- By Mary Habeck
The murder of the ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens — along with three other U.S. citizens — has brought Libya back into the American media spotlight. It should never have left. While our media has studiously ignored "post-conflict" Libya, the situation on the ground has steadily deteriorated, with armed militias fighting each other and the nominal government of the country for control on the ground. "Phase IV" in Libya has involved combat with tanks and heavy weaponry, continuing clashes in Tripoli and Libya’s other large cities, and even the seizure of the national airport at one point. Benghazi itself is one of the most dangerous places in Libya. Not only is the city home to a militia, Ansar al-Sharia, whose leaders have linkages to al Qaeda, but in April and June 2012 "militants" carried out a series of attacks in that city on the U.N., Red Cross, the U.S. consulate, and the British consulate, all international entities that al Qaeda has specifically targeted in other countries.
Now Ansar al-Sharia has been implicated responsibility for this latest attack on the U.S. consulate. If this is true, then Libya’s security problems are no longer a matter solely of local concern, but have global implications. Even before this attack there was evidence to suggest that al Qaeda was involved in Libya. Although there is no proof of al Qaeda participation in the original uprising against Qaddafi, high-ranking al Qaeda leaders did make their way to Libya at the end of 2011. Not long afterward the al Qaeda flag — a distinctive black banner adopted officially by al Qaeda in Iraq and other affiliates — was openly flown over public buildings; al Qaeda’s version of sharia was demanded and Sufi shrines attacked; and by the spring of 2012 an al Qaeda military unit was strong enough to hold a public parade in Sirte (Qaddafi’s former stronghold) featuring heavy weaponry and dozens of technicals. The entire region was in fact affected by al Qaeda’s presence in Libya: AQIM openly boasted of benefiting from Qaddafi’s weapons cache and many of the members of a new al Qaeda-linked group, Ansar al-Din, came out of Libya to take over northern Mali and impose al Qaeda’s version of sharia on a reluctant population.
It is worth emphasizing that we are facing far more than just further chaos in Libya and the possibility of an al Qaeda terrorism problem. The assault on the Benghazi consulate was a sophisticated and complex attack, involving automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), suggesting that Ansar al-Sharia is preparing for an insurgency and not just carrying out terrorist attacks. The group’s imposition of sharia and attempts at shadow governance in Benghazi (see their Facebook page for details), support this interpretation of the group’s longer-term objectives.
The death of Ambassador Stevens is a wake-up call to the U.S. The Arab Spring is in the process of being hijacked by al Qaeda and we ignore the spread of violence and of al Qaeda’s pernicious vision in the Middle East at our own peril.
Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases.| The Complex |
Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge.| The E-Ring |