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Five Months After: Killers Frolic Untouched in Benghazi

by Barry Rubin

Five months ago, radical Islamists in Libya murdered four American officials. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the Obama Administration would not rest until those responsible were caught.

Yet it seems as if nothing has been done. Indeed, just as the White House did nothing on September 11, 2012, when the U.S. consulate was under attack it has done nothing serious since and is doing nothing now.

Want proof?

Consider this report:

“Just days after President Barack Obama vowed to hunt down and bring to justice those responsible for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound here, Ahmed Abu Khattala — one of those considered a ringleader — spent two leisurely hours Thursday evening at a luxury hotel full of journalists, relaxed in a red fez and sandals, sipping mango juice on a patio overlooking the Mediterranean and scoffing at the threats coming from both the American and Libyan governments.

“Libya’s fledgling national army was a "national chicken," Abu Khattala said, using an Arabic rhyme. Asked who should take responsibility for apprehending the mission’s attackers, he chuckled at the weakness of the Libyan authorities. And he accused U.S. leaders of "playing with the emotions of the American people" and "using the consulate attack just to gather votes for their elections."

Or this:

“Ali Harzi, a 26-year-old Tunisian extradited from Turkey in October, was one of the only people actually detained over the attack and at the time Tunisian authorities said they "strongly suspected" he was involved.

“On Tuesday, however, his lawyer Anwar Oued-Ali said the presiding judge had "conditionally freed" Harzi the night before for lack of evidence. He must remain in the Tunis area to be available for any further questioning.

“U.S. officials in December lamented the lack of cooperation with the governments of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in their ongoing investigation into the attack, saying most of the suspects remain free.

“In Libya especially, investigating the attack is difficult because authorities rely on the numerous militias made up of tens of thousands of young Libyans who took up arms against former leader Muammar Qaddafi. It is often difficult to draw clear lines between those providing security and those causing instability.

The first article was published in the New York Times last October. The second was a CBS item in January. So these things can be found in the American mass media—congratulations to those I so often criticize—but do not find their way into the policy debate.

At least, the militia that all witnesses identified as being responsible had to cease activities in Benghazi for a while though leaders still hung out at cafes there with no one bothering them.

Well, now they’re back to business as normal. The lesson taught is this one: Kill four American officials and there is absolutely no cost for you. Obama can be said to have killed Osama. Americans are impressed but that event has no strategic implications for the Middle East or even for, in practical terms, al-Qaida's affiliates. 

The Ansar al-Sharia (Helpers of the Sharia) now control Benghazi’s western entrance, a southern checkpoint, and security at a hospital. One passing car honks to greet the Ansar al-Sharia guards and waves the al-Qaida flag out the window at them.

As Reuters puts it, this and other such radical Islamist groups “are also held up as heroes of the Libyan uprising by some locals who say they are doing a better job of the protecting them than the government in distant Tripoli.”

"These men are also people who fought on the front lines, care about their city and provide services. We can't shun them," said Benghazi University professor Iman Bugaighis, referring to several  militias. "We had to ask them to come back and protect our hospital and streets."

Yes, they fought on the front lines with courage—Islamists often speak of sacrificing their lives in jihad and martyrdom—but the victory was handed to them by NATO, a NATO led by the United States, and a United States whose officials the Ansar al-Sharia killed perhaps because they were trying to get some of the weapons back.

But wait a minute! The current Libyan government is a client of the United States. Can’t the White House pressure the Libyan government to push forward the investigation? To detain those identified by witnesses as the attackers?

Or isn’t it trying? Perhaps it isn’t trying because it knows the Libyan government isn’t eager or isn’t able to confront the terrorists.

And the U.S. government doesn’t want to take direct action since that would presumably be too bullying and unilateral.

At the Ansar al-Sharia's western checkpoint one of the cars honks at the men in greeting and a passenger waves the black and white flag of al Qaeda.

"The [Libyan] government lost a very good opportunity after our 'Rescue Benghazi' event [which pushed the militias out of town following the attack on the consulate] to control these militias, break them apart and absorb them into legitimate bodies," said Younes Najim, an organizer of the campaign to push Ansar al-Sharia out. Note that Najim's solution is to have the Ansar al-Sharia join the army and police.

"It will take time, but the longer the government takes to organize its security here, the stronger some groups will make themselves to become parallel forces to the government."

Right. But why didn't the U.S. government follow up on the momentum built by the Rescue Benghazi  movement? As for the Libyan government, it cannot and will not control them for a very good reason. The government is relatively weak—especially in Benghazi—and its “regular” military forces are made up of ex-militiamen who might be very sympathetic to Ansar al-Sharia.

As  result, the radical Islamist militias may some day overthrow the Libyan government just as such smaller Salafist forces will help the Muslim Brotherhood suppress opposition and install a Sharia state in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.

In other words, the U.S. government has poured in weapons and money and diplomatic support to create and sustain a regime which may be made up of relatively decent people but cannot lift a finger to catch, punish or outlaw al-Qaida supporters and those who have murdered Americans in cold blood. Again, remember this is not a hostile country which provides a safe haven to anti-American terrorists, like Iran or Lebanon, but a U.S. client state established largely with U.S. military aid and direct assistance. They're not hiding out in caves or in the depths of jungles but strolling the streets in a country that is supposedly a U.S. ally.

Today, Libya; tomorrow, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, not necessarily in terms of al-Qaida itself (except in Syria) but in terms of anti-American Islamist groups that are quite willing to attack U.S. targets in the Middle East.

Here’s what Obama said in his State of the Union message—which didn’t mention his alleged pursuit of the Benghazi terrorists:

“Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving.”

In other words, al-Qaida is weakened to the point of collapse but then again … it isn’t.

“But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya and Somalia provide for their own security … And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”

Now that is a perfect model of what should be done: cooperation with American allies when possible; direct action when necessary. But that hasn’t happened. The allies are too weak or are even in bed with the terrorists themselves. The “ally” that the U.S. government is depending on to take care of the terrorists for it is the Muslim Brotherhood.  Incidentally, the Libyan government is also the biggest single financial donor -- presumably with behind-the-scenes U.S. encouragement or even pressure--to the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated group in Syria.

That’s why Obama didn’t mention Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon or Syria in his speech about counter-terrorism. CIA director John Brennan is directing such a policy but it isn’t good to say that too publicly or in front of a joint session of Congress.

And elsewhere—here’s where Yemen, Libya and Somalia come in--regimes cannot provide for their own security. Or, to reframe the issue, what if they can only provide for their own security by ignoring or even undermining U.S. interests?

Yes, it's much easier to throw some California-based video-maker into prison than to do anything effective.

The night of September 11, 2012, was the perfect time to “continue to take direct action against those terrorists.” Instead, Obama went to sleep and he has yet to wake up. And there's graphic proof for that assertion in the streets of Benghazi today.

Barry Rubin is a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, the Director of the Global Research and International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a Senior Fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism. Rubin has written and edited more than 40 books on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, with publishers including Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge University Press.

This article appeared origianlly on Rubin Reports