state and the president today, acknowledging the immediate and heavy-hearted response by the Libyan government, the role that the Libyan security forces played in trying to fight back those who were mobbing the consulate in Benghazi, and then trying to save Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues.

And by the absence of words about Egypt, it was almost as if saying, and where were you?

And I think this is a tragic moment, the timing of this, not just because of 9/11, but also because both of these countries need U.S., in the case of Libya, technological help, and Egypt financial help to deal with the issues that triggered the uprisings in the first place.

And you just had 100 top-level executives from American corporations in Cairo to talk about private investment, helping create jobs, which is what really is so critical in stabilization. And these kinds of attacks in Cairo and Benghazi undermine American faith, business or diplomatic, in the future of these countries.

GWEN IFILL: I think most Americans looked back at the Arab spring and think, good, done, that’s all taken care of.

But, instead, I wonder if both of these events happening within 24 hours in two different capitals should be sending us some sort of warning signal, something that the U.S. should be aware of, on alert for.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, certainly, I think it’s an indication that revolutions are a long-term process, and the initial victors can sometimes lose out to more radical actors.

And I think, importantly, the international community shouldn’t disengage from these countries, and especially in Libya. The country is grateful for our assistance, but they also need more assistance in building representative institutions and especially building their security forces.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Chris’ message would have been, do not waver. That’s the one thing he would have wanted more than anything, that this commitment to try to help stabilize fragile democracies is really what he had devoted his life to.

And that — the challenge now is to instill the rule of law and help them, not only find those who perpetrated, but to bring them to justice in fair trials, and to be a contrast to, for example, the execution of Moammar Gadhafi, but to put them in on trial in ways that reflect that these are new democracies committed to the principles of law and order.

GWEN IFILL: That’s what we will be watching for next.

Robin Wright, Frederic Wehrey, thank you both very much.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Thank you.