Who are Libya's Ansar al-Sharia?

While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi on Tuesday, analysts are pointing the finger at Ansar al-Sharia, a heavily-armed product of the Libyan revolution who hold sway in Libya’s second-largest city.


Who dragged US ambassador Christopher Stevens’ dead body through the streets of Benghazi on Tuesday, kicking and punching the corpse and shouting Allahu Akbar, or God is Great? While nobody has confessed to the brutal assault on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libyan officials and analysts are pointing the finger at the heavily-armed Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, or “Partisans of Islamic law”.

A fundamentalist group with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Sharia was formed during the 2011 Libyan revolution and rose to prominence after the death of Muammar Gaddafi. Made up of former rebels, or freedom fighters, the Salafist militia initially made their name by posting videos of themselves fighting Gaddafi loyalists in the Battle of Sirte.

According to that footage, it is possible to determine some 200 to 300 members of the armed group, Mathieu Guidère, author of “The Arab Spring: Democracy and Sharia”, told FRANCE 24 in an interview.

After the revolution and subsequent election failed to result in an Islamic state, Ansar al-Sharia vowed to continue their fight. They established headquarters in Benghazi and began marking their territory by securing control of local state and military outfits in the city, including the main hospital.

They went on to make a name for themselves in the national and international press, hitting the headlines in June for allegedly planning an attack against the British ambassador, and later in August for destroying Sufi shrines across the country. 

‘Sharia the only law’

One of multiple extremist militias operating in Libya, Ansar al-Sharia believes that only God has the authority to make law, rendering Libya’s current democracy invalid. Preaching that Sharia is the only form of true justice, they use the same grisly tactics as their neighbouring sister group, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, to get their point across.

As a political force, Ansar al-Sharia hold some sway in the political arena. For the country’s major parties – both the moderate National Forces Alliance and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP) – a small group like Ansar al-Sharia can be make-or-break when it comes to decision making. “Each of these small parties is an important force because everything hangs on just a few voices,” explained Mathieu Guidère.

These few voices could have a significant effect on the stability of Libya and its relationship with the rest of the world. For Mathieu Guidère, the attack on the embassy in Benghazi – which cost four Americans their lives – could very well be the work of Ansar al-Sharia. “The attack corresponds directly to an appeal from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who called on Libyan Salafists to target Americans in order to avenge the death of his former deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed on June 4 by a US drone in Pakistan”.

But on September 13, a spokesman for the group denied responsibility for the attack. “It was a peaceful protest, and the firing on the protesters inflamed the situation and gave it a different course,” Hani Mansouri said at a press conference. But he also added that the US should have evacuated its ambassador on September 11 as “a precautionary measure”.

On Thursday, Libyan officials arrested four people suspected of taking part in the attack and said they were closely monitoring others to see whether they are linked to any group.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning