US consulate ‘easy target’ for extremists

Hard questions asked about why diplomats were in a volatile region in Libya on the anniversary of September 11.

Colonel Hamid al-Hassi
Tribal elders gathered to condemn the attack on the US consulate and call for security [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]

Benghazi, Libya -The United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya was an easy target in a region flowing with heavy weapons and a history of extremist violence, top Libyan officials told Al Jazeera.

Fawzi Abd al-‘Aali, the interior ministry’s representative for eastern Libya, told Al Jazeera that the American diplomats should have heeded the advice of Libyan officials and evacuated the building as soon as the protest began.

Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and 10 Libyans were killed on Tuesday, after what began as a protest against a film mocking the Prophet Muhammed evolved into an armed attack.

“We expected something might happen, and we thought they would evacuate the American consulate sooner, while they still had a good chance,” he said.

During the first two hours of the protest, he said, the crowd was small enough that they would probably have been able to escape. Al-‘Aali said that Stevens had gravely miscalculated, and had believed the protest would soon die down.

Body of US ambassador to Libya flown home

At the same time, in the aftermath of the revolution, Libyan security forces are not well-trained or armed enough to combat the fighters who carried out the attack.

“The security forces weren’t trained to deal with this type of situation,” said Al-‘Aali, who was Libya’s interior minister until he resigned in August out of frustration that government security forces were so much weaker than the armed groups.

“This happened because of all the weapons: everyone is Libya is armed now,” he said. “Ex-prisoners and thieves who participated in the revolution have kept their arms.”

Al-‘Aali was far from alone in his belief that the killings at the US consulate happened because the government lacks the means to enforce security, and that militias are part of the problem.  

Indeed, a man who lives a couple of blocks from the US consulate and who was at home throughout the fighting told Al Jazeera there was chaos on the street until the next morning.

The area was not secured until approximately 10 hours after the attack, and outsiders were free to come and go, Ali Ouerfelli said in an interview not far from the consulate. “People were looting the consulate all night; they were stealing things until 8am the next morning,” the neighbour said.

Security forces ‘marginalised’

More than 500 tribal leaders and elders met at a conference organised by the Council of the Elders of Benghazi on Saturday to denounce the attack as “shameful” and contrary to the values of Islam.

As well as the consulate attacks, they condemned other recent acts by religious extremists, including the vandalism of the graves of foreign soldiers killed in World War II.

In a statement obtained by Al Jazeera, the leaders condemned what they view as the Libyan government’s dependence on militia groups, and the “marginalisation” of the national security forces, a situation that helped allow the attack on the US consulate to spiral out of control.

The recent violence that has shaken Libya’s second-largest city “resulted from misguided policies to strengthen the militias and to marginalise the army and police, causing chaos and disruption of law”, the statement read.

In Libya, the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and the extensive security apparatus the leader used to crush dissent has meant greater freedom not only for ordinary Libyans, but also for extremists who justify their use of violence in the name of Islam.

Gaddafi used the threat of domestic terrorism as an excuse to repress his people. By recasting himself as an ally in the “War on Terror” that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, he managed to end decades of ostracisation by the West.

Now, however, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Multiple sources confirmed that Libya no longer has an anti-terrorism unit. High-ranking officials experienced in the fight against violent extremism fled the country when the regime fell, and most now live in exile in Tunisia, Egypt or Algeria.

‘Uniquely vulnerable’

It appears that US officials paid little heed to the implications of this security vacuum for their own staff. The diplomatic mission in Benghazi had light security, even though the building was hit by an improvised explosive device on June 6.

The International Red Cross was attacked in Benghazi in May, and there was an attempted attack on the British ambassador’s motorcade.

There has been a spate of assassinations in Benghazi in recent months, which have killed more than a dozen top security officials who had defected from Gaddafi’s regime during the revolution.

General Mohamed Hadia al-Feitouri, for instance, was shot by unidentified gunmen on August 10. The general had been one of the first senior military officers to defect and was playing a significant role in the ministry of defence.

“They know there’s a lot of terrorism in Libya. They should take care of their ambassador.”

– Colonel Hamid al-Hassi

Colonel Hamid al-Hassi, a top military leader in eastern Libya, said the US should have been much more cautious about sending their ambassador to the region so soon after the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior Libyan member of al-Qaeda.

“I blame the Libyan government, and also the American government,” al-Hassi, who defected early in the revolution and was a top commander in the battle against Gaddafi forces during the revolution, told Al Jazeera.

Abu Yahya al-Libi, a leading member of al-Qaeda, was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan in June, al-Hassi noted. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, had called for retaliation for the death of the Libyan national.

“They killed an al-Qaeda leader and then send their ambassador on the anniversary of September 11,” he said, waving his arms in outrage. “They know there’s a lot of terrorism in Libya. They should take care of their ambassador.”

The Libyan president told Al Jazeera on Friday the attack was pre-planned and that there was probably some kind of al-Qaeda link.

The investigation into who was behind the attacks on the consulate is ongoing, however, and there is not yet any confirmed link to al-Qaeda. With so many well-armed and experienced fighters, and such an easy target, whoever committed the act did not necessarily need outside assistance.

Libyans are not the only one asking questions about what the diplomats were doing in Benghazi without adequate security precautions. The compound was “uniquely vulnerable”, the global intelligence company Stratfor said in a briefing note on Friday. Unlike the embassy in Tripoli, the compound in Benghazi was not built to US State Department standards, the Stratfor briefing said.

“The US government accountability review board that will be established to investigate the Benghazi attack will undoubtedly examine the decision to take Stevens into a city with a demonstrable jihadist threat on the anniversary of 9/11,” it said.

The US had no Marines in Libya at the time of the attack, George Little, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, said on Saturday. A platoon has been deployed to Libya in the wake of the attack, and Marines are defending US embassies in Egypt and Tunisia.

There was no such force to protect Stevens and his colleagues when they came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles.

President Barack Obama has ordered a security review for US diplomatic facilities across the globe, Jay Carney, a White House spokesperson, said on Friday.
You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan