The Ghosts of Benghazi

Did the killing of the U.S. ambassador a year ago cast a curse on the city he loved?


TRIPOLI, Libya — A year to the day after the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the radicals were back — detonating a massive car bomb that destroyed the city’s foreign ministry building.

Unlike a year ago, the attack was timed to avoid casualties, detonating before staff came into work, but it was hard to miss the symbolism — local people say that the building housed a previous U.S. consulate, dating from the time of King Idris, half a century before. The bomb left the building, home to the government’s eastern department of foreign affairs, a smoking ruin.

Across town the smoke-stained yellow walls of the Benghazi villa where Ambassador Stevens died mark the place when the bubble burst on Libya in the eyes of the world.

For twelve months prior to the attack on the U.S. mission, from the ending of the NATO air strikes through elections the following summer, western powers could count intervention here a success. A ruthless tyrant, Muammar al-Qaddafi, had been vanquished and democracy installed. Britain, France, and the United States, prime movers in the military intervention, could tick the success box because democracy had taken root.

That changed in one night of violence here at this compound, now deserted and eerily quiet. Burned-out vehicles rust by the main gates, and piles of white sandbags, their sides split, spill their muddy contents. Inside the burned out villa where Stevens’s body was found, little post-it stickers remain where they were affixed by the FBI team who visited last October.

For the outside world, the death of the first U.S. ambassador to be slain since 1979 brought a new narrative to Libya. It was the place where a top U.S. official could be killed, and nobody would be brought to justice.

The effects of the killing have been profound. Among citizens of Benghazi, the inability or unwillingness of security agencies to prosecute those responsible underlines the chaos of the state.

That chaos has gone marching on from that day. Government has grown steadily weaker, to the point where rebels in the east and west have blockaded almost all Libya’s oil production. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has threatened to use troops to shift the strikers, but many of those troops are manning the blockades. There is talk of Cyrenaica, of which Benghazi is the capital, breaking away from the rest of Libya, and taking the bulk of its oil production with it.

Diplomats in Tripoli, fearful of jihadist attack after a blitz of attacks and carjackings, are starting to talk of Libya, if not yet a failed state, then one that is failing by degrees. The national congress, elected with such enthusiasm last year, is on its last legs, the constitution it was supposed to supervise a distant mirage.

Western investors, so badly needed by a country ruined by four decades of idiosyncratic brutal rule, are staying away, frightened by the implications of a state unwilling to catch the killers of their most important guest.

Across the Atlantic, a blizzard of congressional inquiries leave more questions than answers about what happened at the U.S. mission that night. Not least because none mention the elephant in the room: the CIA facility that was based a mile from the consulate. What the CIA was up to in Benghazi, and whether those activities had a bearing on the attack, are questions yet to be asked, let alone answered.

Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist brigade blamed by many for the attack on the U.S. mission, was chased out of its base in the city by angry crowds ten days after the death of Stevens. Now they are back, and provoke mixed feelings in the city. Some continue to blame them for the attack. Others point to the social work they carry out in a city neglected by central government in far-away Tripoli. News that the Americans have issued indictments against suspects, including Ahmed Khattalah, has had little effect. Khattalah continues to meet journalists, insisting that he had gone to the burning compound to offer help that night.

In the skies above drones are a nightly presence, and in the day U.S. Navy E3 Orion surveillance planes make endless loops low over the city, triggering speculation that the United States is planning some sort of operation to arrest those suspects.

Libya’s small army, made up of a clutch of special forces brigades, is waging a daily war against radical insurgents in the city, which exacts a daily toll in bombs and assassinations. Regular army officers complain that government resources are going not to regular units, but to the Libya Shield, a militia force that now garrisons Tripoli.

And foreign engagement, once so intimate, has retreated. U.S. diplomats spend most of their days penned into a fortress-like embassy compound, protected by miles of wire and fully armed Marines. 

France has abandoned its embassy building after the front was blown in by a terrorist bomb in April. Like the British, they continue to offer advice to the government, even as that government’s grip on power disintegrates. Libya is less a central state than a collection of overlapping, sometimes warring, tribal and city fiefdoms.

Mistrust is the common currency, and the combination of a power vacuum, lack of jobs, and the prevalence of weapons has seen gangsterism and smuggling thrive. Congress is hamstrung by the walkout of the largest party, the center-right National Forces Alliance, and the decision of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Justice and Construction Party to suspend its party whip.

The Justice and Construction Party blame Zeidan for the troubles of Libya, but admit that with no obvious replacement candidate, they cannot get the votes to sack him. Zeidan insists the lack of reform of government institutions is the fault of congress and its muddled leadership. When one government police unit kidnapped Anoud Senussi, daughter of Qaddafi’s former spy chief Abdullah, from another police unit last week, her southern tribe cut off the capital’s water supply. It has now been partly restored, but the reality for the capital is regular power cuts, water shortages and long lines at gas stations — and this in the country that holds Africa’s largest oil reserves.

This was not the Libya that Stevens hoped to help build. Having served here both in the time of Qaddafi and as a special envoy to the rebel government during the civil war, he envisioned helping the country forward with a myriad of small initiatives. It is still possible to find his documents in the ruined compound. One lists the folks to be visited during that fateful week in Benghazi, a rich collection of businesses, civil rights organizations, and women’s groups. His vision was of American assistance coming not through a few bold strokes, but by encouraging many smaller initiatives to help the fabric of society grow.

Others are carrying on that work. USAID continues to fund civil rights groups and the media. The European Union has a mission training customs and border control units. And despite the violence and privations, Libya’s diaspora are returning home bringing valuable skills with them.

But the big things remain to be done. There is no real law. There is no real security. There is no real government. Later this month Libya is set to defy the International Criminal Court, holding the war crimes trials of Senussi and Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, despite orders that they be handed to The Hague, taking another step back from the international community that once cosseted it.

Benghazi, Libya’s intellectual capital, where the revolution began two years ago, is now almost empty of foreigners. Western governments advise against all travel to the city. Vast housing projects on the edge of town remain unfinished, abandoned during the revolution. Most of the city depends on the state, through salaries or handouts, to survive. And with no sign to an end of the blockade of oil ports, the state’s main source of revenue will soon run dry.

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