The politicians in Washington are beating each other up over the Benghazi consulate attack. But they don't seem to be paying much attention to the evidence from the scene of the crime.
- By Christopher StephenChristopher Stephen reported from the Libyan war for The Guardian and is the author of Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York), 2005.
BENGHAZI, Libya — To be in Benghazi in the aftermath of the U.S. consulate attack is to find yourself living in a parallel world.
In front of your eyes, in a compound still reeking of smoke, is the evidence of a chaotic attack which left an ambassador slain thanks to a still more chaotic defense. But from Washington comes a stream of misreporting, errant briefings, and misinformed speculation that leaves you gasping.
Susan Rice still has to explain what piece of intelligence left her sure that this vicious attack morphed from an anti-American protest that everyone now acknowledges never happened. And some of her Republican foes are equally wide of the mark in insisting this was a well-run Al-Qaeda operation that has put America’s Mideast policy through the shredder.
The baffling truth is that the consulate attack was haphazard, poorly planned, and badly executed. It succeeded in killing ambassador Christopher Stevens, a fellow diplomat, and two brave former U.S. Navy SEALs, because security — normally the watchword of U.S. missions across the world — was close to non-existent.
Consider the evidence on the ground. Protests in Libya are popular affairs. In Benghazi, they are a nearly daily occurrence, the latest being by several hundred policemen who block traffic each night outside the central Tibesti Hotel, demanding back pay.
These protests are preceded by a flurry of information on Facebook, and followed by a torrent of grainy cell phone pictures of the event. For the consulate attack, there was nothing.
I got to Benghazi on the 13th, as the first reporters began picking their way through the detritus, and stayed on to watch the anger against the militias build among the population — along with indignation over the failure of police to show up and investigate the crime scene. (The image above shows the deserted consulate building as it looked last week.)
Plenty of people had a view of the dozen armed men gathering outside the back gate just prior to the attack, and all were adamant that there was no protest. The first the witnesses knew of the attack was the sound of gunfire from around the front of the embassy, followed by an attempt by a Libyan guard to escape through the rear. He was ordered back inside by the armed men who, say the witnesses, then fired through the back gate.
A genuinely organized attacking force would have blown open the gates. None of them show signs of damage, other than two bullets through one of the front gates and 22 through one of those on the back.
Still more baffling is the lack of any bullet holes inside the compound. The official State Department version is of a prolonged battle inside the compound as agents found themselves trapped inside buildings until a force of diplomats arrived to do battle with the intruders. If so, they did it with only two bullet strikes being left in the buildings.
Getting into the compound was easy enough: the back wall is low and easy to scramble over. But once inside (according to testimony from State Department officials who insist on anonymity), the attackers got into a firefight with the guards. If so, why are the buildings not pockmarked with bullet strikes?
The compound’s four buildings are burnt-out ruins, but this is due to arson. The only other damage is a single strike by a rocket propelled grenade above the main doors of the villa in the center of the compound.
Yet even this rocket was unnecessary: Fifteen feet away, the window of the ambassador’s bedroom, part of a group of "safe rooms," has no grille. The attackers, if they had been organized, could have got in that way had they seen it. Instead it was looters and the curious, arriving at midnight with the battle over, who got in and found the ambassador, dead or dying, amid the smoke.
The biggest mystery of all is how the diplomats got away, escaping, by their own account, in a single armored jeep. The jeep took fire as it raced along the narrow unpaved road out of the front gate, but any organized attacking force would have blocked the road with a couple of vehicles.
The final mystery is why the attackers, having left the compound to burn at midnight, then waited more two hours before launching an attack on a second U.S. compound a mile away.
Briefings in Washington paint this second compound as a secret site. Reuters reported last week: "The publication of satellite photos showing the site’s location and layout have made it difficult, if not impossible, for intelligence agencies to reoccupy the site, according to government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity."
