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Giving Extremists Space in Libya

Ann Marlowe

There is good news today from Libya in that President Mohammed Magarief has ordered the disbanding of all unauthorized militias. While the question of who is—and who is not—authorized is not as simple as it may appear, Magarief’s move is a welcome assertion of the state’s monopoly on violence in a country where this concept is poorly understood. Still, even if the nascent state is able to bring all armed groups under control, there are aspects of the Libyan attitude toward armed Islamic extremists that remain troubling.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Libyan culture is the willingness to tolerate even those who are violently intolerant, like the Islamic extremist groups who killed four Americans in Benghazi last week. I’ve tried to explain to Libyan friends that in the US, people who form militias opposing the government are killed. The state has a monopoly on violence. But in Libya, people say that they have to talk to al-Qaeda elements or other extremist militias. In Derna, locals were proud of having banished Ansar al-Sharia commandos to the mountains and caves around the city. I’d half-expected people in Derna to ask for US Special Forces help in finding and capturing them, but no. While they deplored the absence of the Libyan police and army, there was no sense that killing the extremists was a crucial point. Instead, they worried that driving out the extremists prevented a “dialogue” with them….

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