On Benghazi Confusions and Partisanship

Washington DC

I am back in Washington DC for a few days and am observing with disbelief some of the partisan dictated nonsense about last September’s assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. “Disbelief” is an exaggeration: having lived and worked in Washington for years and having covered U.S. politics and Capitol Hill for more than a decade, I know full well how partisans here can twist almost anything into a pretzel, helped by journalists and commentators who are too lazy to delve much and prefer to ignore inconvenient facts.

Take for example Thomas Sowell’s latest punditry – here is a link to the full article. He says the claim that the attack started out as a protest against an anti-Islamic movie and then ran amok was made up by the Obama administration.

He writes: “This ‘spontaneous protest’ story did not originate in Libya but in Washington. Neither the Americans on duty in Libya during the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, nor officials of the Libyan government, said anything about a protest demonstration.” Sorry Thomas they did and I reported it at the time. 

The protest story started in Tripoli and came from top Libyan officials, including then Libyan Prime Minister-elect Mustfa Abushugar. In my coverage from Tripoli and Benghazi I expressed some skepticism pretty much from the start about the protest line but I did report what Abushugar and others were saying and noted the total confusion in Tripoli about who was responsible and what occurred.  

Here is a quote from a September 15 Daily Beast article I wrote based in part from an interview with Abushugar’s then adviser and spokesman Mohamed Al Akari.

“Akari says that the Libyan authorities have found no evidence of direct (Al Qaeda) participation in the consulate attack. ‘So far we really believe that this was a violent demonstration mainly against the movie that swung out of control. The protesters saw on television what was happening in Egypt and decided to have their own protest. We have no evidence at all that this was Al Qaeda.’”

Abushugar and his aides repeated this line for several days – the prime minister-elect did so with me during several conversations and he made clear that this was what he was telling the Americans.

Admittedly, not all of Libya’s top officials agreed with that line: the president of the General National Congress, Mohamed Magarief, said he believed the assault was planned, was Al Qaeda connected and involved foreigners. He was eager to shift the blame away from Libyans and to dispute a homegrown angle. The outgoing Prime Minister, Abdurrahim Abdulhafiz El-Keib, shifted from pinning the blame initially on “remnants of the former regime” to suggesting that the consulate attack was a “despicable act of revenge” for 9/11.

Confusion and contradiction persisted for days in Tripoli after the assault and the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. I noted in an article on September 13 this:

“As members of Libya’s national assembly elected a new Prime Minister, U.S.-trained engineer Mustafa Abushagur, conflicting reports persisted about how Ambassador Christopher Stevens died during the storming by armed militants of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Some American and Libyan officials say the attack that led to the death of four diplomats and the wounding of several others was more coordinated than originally thought but they cautioned much still needs to be pieced together.”

And I also reported this:

“There were some indications of advanced planning mixed in with opportunism, they say, pointing to the fact that the heavily-armed assailants came well equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns and were able to maintain sustained firefights with Libyan and American security guards at two separate locations—the main consulate compound, a walled-off villa in an upscale district in the city that housed the small temporary mission, and another building a mile away where some staff made for to escape the attack.”

It is hardly any wonder there was confusion in Washington when officials were getting contradictory statements from their Libyan interlocutors. 

Do I see no fault with the Obama administration then? From my perspective there were serious security lapses. The consulate wasn’t a building easy to defend. The reliance on local militias for security was a mistake. Christopher Stevens shouldn’t have been overnighting in Benghazi – in fact he planned to stay five days. There were plenty of warning signs with previous attacks on Western targets, including an assassination attempt on the British ambassador that came very close to killing him, that should have deterred the American ambassador from visiting Benghazi. And to go there during the anniversary week of 9/11 was an astonishing decision, a point made by several Libyan rebel leaders who were close friends with Stevens.  

Syria: Online Videos Just Get Worse

These past few weeks have been grim not only in terms of the carnage in Syria but the brazen bragging and video recordings of atrocities by those carrying them out. Combatants on both sides of the horrific two-year-long civil war have acted with bestial cruelty.

Government bombing and strafing of civilians and of targets that had no obvious military value has been recording by human rights workers and numerous journalists, including myself. Back in December as I crossed the border into Syria from Turkey a refugee camp was strafed by a Syrian air force warplane: the cannon shot ripped 50 meters from me and my translator and then went right through refugee tents. It was sheer chance that no one was killed that day.

Rape as a weapon of terror has also been used by government forces: how systematic remains to be seen. I interviewed a woman back in August who witnessed the aftermath of a gang rape of a neighbor in Homs. In March, bodies of men shot apparently by gunmen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were floating down a river in Aleppo.

Government forces are no doubt responsible for more deaths than the rebels with many of those casualties killed in indiscriminate air strikes and artillery barrages. But rebel brigades, jihadist and otherwise, have engaged in atrocious acts as well — and they are not hiding them.

