The Cable

New terror report tracks deterioration of Libya ahead of Benghazi attack

The State Department released its annual report on terrorism today, a sprawling tome of analysis on terror hotbeds around the world. Natural highlights include Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the department says al Qaeda’s core leadership “has been significantly degraded,” and Iran, where its support for terrorism has “reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with ...

The State Department released its annual report on terrorism today, a sprawling tome of analysis on terror hotbeds around the world.

Natural highlights include Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the department says al Qaeda’s core leadership “has been significantly degraded,” and Iran, where its support for terrorism has “reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa.”

The report also goes into some detail on Libya, where a U.S.-led intervention that ousted dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi has left the country radiating instability across North Africa and beyond.

Foggy Bottom identifies a perfect storm of factors that contributed to the deteriorating conditions in Libya prior to the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

“The prevalence of loose weapons, the continued ability of extra-governmental militias to act with impunity, the country’s porous borders, and the lack of government capacity to apply the rule of law outside of Tripoli contributed to this insecurity,” reads the report.

Those conditions won’t exactly surprise readers who’ve been following events in Libya over the last year. But the report does give a backward-looking take on the situation prior to the Benghazi attack, and a forward-looking take on the efforts Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and his cabinet have undertaken to strengthen the country’s national security institutions.

The report comes one day after the president of the General National Congress, Mohamed al-Magariaf, resigned his post in anticipation of a law that comes into effect next month prohibiting anyone who held a senior government position in the Qaddafi government from higher office.

Looking back, the report chronicles in succinct detail the string of terror incidents prior to the Benghazi attacks, which do not inspire a lot of confidence in the country’s stability:

  • On February 6, gunmen allegedly killed five refugees in a Tripoli camp.
  • On May 22, assailants launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s building in Benghazi. The violent Islamist extremist group Brigades of Captive Omar Abdul Rahman claimed responsibility for the attack. The ICRC evacuated Benghazi in mid-July.
  • On June 4, approximately 200 armed fighters from the al-Awfea Brigade surrounded the international airport in Tripoli. The gunmen drove armed trucks onto the tarmac and surrounded several planes, which forced the airport to cancel all fights. The armed men were demanding the release of one of their military leaders who was being held by Tripoli’s security forces.
  • On June 6, violent extremists attacked the U.S. facilities in Benghazi with an improvised explosive device (IED). The group claimed that the attack was in retaliation for the assassination of Abu-Yahya al-Libi, the second highest ranking leader of al-Qa’ida.
  • On June 11, a convoy carrying the British Ambassador to Libya was attacked in Benghazi.
  • On June 12, assailants attacked the ICRC office in Misrata, wounding one.
  • In August, there was a series of attacks against security personnel and facilities, including the bombing of the Benghazi military intelligence offices on August 1, a car bombing near the Tripoli military police offices on August 4, and the explosion of three car bombs near the Interior Ministry and other security buildings in Tripoli on August 19, killing at least two. Libyan security officials arrested 32 members of an organized network loyal to Qadhafi.
  • On August 10, Army General Hadiya al-Feitouri was assassinated in Benghazi.
  • On August 20, a car belonging to an Egyptian diplomat was blown up near his home in Benghazi.
  • On September 11, terrorists attacked the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three staff members.

Looking ahead, it notes that despite these security challenges, it’s something of a miracle that the Transitional National Council peacefully transferred power to a democratically elected parliament in the form of the General National Congress.

“Zeidan and his cabinet have prioritized efforts to strengthen and centralize national security institutions, integrate and disarm armed militias, and confront criminal and terrorist groups that have taken advantage of the security vacuum,” reads the report. “This government has recognized that continued instability threatens Libya’s democratic transition and economic future.”

Despite giving broad support for Libya’s fledgling government, the report lists a range of legacy issues reflective of years of Qaddafi’s oppressive rule — from the courts to the police force to the military.

“Any legislation seeking to limit the power of heavily-armed, extra-governmental militias has been difficult to enforce, and Libyan judges did not hear criminal cases for fear it could lead to revenge attacks against them,” reads the report. “Police and military personnel and facilities were the frequent targets of attacks by pro-Qadhafi and violent Islamist extremist groups, who fiercely resisted any efforts by the government to exert its authority.”

In short, this is a government that says all the right things, and in principle the State Department supports, but has yet to demonstrate an ability to root out dangerous militia groups within its borders.

Read the whole report here.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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