DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And just preserving some semblance of order is the big challenge in neighboring Libya. That country's long-time dictator, Muammar Gaddafi was toppled from power two years ago and now the future of Libya as even a functioning state is in question. There has been increased lawlessness in that country. The militias that ousted Muammar Gaddafi are fighting with each other. A thousand inmates escaped in a prison break and there are assassinations of activists and police.
This week we learned that the United States charged a militia leader in Benghazi for the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens on September 11 of last year. Now, to learn more about all of this, we've reached New York Times correspondent Dave Kirkpatrick. He's worked extensively in Libya and he joins us this morning from Cairo. David, good morning.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Good morning.
GREENE: So let me start with these charges against this militia leader in the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. You actually interviewed the man accused of leading that attack a year ago. Tell us who he is.
KIRKPATRICK: He is Ahmed Abu Khattala. He is someone who we interviewed last fall shortly after the killing of the ambassador because witnesses in the area had seen him directing at least a part of the attack and officials said at that time that they considered him to be a suspect. He is at large in Benghazi, living at his home and that's a sign of how little reach, either the U.S. government or the Libyan government in Tripoli has into their own streets, especially Benghazi in the eastern part of the country.
GREENE: Yeah, I guess I wonder, I mean, to what extent is this really a test for the Libyan authorities, whether they can touch this guy and touch the militias.
KIRKPATRICK: In a certain sense, it's a test, but really this is the least of their worries. To the people in Libya, the events at the American consulate in Benghazi are almost a distraction from the larger issue of how to pull together a country for the first time. There really was no Libya as a kind of national unified entity before Gadhafi, and really, there wasn't that much of a national state under Gadhafi, either.
There was a façade of decision-making through this sort of people's congress, blah, blah, blah that never really had any power and all the power was wielded behind the scenes. And the danger is now that Libya is going to move into something similar, where there's now credible elections, a parliament, but it has no power and the real power remains with these independent armed groups around the country running their own little city states.
GREENE: Were the United States, Britain, France, I mean, who supported these NATO air strikes and supported the rebels in toppling Gadhafi, were they just overly optimistic about the future of this country?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, what they said at the time was that the Gadhafi government, as it existed, was not viable, especially given the level of popular opposition aroused by the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. And I think the leaders who were behind the attack would stick to that. The people in Libya are overwhelmingly glad that Gadhafi and the Gadhafi government is gone.
There was a recent poll published by Foreign Policy that they are, in fact, quite optimistic about their country's future.
GREENE: Where is this going? I mean, if we have these different militias who are wielding a lot of power and fighting with one another, I mean, are we looking at a potential civil war? I mean, where might this be headed?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, in a sense we're in a kind of state of chaos right now. Civil war, to an American mind, sounds like one region or ideological group against another. And in Libya, there isn't even that right now. If you're looking for a bright side, part of it is that Libya is really not divided by the kind of ideological rifts that occur in Egypt or in Tunisia or other countries.
You know, they are entering the political process as a blank slate, so how they get out of this state of chaos is totally unclear to me. But at the same time, I don't see it degenerating immediately into anything that could be called a civil war.
GREENE: David, thanks so much for talking to us.
KIRKPATRICK: It's a pleasure.
GREENE: That's David Kirkpatrick. He's the Middle East correspondent and Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.