The CIA may or may not have been using the compound for their own purposes, but the idea that it was "secret" leaves local people incredulous.
In fact, the compound was home to the officials who had no room in the consulate, which had limited sleeping space. Showing me around two days after the killings, the two landlords pointed to the outdoor gym the Americans had built for themselves, and a whiteboard by the gate with the instruction "Pick Up Your Trash Before Leaving."
They explained there was nothing secret about the place, nor were any fortifications installed: It is a small walled compound, similar to other compounds that sit along a residential street. The landlords were adamant that the local people knew Americans were there. There were cooks and cleaners, and the sight of officials commuting backwards and forwards to the consulate each day. And, perhaps of interest to State Department briefers, the site cannot be "reoccupied" because Libyan families have already moved into it.
The issue reached farcical proportions when a photograph of the site was displayed at a recent congressional hearing into the circumstances of the attack, only to be removed after complaints from lawmakers that security might be compromised. They apparently forgot that the jihadists already know the site is there, having targeted it with mortar rounds.
Though the evidence is far from complete, everything points to an attack thought up at short notice, one which succeeded only because someone took the decision not to give the consulate proper security.
What makes this inexplicable is that Benghazi had been in the grip of jihadist violence for six months, with bombs and rocket attacks on a string of diplomatic targets, including the consulate itself back in June. With no central authority and a city run by a patchwork of militias, the warning lights were glowing red.
This suggests the Obama administration has some big questions to answer about why the consulate was not better fortified. Libya has about 500 militias. The attack was carried out using weapons available to all of them. Why, then, was the consulate not designed to resist such an attack?
But it does not suggest that America’s Mideast policy is in tatters. Libya is not seething with anti-American resentment.
Consider that ten days after the attack there were riots in Benghazi aimed at the very militia, Ansar Al Sharia, blamed for Steven’s death. Consider that this militia was evicted from its base, and from a second 200 miles away in Derna. Some of its men have gone underground. More than 100 of them are now blockaded by army units in the Green Mountains, a forested wilderness east of Benghazi.
If anyone’s policy is in tatters, it is the Islamists’.
Islamist militias have a long history in Libya. Twenty years ago the Libya Islamic Fighting Group was formed, also in the Green Mountains, to battle the tyranny of Muammar Qaddafi. His response was to crush them, and many fled abroad.
Al Qaeda records captured in Iraq by U.S. forces in 2006 revealed that Libyans were the second largest group of foreign fighters in the insurgency. Guantanamo Bay had more than a dozen Libyan inmates, some of them still there.
Last year’s Arab Spring rebellion was supposed to be their big moment — the moment when they would finally form the vanguard in the defeat of Qaddafi. Instead, they were obliged to play a bit part in a much wider revolution, and a revolution whose heavy lifting was done by the Great Satan itself, a U.S.-led NATO coalition.
Nor have the Islamists done better at the ballot box: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom party was defeated in the July elections, with many Libyans, in what is a conservative Muslim country, unhappy about taking orders from self-proclaimed warriors of God.
Spend a few weeks in Benghazi, or for that matter in Cairo, and you realize that while "that film" which ridiculed the prophet Mohammed is seen as insulting, it is not seen, by the vast majority of Muslims, as the spur for attacks on foreign embassies.
The ordinary people who made last year’s Arab Spring revolutions possible are not raving jihadists. They are regular people who want a regular life — a life where they can live free, run a business, and send their kids to schools free of propaganda.
And almost forgotten in the Washington crossfire is the role Stevens took upon himself to build bridges. Call it whatever you want –"soft power" or a "helping hand" — but his aim in Libya was to encourage a myriad of small projects — be they civil rights groups, online media start-ups, or a collaboration deal between Benghazi’s largest hospital and Harvard Medical School.
His energy and his humility are remembered warmly in Benghazi. And his death is mourned, not least by those who fear that the gulf of misunderstanding between the West and the Muslim world just got wider.