Al Qaeda Or Not

Beirut

There is a thoughtful piece by the New York Times’ Ben Hubbard exploring the franchising of Al Qaeda and what it means and surely some analysts he quotes are right about how many of the Al Qaeda-aligned, or even officially affiliated country and regional groups, are more local and are focused more on their own immediate struggles than being transnational or a threat to the West.

But Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor, makes a killing point, I think, that even these locally focused groups can morph rapidly unto being transnational. He is quoted as saying: “No Qaeda threat has ever remained exclusively local. They have always eventually crossed borders and become regional in operations and attacks and certainly in fund-raising and recruiting.”

Also, I think Ben downplays – in fact doesn’t really acknowledge — how the groups coordinate, share men and equipment and tactical expertise. You can see that in Syria: many of the jihadist fighters are veterans or were members of their local groups before joining up with either ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra.

To question whether there is really an Al Qaeada anymore, as one analyst does, is to say that News International, or Time Warner or Johnson & Johnson don’t really exist because they are split up into subsidiary companies. Of course, you could argue with those companies eventually decision-making will come back to an overall board. And I still think that happens with Al Qaeda, albeit in a less formal way. The raging debate that we catch glimpses of between the top jihadi scholars for example, over the division between ISIS and al-Nusra is part of that “accountability.”

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.  

No Cover-Up, Just Confusion: Thoughts on Benghazi and Stevens

According to U.S. lawmaker Frank Wolf the Obama administration has handed the FBI an impossible task in investigating the assault last September on the American consulate in Benghazi that led to the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. “Can you imagine the FBI going up to a door [in Benghazi], knocking and saying, we’re going to take you away? … The only way to [get answers] is to get a select committee that can subpoena [witnesses],” told Fox News.

Well, I would be curious to see Capitol Hill policemen plodding out to Benghazi and knocking on doors handing out congressional subpoenas.

Wolf, though, has a point in criticizing the administration for not making available American survivors of the attack for them to relate from their perspectives what occurred that night; although presumably there are other House committees that could issue subpoenas for survivors to appear without having to set up a special committee.

For those of us who covered the Benghazi assault on the ground, it is frustrating to see the incident reshaped into a pretzel in Washington DC to fit into various Democratic and Republican agendas. Stevens and those who fought to defend the consulate and the nearby CIA annex – Americans and Libyans – deserve better.

Wolf and other Republicans argue there has been a cover-up by the administration – it is a story line Fox News has been flogging for months. But what happened in Benghazi can more be put down to the fog of battle and to the lack of governance in Libya. Hillary Clinton had a point, surely, that on that day and night the State Department was being buffeted by several crises across the Middle East and was finding it had to keep up with hard information in a region where facts can be very fungible.

When it comes to Libya there was total confusion in the government in Tripoli and with the authorities in Benghazi about what was happening – on the night of the attack and in the days following. That was the case from the president of the National Transitional Council, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister all the way down. They were at sea: I know I talked directly with them or their top aides and the story kept on changing. No doubt Washington DC was getting to hear the same confusion.

Clearly there were lapses. As I made clear in reports for Newsweek, Daily Beast and Maclean’s magazine, sadly Stevens has to bear some of the responsibility. He felt immune having played a crucial role in the success of the rebellion that toppled the Gaddafi regime and often threw off most of his security in Tripoli in the afternoons to meet contacts and friends in the souk. Also, as I — and others — reported in the summer before the assault, Benghazi was becoming ever more dangerous with attacks on foreign envoys and NGOs. Stevens was planning to stay in Benghazi all week – a very different approach from European ambassadors who in the months before his death avoided staying in the city for longer than a day.

The consulate was not a fortified compound and was easy to penetrate; there were too few defenders. Stevens bears some responsibility for this – as does the State Department.

Was it an Al Qaeda attack? Despite some media reports from outlets that like to tag reflexively anything involving militant Islamists as AQ, I don’t believe it was. There has been no hard evidence to the contrary. Too much is made of one phone call to an AQ commander. To put this down to core AQ misses a significant trend that has been taking place in the region: the growth of AQ-inspired Jihadist/Salafist groups that don’t take their marching orders from AQ and operate independently. The bacillus has adapted and rather like a virulent flu has many strains.

