Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
A member of the Libyan security forces secures the area around the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi on Sept. 14. Benghazi, and other parts of eastern Libya, are suffering from an acute lack of security, making it vulnerable to militant violence.
The deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel has highlighted the serious post-Moammar Gadhafi security vacuum in the country.
The problem is much bigger than a few rogue militants: Eastern Libya is awash with heavy weaponry; security forces are weak; assassinations are plaguing Benghazi; and the people with the biggest guns rule.
Raouf Mohammed knows all of this from personal experience, and he wears a silver ring as a reminder: It belonged to his father, Mohammed Hadiya, who was wearing it the day he was shot down outside a mosque.
Libyan followers of the Ansar al-Sharia militant group burn the U.S. flag during a protest in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 14.
Libyan followers of the Ansar al-Sharia militant group burn the U.S. flag during a protest in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 14. Mohammad Hannon/AP
Hadiya and at least 11 other former officers of Gadhafi's army have been assassinated over the past two months.
Nobody knows exactly why or by whom. But most believe it's because of their service to Gadhafi or their decision to defect.
Mohammed says his father asked his murderers, "Why?" before they shot him; they told him he was a traitor.
Hadiya, an officer in Gadhafi's army, defected last year and joined the revolt.
Raouf Mohammed's brother Nizar chimes in.
There is no security here at all, he says. The government is in Tripoli, and they ignore us, he says, adding that Libya is more than Tripoli.
The assassinations are just one disturbing sign of a breakdown in security in Libya's second-largest city. In Benghazi, there is no functioning justice system and no formal police force, and members of a government security contingent left their posts because they weren't getting paid. In the wake of the consulate attack, the deputy interior minister in charge of eastern Libya was sacked.
Fawzi Bokatif heads the powerful Feb. 17 brigade in Benghazi, which led the rebel fighters in the area against Gadhafi.
"Who is securing the streets? Nobody. The police don't do their jobs, and they still insist they are the official structure," he says. "The police [do] not fulfill their obligations."
The brigade is now one of the paragovernmental militias patrolling Benghazi. Bokatif's men were part of the rescue team for the Americans under attack last week.
Bokatif says extremist militants are armed, tribal violence is unchecked, and there is no government authority to hold anyone accountable. So people have resorted to violence and tribal law
"Everyone in Libya has weapons," he says. "It's not only Benghazi, all over Libya."
His men are unpaid fighters who have no real function in the government. But they are the only ones who appear to be securing the city.
"Nobody is protecting — nobody," he says. "There is a vacuum."
Bokatif says it isn't only a problem of the proliferation of weapons and bad governance, but also with the spreading of the Takfir ideology. Takfiris are extremists who decry other Muslims as unbelievers, or kafirs, if they don't agree with their extremist ideology.
Many of the young men who fought off the militants outside the consulate say the attackers were Takfir who accused them of being unbelievers as the assault unfolded.
Mohammed Jweifi, 24, was among those fighting the militants that night, and is the only one who will speak to NPR about it on tape.
"They say, 'You're a kafir, and you must die. You're protecting the Americans, you must be a kafir,' " he says.
Members of an extremist militia called Ansar al-Sharia have been implicated in the attack on the consulate. They are well known in Benghazi and have a base not far from the airport.
Bokatif says the government is too weak to take them on. But he says it's not something his fighters can do, either.
"This is a problem of legitimacy. If my people go there to attack them, we will have killing, have blood," he says. "Once there is blood, the government is not there, so we have to go through a tribal system and pay money."
Disputes in Benghazi are now solved with guns, kidnappings and hijackings, he says.
Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif acknowledges that there is a security vacuum. In an interview over the weekend, he said some radical groups have infiltrated security forces.
But the biggest problem, he said, is that the government has no control over the heavy weaponry that flooded Libya during the days of the rebellion.
While most Libyans are appalled by what happened at the consulate, they are also afraid that the attack was part of a trend of violence by militants that, if left unchecked, could engulf this new Libya.