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Benghazi, Libya, has become training hub for Islamist fighters

Every week, about a dozen Syrians arrive at Benghazi’s airport for what’s described as insurgent training. When they fly out, they’re carrying fake Libyan passports, according to three officials familiar with the comings and goings of foreigners at the airport.

The accounts of the officials, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic, are more evidence that this city in Libya has become a regional hub for Islamist extremists seeking to hone their combat skills.

Fighters from Tunisia and Algeria also are thought to be training here, driving across Libya’s borders to reach Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising that, with NATO’s help, toppled Moammar Gadhafi two years ago. But the Syrians’ routine arrival and departure by air indicates that the training process is better organized and financed than had been realized.

It also raises questions about the role of Libya’s homegrown militia, Ansar al Shariah, in the global jihadi movement. Ansar al Shariah has its roots in the anti-Gadhafi uprising and it’s thought to have participated in the attack last year on U.S. facilities in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Any effort to train al Qaida-linked fighters here is unlikely to have gone forward without the backing of Ansar al Shariah, experts in the organization say.

The Benghazi airport officials said that in the face of weak government forces and Ansar al Shariah supporters among their personnel, there’s little they can do to stop fighters from arriving or from leaving illegally, even though their fake passports are easily detected. By leaving on Libyan passports, they avoid legal requirements that they report their activities while they’re in the country, the airport officials told McClatchy.

“It is easier to leave Libya that way. They fly to Istanbul and sneak back into Syria,” one airport employee said. “They use the Libyan passport once.” The three airport officials said they saw anywhere from 10 to 15 fighters each week.

Airport authorities can’t stop them because they themselves fear the repercussions of confronting militants. As one employee explained, pointing to an immigration official: “He is with Ansar al Shariah.”

“There is nothing we can do to stop it,” a second official told McClatchy. “But everyone knows who they are.”

Libya’s minister of justice, Salah al Marghani, told McClatchy that the government is unaware of fighters coming to the country for training, but he acknowledged that Libya’s security situation would allow “such groups to move freely.”

“I would not be surprised if foreign fighters are involved like this. . . . We have a lot of challenges,” he said. “Thank you for letting me know so we can investigate this.”

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan conceded in a recent interview with The Washington Post that government investigations have turned up Tunisians, Algerians, Sudanese and Nigerians undergoing training in Benghazi.

Despite the regular arrival and departure of fighters undergoing training, Zeidan told the Post that “there are no permanent camps.” He said he thought most fighters stayed only one or two days.

Other officials told McClatchy they don’t know how long the fighters stay.

What is clear, however, is that in the months since U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others died here in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on U.S. facilities, Ansar al Shariah’s presence in Benghazi has grown, despite the initial public reaction, which drove it from its headquarters into hiding in the days immediately after Stevens’ death.

Beyond Benghazi, where it was founded, the group has spread to eastern cities that were key to the 2011 uprising, including Ajdabiya and Derna. Residents told McClatchy that the difference now is that rather than operate as an open organization from a headquarters, the group has melted into the population.

“They have created cells in Benghazi,” said Mohammed Idreesi, a political activist here. “They can gather themselves in seconds. . . . Ansar al Shariah is stronger now.”

The group also is working hard to provide services such as health care in a push to earn the support of residents, who generally say they’d like government forces, not militias, to secure their cities. A poll of 1,200 Libyans conducted in September by the National Democratic Institute, a congressional-funded U.S. organization that works with pro-democracy groups around the world, found 92 percent had a negative view of militias that have formed since Gadhafi’s fall, and 95 percent said the militias should be disarmed.

Despite that, the Libyan government’s nascent security forces have been unable to impose their will on Ansar al Shariah, which apparently now can call on foreigners to fill out its ranks.

Last month, when militants attacked an army checkpoint here near the now-abandoned Ansar al Shariah headquarters, killing seven soldiers and two civilians, foreign fighters were among the attackers, witnesses said. They said they knew the militants weren’t Libyan by their dialect.

“I heard Tunisians and Algerians,” said Ramadan Mustafa, 18, who was near the 2:30 a.m. assault. “I did not stay. The army told us to turn back.”

After that attack, Libyan government officials boasted that Ansar al Shariah had fled. But the group was thought to be back within days, declaring its presence with the assassination last Saturday of a police colonel, who died when a bomb planted under his car exploded. The next day, a car bomb targeted the police colonel’s funeral, killing at least one person and wounding five.

Marghani, the justice minister, said Ansar al Shariah’s growth had hampered Libya’s investigation of the Stevens case.

“Maybe if the security forces improve, that case will move faster,” he said.