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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. This report will take us deep inside the armed groups that operate in eastern Libya. It's in that region, in the city of Benghazi, where the U.S. ambassador and other Americans were murdered last week.

MONTAGNE: U.S. investigators say they are looking into the involvement of Ansar al-Sharia, whose members are ultra-conservative and well-armed. The group has denied responsibility for the attack, but it is not condemning it.

INSKEEP: We're about to hear an interview with two leaders of that group. NPR's Leila Fadel found them in Benghazi.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It's one of the most powerful Islamist militias in eastern Libya - Ansar al-Sharia. This brigade claims hundreds of men who fought fiercely, with U.S. and NATO support, to unseat Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi last year. It has now made itself a vital part of the patchwork security apparatus in the second-largest city in Libya; guarding hospitals, and solving tribal and family disputes.

It's certainly not a secret cell. Its headquarters are marked with a sign outside, as are its vehicles. But if the United States had hoped to remake post-Gadhafi Libya into a secular democracy in its own image, it's not a vision these men share. In a rare interview, Mohammed Zahawi, the head of Ansar al-Sharia, makes that clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MOHAMMED ZAHAWI: (Through translator) We are trying to show the people that Islam is the solution to their problems. As for the bankrupt calls for Western democracy, liberalism and secularism, what did democracy give to the West? Social collapse, moral collapse, economic collapse.

FADEL: The West, he says, has nothing to offer Libya. As other Libyans celebrated the country's first free elections, this group rejected the democratic process entirely. In their interpretation, only God's law applies.

Ansar al-Sharia follows the most literal interpretation of Islam; a narrow view that would ban mingling of the sexes, and what they consider Western vices. Their rejection of any U.S. hand in reshaping Libya is so vehement, that they're willing to relinquish Libya's lifeblood - its vast oil reserves, the reason they believe that the Obama administration helped them in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

ZAHAWI: (Through translator) They can have the petrol if they want, so long as they just leave us alone. We waive our rights to petrol. Let them take it. Just don't intervene in implementing our religion and Islamic law.

FADEL: This talk not only strikes fear among Western observers but among many Libyans; even in the conservative city of Benghazi, where many worry about the group's intolerance. While most Libyans eagerly share their stories with Western journalists, the leaders of this group would only meet with me on the condition that I cover my face, hands and hair.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Even then, although I was shrouded in black, they only addressed the male translator, and turned their chairs to avoid looking at me. As unpopular as their views may be among fellow Libyans, their role is too important to drive them out. The gaping security vacuum, and a weak transitional government, has led to rising crime and drug use. Ansar al-Sharia has stepped in to fill the void; helping residents sort out family problems, and solve petty crime, in the total absence of any working justice system.

That's the role Ansar al-Sharia wants to emphasize. It denies all links to al-Qaida, and any role in the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other American staffers. The accusation, Zahawi says, is just part of a propaganda war by liberals, to undermine them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

ZAHAWI: (Through translator) The liberal and secularists were all raised in the West; they were raised in openness, nakedness and decay. They know that in an Islamic state, they can't get to their vices. That's why they are waging a war against Islam.

FADEL: Another Ansar al-Sharia leader, Nasser Tarshani, dismissed claims by defacto head of state Mohamed Magariaf that al-Qaida used some members of Ansar al-Sharia to carry out the attack.

NASSER TARSHANI: (Through translator) If he has proof of that, let him show it. Now any political movement that wants to win, they use the al-Qaida scarecrow. We know this game. It's obvious.

FADEL: They're not interested in provoking the West right now. At the same time, they definitely don't consider America a friend, and have no interest in pursuing warm relations with the country that was instrumental in toppling their old oppressor.

TARSHANI: (Through translator) We do not want to enter a struggle that we have no strength for. We are trying to introduce the just and right Islam.

FADEL: Any American attempts to retaliate for the death of its personnel would backfire, the leaders say. At that point, it could even draw al-Qaida into the fight over the future of this fragile transitional nation.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Benghazi.

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