Ansar Al-Sharia Is Back

My latest piece in Newsweek/Daily Beast explores how  Libya has tapped local militias including the one blamed for the attack on the U.S. consulate—to patrol Tripoli and Benghazi amidst a spiraling crime wave.

“Libya’s leaders have given the go-ahead for revolutionary militias, including the powerful Islamist Nawasi brigade and Ansar al-Sharia—the militia blamed for the assault last September on the U.S. consulate—to combat drug dealers and a crime wave that is disrupting daily life in the capital and in the eastern city of Benghazi.” Read the full article here.

Stevens Part II: An Inside Job?

“After his men had tied up the morgue supervisor, who had refused to hand over the body, Febrayir, fearful of an attempt to snatch the corpse, ignored instructions about what route to follow to the airport and misinformed his superiors with false updates. His caravan traveled fast, driving straight onto the runaway. Six Americans approached. “They looked totally fatigued. Their faces were blackened,” Febrayir says. “I think they had been in the consulate. One of them clambered onto the back and uncovered Stevens’s face and started to cry.”

From the second part of my Stevens’ investigation for Newsweek. Read here.

No Way To Treat An Ambassador

Benghazi

“At the consulate, smoke in the burning villa was thinning out; crowds of curiosity seekers and looters were moving in. As they rummaged through the building, they came across a blond man in a white shirt and gray pants, his nose and mouth blackened by soot and body fluids. They dragged him out through the window at the back of the villa. ‘The man is alive,’ shouted someone in the crowd. ‘Move out of the way.'” With my colleagues at Newsweek, a take on what happened the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.

A Series On Christopher Stevens And Ansar al-Sharia

Tripoli

Under the pressure of events and filing a couple of stories a day on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and its aftermath I have neglected sadly my personal bog. Below are the links to the series of articles I filed for the Daily Beast and Voice of America between September 12 and September 18.

September 12

The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three State Department officials were killed last night in a targeted rocket attack, after riots over a U.S. film depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud.

September 12

Despite President Obama’s pledge that the violent assault on the Benghazi consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens would not “break the bonds” between the U.S. and Libya, it would appear to have weakened them. A U.S. official told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that U.S. diplomats are to be evacuated in the coming days. It was not clear whether a skeleton staff would remain, and the embassy could not be reached for comment.

September 13
Heavily-armed assailants waged a five-hour firefight against Libyan and American guards—at two locations. Fury over a film or a planned mission?

September 13

For many Libyans the deaths are shocking enough—and apologies are spontaneously offered to Americans—but underlying the condolences is a fear that the U.S. will reduce its commitment to the Arab Spring.

September 14

Shifting explanations from Libyan officials and contradictory recollections by survivors and witnesses are hampering U.S. officials’ efforts to reconstruct the night of the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

September 15

America and Libya should share responsibility for the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, according to the spokesman of Libya’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur. He says that so far no evidence has turned up that suggests al Qaeda had a hand in the attack.

September 17

An amateur video appearing to show a motionless but apparently still alive Ambassador Christopher Stevens was posted Sunday on YouTube. The video focuses on a window of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where some members of a crowd—it is not clear if they are protesters, looters, or nearby residents drawn to the scene after the attack—discover the mortally injured Stevens and celebrate that he’s still alive.

September 17

Another day and more clashing explanations from different Libyan officials about who was behind the assault on the consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens dead along with three other Americans. Not only are the accounts of what happened and who was involved contradictory, so too now are the number of arrests made and whether they are real arrests or just questionings of people known to have been at the protest before the shooting started.

September 18

Senior U.S. security and intelligence officials met secretly on Monday with Libyan counterparts to share information that the Americans have gathered, through electronic surveillance, on the assault on the U.S. consulate that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

September 18

Sharp disagreements between senior Libyan officials over who was behind the U.S. Consulate assault in Benghazi are a sign of a “leadership deficit” in Libya that’s undermining the credibility of the newly elected authorities, diplomats and analysts warn.

And Voice of America

September 13

The call to prayer sounded over a subdued Tripoli Thursday as residents of Libya’s capital tried to understand the killings of the U.S. ambassador and three diplomats during the storming of the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Libyans Head To The Polls Amid Federalist Agitation in Benghazi

Tripoli

“Libyans will go to the polls this weekend for the first time in almost a half-century. For many—from young YouTube progressives who advertised the uprising that ousted Moammar Gadhafi to grizzled dissidents who endured years of prison—the election will be the fulfillment of a dream. Or it should be.” My Maclean’s piece published earlier this week.

