Benghazi: What happened?

The tragic incident in Benghazi highlights ‘the government’s inability to assert its control over the state’.

Libya Benghazi ambassador
Some demonstrations in Benghazi condemned the attack on the US consulate [Reuters]

On the face of it, the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday evening seems a simple, if horrific, affair, but its implications for Libya itself are far wider. 

Why did it happen when it did? Who was really responsible? How could four Americans have been killed, given the United States’ role in ending the Gaddafi regime? And what are the implications for the Libyan government about to come into office? 

Why now? 

First, the timing; those involved claimed that they were protesting a film on Facebook insulting Prophet Mohammed. The film certainly did exist and it is profoundly insulting. It was made by “Sam Bacile”, who claimed to be an Israeli-American property developer in California who has now gone into hiding, protesting that he never anticipated such a reaction.  

Well, that is difficult to believe: Bacile said he had it dubbed in Arabic by a Coptic friend of his as part of an ongoing anti-Islam campaign in the United States which is now so intense that the Muslim Public Affairs Council in the US has just published a brief exposing the top 25 anti-Muslim rabble-rousers, in an attempt to stop the polarisation of public opinion. 


 US consulate employee killed in Libya attack

Nor is Bacile alone in his attempt to inflame Muslim opinion; Pastor Jones of Florida, already notorious for threatening to burn the Quran last year, is behind another anti-Muslim film which is doing the rounds. And he had planned an event timed for last Tuesday to highlight the “threat” that Islam, he believes, poses to Western values. 

And, of course, it is no accident that all these initiatives should have emerged at the time when they did; at a time when public opinion, both in the United States and in the Muslim world, is especially sensitive about the claims they embody. But, of course, that may not be the only or even the real reason for the incident and the parallel violent demonstration outside the US embassy in Cairo. 

Just a few days ago, the current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman Zawahiri, admitted that a US drone attack had killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, his close and trusted collaborator. He called on Libyans to avenge al-Libi’s death which, in fact, had actually occurred in June but which al-Qaeda had not confirmed.  

Indeed, back in June, shortly after claims of al-Libi’s death emerged, there was an attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in an apparent revenge, although nobody at the time was hurt. Interestingly enough, Zawahiri’s incitement is the explanation preferred by Noman Benotman, of the Quilliam Foundation, a former member of the Islamist opposition to the Gaddafi regime in the 1990s. 

Who did it? 

And that, of course, raises the question of who did it? The initial reports of the violence in Benghazi suggested that those responsible were members of “Ansar al-Sharia”, one of the many extremist Salafi groups that have emerged in Eastern Libya since the revolution, as part of an older tradition of extremism dating back to the 1990s. It has been accused, most recently by Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of Libya’s major political coalition, of being responsible for several recent assassinations in Benghazi. 

Yet, the deputy Libyan interior minister also claimed that the attack had been carried out by pro-Gaddafi elements. The claim is not as surprising as it may sound, for there have been a series of attacks and assassinations by such groups in Tripoli in recent weeks, often masquerading as Islamist incidents. And, in any case, only a few days ago, Abdullah Senussi, Colonel Gaddafi’s former security head, was extradited, surprisingly, to Libya, a betrayal they might well want to avenge. 

“Whoever did attack the consulate came well-prepared, with rocket-propelled grenades and sufficient small arms to outfight and outgun the consulate’s guards, both Libyans and Americans.”

What is clear is that, whoever did attack the consulate came well-prepared, with rocket-propelled grenades and sufficient small arms to outfight and outgun the consulate’s guards, both Libyans and Americans. Indeed two American marines were amongst the dead, together with the ambassador and a consulate information officer. Nor were the numbers involved in the actual attack so large; estimates range between 20 and 50 men who were quite separate from other, peaceful protesters who were certainly there because of their anger about the offending film. 

Nor, indeed, is this the first time that such an incident has provoked such demonstrations.  On February 17, 2006, 14 people were killed by Libyan security forces outside the Italian consulate after an Italian member-of-parliament had provocatively worn, on a TV channel watched in Libya, a tee-shirt bearing one of the 2005 Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, which had caused a storm of protest throughout the Middle East. 

How could it have happened? 

Given US obsession with the security of its posts overseas ever since the original US embassy hostage crisis and subsequent bombings elsewhere in the early 1980s, it seems surprising that the American ambassador to Libya should have been so lightly protected and that the consulate building had such limited protection too. It was apparently a rocket-propelled grenade that started the fire in the building, in which the ambassador died whilst hasty arrangements were being made to move the staff to a safe house. 

Yet, the building also had Libyan guards who, by all accounts, were outgunned and effectively stood aside. Even after the attack, there was no attempt to cordon off the burning building, and locals were able to loot it at will. Yet, even though the attackers were well-armed, their numbers were small and surely the local authorities would have gone out of their way to protect the representatives of a state that had contributed so heavily to Libya’s own victory last year. 

In fact, the tragic incident in Benghazi highlights what is becoming the major systemic crisis in Libya; the inability of the government to assert its control over the state. Libya is still in thrall to a myriad of militias which do not necessarily listen to the central authorities in Tripoli. Some have been co-opted into the government’s emerging security organisation – through the ministry of defence’s Libyan Shield, which brings the Zintan and the Misurata militias together, ostensibly under government control; others have been conscripted into the ministry of the interior’s Supreme Security Committee, whilst the remnants of the Libyan army are being labouriously reassembled. 

But there is still no central authority capable of imposing its will on Libya overall and, until this is achieved, it is difficult to be optimistic about the successful conclusion of Libya’s painful transition from the dictatorship of the jamahiriya to a democratic state.   In short, what the tragic violence in Benghazi tells us is that the United States has seen its diplomats there fall victim to the security failure that has emerged from the civil war. 

George Joffe is a Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.