This week a particularly chilling Internet clip surfaced of the filming of a rebel brigade commander ripping open the torso of a dead pro-government fighter and removing from the corpse the man’s heart. It appears it may have been more lung than heart but that is neither here nor there. He then proceeded to chew on it.

A link to the clip is here for those who have strong stomachs. I strongly advise any kids reading this post not to watch.

The gratuitous act is not only disturbing in itself. The man you see doing this unashamedly is Abu Sakkar, commander of the independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade, an offshoot of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Al-Farouq Brigades. He’s a significant commander and last month was pictured on videos firing rockets at Shia villages in Lebanon. “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog,” he says after mutilating the body. He issues also blood-curdling threats against Alawites, the minority Muslim sect that forms the backbone of the Assad regime.

The act – a war crime – will add to sectarian hatred. You can see the cycle in an interview Abu Sakkar gave Time magazine this week.

His real name is Khalid al Hamad and in the interview he justifies his actions by arguing that he found evidence on the man’s cell phone of rape. “We opened his cell phone and I found a clip of a woman and her two daughters fully naked and he was humiliating them, and sticking a stick here and there.”

Then today Internet clips posted by jihadists surfaced showing the summary execution in the city of Raqqa of three captured pro-government fighters – they are described as “Assad officers.” Summary executions are technically also war crimes. The justification given for the executions is retaliation for massacres carried out by government forces. Here is a link to the clip. Again children are advised strongly not to watch.

The executions were carried out in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq – in other words Al Qaeda in Iraq. Last month, the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra formally merged with the Islamic State of Iraq, and this is one of the first instances that al-Nusra has used its new merged name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Some background on this merger can be found here in a Daily Beast article I wrote examining the merger and its implications.

All of this bodes badly for the future course of the fighting and for eventually what will happen in Syria when and if the Assad regime falls. Such barbarity on the rebel side will not help Western policymakers as they try to work out what they should be doing. How can they make the case to their publics that the West has to get more involved when the side they will be boosting are exulting about the atrocities they commit?

When a Jihadist Bomber Bungled

Earlier this week I cast more light on the April 23 bombing of the French embassy in Tripoli. In a piece for the Daily Beast I added to a previous report of mine where I revealed that there was more than one jihadist target that day – bombers sought also to attack the British Council with the explosion planned to go off about six minutes after other members of a suspected Al Qaeda cell managed to detonate a powerful blast outside the French Embassy.

You can read both Daily Beast articles here and here.

The British Council attack apparently failed not because of the vigilance of security guards but as a consequence of bungling and panic by the driver of the rigged car. The driver parked his car too close to high concrete bollards, preventing him from opening his door.

The “Keystone Bomber” tried to exit through a window, prompting a guard, oblivious to the danger, to call out, offering help, according to my sources. The offer spooked the driver who reversed and made off. His companion in the getaway vehicle also made a hasty escape, smashing into a parked car round the corner.  

Below are still photographs leaked to me from the British Council’s CCTV recording of some of the saga.

Approach

The getaway vehicle, an SUV, approaches the British Council. In the distance you can see the rigged car.

 

Rigged

 The rigged car approaches the British Council.

 

Parking

 The getaway vehicle is at the end of the road while the driver of the rigged car parks in front of the British Council.

 

Reverse

 A guard opens a metal door to ask if he can help as the jihadist reverses the car. The getaway SUV has already left.

 

 

 

Tripoli Isn’t Cairo.

Pro-government protest swallowed up by square

Pro-government protest swallowed up by square

Tripoli, May 4.

To provide some perspective: some wire agencies and newspapers today have talked about hundreds of protesters rallying to the Libyan government’s side in a standoff with militias over a law that would disbar Gaddafi-era officials from political office or from working in the bureaucracy, even if they assisted in the uprising that toppled Col. Muammar Gaddafi 18-months ago. The law if passed tomorrow (Sunday 5 April) would led to the government having to quit and about half of the Congress. The Islamists would benefit the most in the long-term.

This is Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square yesterday afternoon and a picture of the pro-government demonstration. I estimate there were less than 200 then. It filled up a bit more when about a hundred pro-militia protesters showed up. This is hardly ordinary Libyans rallying to the government — there were more people shopping in the nearby souk.

For more background on this political crisis you could read my VOA article from Thursday — the situation hasn’t changed much, although there have been plenty of behind-the-scenes negotiations. And below some paragraphs from the piece:

“If the militias succeed in forcing the General National Congress (GNC) to pass a law barring Gaddafi-era officials from being lawmakers or working for the government, Libya could be plunged into an even deeper crisis with no clear guidelines on how to proceed.

Politicians warned that approval of the new law could throw the country into chaos. But militiamen blockading the foreign ministry on Thursday dismissed those fears.

Allowing regime holdovers to stay in the government or legislature would be an insult to the “martyrs” of the rebellion that ousted Gadhafi 18 months ago, the militiamen say.”