Pre-Election Violence Surges In Libya

This is my log of recent violence in Libya and highlights the instability of the country as elections loom. The incidents have been gleaned from various reliable sources. It is not exhaustive.

June 9

Nighttime clashes between Libyan military units and Tibu tribesmen in the city of Al Khufra, near Libya’s borders with Chad and Sudan. Reports of five dead and a dozen wounded. Tibu tribesmen say they came under attack first — an accusation denied by the Libyan military.

Al Khufra has seen several clashes in recent weeks mainly between Tibu and Zwai tribesmen. In February, the transitional government dispatched Libyan armed forces units to the town.

June 10

Thirteen people killed in a second day of clashes between Libyan soldiers and Tibu tribesmen.

Armed thieves ransack a couple of office containers in Tripoli belonging to the Libyan Coast Guard then destroy them with RPG fire.

June 11

Grenade is thrown at two vehicles ferrying a British delegation around Sabha in the Southern region of Libya. No injures. Not clear if the assailant was targeting the British – the vehicles sported UN logos.

British diplomatic convoy comes under an RPG attack in Benghazi. Two security guards injured but the British ambassador unscathed.

Zintan militiamen seize several government vehicles in Tripoli. The action they say is a response to the government’s failure to settle their wage demands.

June 12

Heavy fighting reported in Mizdah between Zintan militia and Mashasha tribesmen, leaving 20 dead. There have been frantic appeals by locals to the government to put an end to the fighting.

June 13

Sixty-nine anti-aircraft missiles found discovered inside a fishing boat on Egyptian-Libyan border.

Two dead and a dozen left wounded after clashes in Sabha involving the “national army”.

A small mob gathered in Tripoli outside a courthouse near the Radisson Blu Hotel to demand the release of the former Gaddafi-era Minister of External Affairs Abu Zaid Omar Dorda, whose trial started that day. A nervous guard responded by firing into the mob, killing a driver working with a European Union delegation. The delegation responded by decamping from the Radisson for a day.

Several left dead and wounded in clashes in Al Khufra involving the Libya Shield force and members of armed groups.

Former Gaddafi-era internal security official Ibrahim Laaribi killed in a car bombing.  He is the second former intelligence officer to be assassinated.

June 17

Libyan government declares a military zone in the west of country (which will presumably mean that journalists and independent observers will be prohibited officially from visiting the area) after days of clashes between rival militias and tribes.

The zone includes the towns of Zintan, Mizdah and Shegayga, about 150 kilometres south of Tripoli. Most of the fighting in these towns involves Zintan militiamen backed by Guntrara tribesmen from the Mizdah pitched against Mashashya tribesmen based out of the town of Shegayga.

Sources have told me there are dozens of dead.

 

Libyan Leader Summoned By Benghazi Court

Exclusive

Tripoli

By Jamie Dettmer

A Benghazi court has opened an investigation into the murky July 2011 death of the then top Libyan rebel military commander Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes and has summoned Libya’s current interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil to appear before it to answer questions.

The move adds to an already unsettled political picture here. The country’s election commission has hinted already that the scheduled June 19 national election will have to be delayed because of administrative challenges involving the vetting of candidates and the printing of ballot papers.

General Younes, a former officer and interior minister in the Gaddafi government, was assassinated along with two aides after being summoned to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi to appear before a judicial inquiry. Abdel Jalil announced his death on July 28 2011 and provided few details. It is unclear tonight whether he will respond to the summons.

Benghazi rebels have increasingly expressed in recent weeks their frustration with the pace of political change and have argued they are under-represented on the ruling National Transitional Council, of which Abdel Jalil is chairman. They have also expressed unhappiness with the large number of former Gaddafi figures in positions of authority in Tripoli. A Benghazi rebel source linked those frustrations with the timing of the investigation.

Asked whether this could turn into a confrontation between Benghazi and Tripoli, the source said: “It depends on how Jalil reacts.”

The general’s assassination angered members of his tribe — the Obeidi, one of the largest in east Libya, who blamed the rebel leadership for having some role in Younes’ murder. Tens of thousands of people gathered the day after the announcement in Benghazi’s central Courthouse Square – renamed Tahrir Square by the opposition – to observe Friday prayers and to mourn general.

Developing