Return to the Events in Benghazi
The NYT has a rather thorough piece detailing the events leading up to, and encompassing, the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi that is worth a read: A Deadly Mix in Benghazi.
The piece is framed as follows:
Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.
One has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.
The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.
The piece is, by internet standards, lengthy, but is worth reading in full. The story presented does confirm more the general narrative presented by the administration (although it does not defend the Rice statements) far more than it does the cover-up theory approach, so this will likely color how many read it.
The narrative nature of the piece does leave open some question about how some of the information was obtained (although in many cases specific sourcing is noted). The piece does not deal with the response to the attacks, but rather with the immediate lead up and the night itself.
A few things that are worth noting.
One, the main attack was not spontaneous. The piece details quite a bit about this, and in a way that is difficult to excerpt. The section titled “Bedlam” describes the compound being cased in advance of a coordinated attack.
Witnesses at the scene of the attack identified many participants associated with Ansar al-Shariah. Mr. Abu Khattala’s presence and leadership were evident. He initially hung back, standing near the crowd at Venezia Road, several witnesses said. But a procession of fighters hurried to him out of the smoke and gunfire, addressed him as “sheikh” and then gave him reports or took his orders before plunging back into the compound.
A local Benghazi official named Anwar el-Dos arrived on the scene and identified Mr. Abu Khattala as directing the fighters, people present said. Then Mr. Dos approached Mr. Abu Khattala for help entering the compound.
Two, the notion that this was part of a grand plan of al Qaeda in the broad, international sense of the organization does not appear to be supported by the evidence.
But the Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with Al Qaeda’s international terrorist network. The only intelligence connecting Al Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of Al Qaeda, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker’s boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.
Al Qaeda was having its own problems penetrating the Libyan chaos. Three weeks after the attack, on Oct. 3, 2012, leaders of the group’s regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, sent a letter to a lieutenant about efforts to crack the new territory. The leaders said they had sent four teams to try to establish footholds in Libya. But of the four, only two in the southern Sahara “were able to enter Libyan territory and lay the first practical bricks there,” the letter said.
The letter, left behind when the group’s leaders fled French troops in Mali, was later obtained and released by The Associated Press. It tallied up the “spectacular” acts of terrorism the group had accomplished around the region, but it made no mention of Benghazi or any other attacks in Libya.
More than a year later, the group appears more successful. People briefed on American intelligence say the regional affiliate has established a presence in Derna.
Here’s the BBC’s definition of Ansar al-Sharia:
Comprising former rebels from several militias based in eastern Libya – notably the Abu Obayda bin al-Jarah Brigade, Malik Brigade and 17 February Brigade – Ansar al-Sharia is a Salafi militia which came to prominence in June 2012 when it paraded armed vehicles in central Benghazi to demand the imposition of Islamic law, or Sharia. It stands accused by the US of being part of the events that led to the burning of the US consulate in Benghazi and the killing of US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in September 2012. These events triggered a popular revolt against the militia, prompting it to flee the city, but it later returned and ensconced itself in a number of former army bases.
Although Ansar al-Sharia has helped provide security in public places, such as al-Jalaa hospital, it has also been accused of human rights abuses, and was involved in the destruction of Sufi shrines in Benghazi and elsewhere.
According to one observer, Noman Benotman, a former member of the Libyan Islamic fighting group who currently leads the Quilliam Foundation’s work on de-radicalizing jihadists in the UK and abroad, Ansar al-Sharia is less an organisation and more an amorphous coalition of Islamist and Salafi groups active in eastern Libya.
Three, in fact, it does appear that some of the activity was motivated by anger over the video:
Then, on Sept. 8, a popular Islamist preacher lit the fuse by screening a clip of the video on the ultraconservative Egyptian satellite channel El Nas. American diplomats in Cairo raised the alarm in Washington about a growing backlash, including calls for a protest outside their embassy.
No one mentioned it to the American diplomats in Libya. But Islamists in Benghazi were watching. Egyptian satellite networks like El Nas and El Rahma were widely available in Benghazi. “It is Friday morning viewing,” popular on the day of prayer, said one young Benghazi Islamist who turned up at the compound during the attack, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
By Sept. 9, a popular eastern Libyan Facebook page had denounced the film. On the morning of Sept. 11, even some secular political activists were posting calls online for a protest that Friday, three days away.
The notion that ideologically-slanted news channel and social media could create a significant level of discontent is certainly a realistic scenario.
Indeed, after the initial attack:
Soon scores, if not hundreds, of others were racing to the scene. Some arrived with guns, some with cameras. The attackers had posted sentries at Venezia Road, adjacent to the compound, to guard their rear flank, but they let pass anyone trying to join the mayhem. Witnesses said young men rushing inside had left empty pickup trucks from Ansar al-Shariah, but also all the other big militias ostensibly allied with the government.
There is no doubt that anger over the video motivated many attackers. A Libyan journalist working for The New York Times was blocked from entering by the sentries outside, and he learned of the film from the fighters who stopped him. Other Libyan witnesses, too, said they received lectures from the attackers about the evil of the film and the virtue of defending the prophet.
The scene appears to have gone from attack to a mob:
Witnesses described utter bedlam inside. Men looted suits of clothes and carried them out on their hangers. They lugged out televisions. Some emerged from buildings clutching food they had found, and one poured what appeared to be Hershey’s chocolate syrup into his mouth. Others squabbled over trophies as small as a coil of rope left on the ground.
A newly acquired and uninstalled generator sat near the main gate, with large cans of fuel beside it. Attackers stumbled upon it within 15 minutes of entering the compound, according to officials who have seen the video footage, and soon begun using the fuel to set fire to vehicles and buildings.
Four, as the piece also details, US security was woeful given the conditions. For example:
The compound had a total of eight armed guards that night: five Americans and three Libyans affiliated with the February 17 militia. All of them fell back. The Americans raced to grab their weapons in the compound’s other buildings but then found a swarm of attackers blocking their way to the main villa.
This continues to appear, to me, as a case of inadequate security in a very volatile situation that went very badly and not a situation that has been worthy of the grand conspiracy theories that it was generated. But, of course, mileage will vary. Regardless, I recommend the linked piece.
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