Waiting For The Revolution

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — He is a revolutionary man, this 46-year-old Sunni, Salafist sheik and father of six with the graying beard, twinkling dark eyes, immaculately ironed thawb and manicured fingernails. He endorses the jihadist-led uprising against the Shia-dominated regime in Iraq and he warns the marginalization of Sunni Muslims will lead to an insurrection in Lebanon, too. “The way they are dealing with us they are pushing us to it,” he says.

The Sheikh

The Sheikh

Read my full Daily Beast dispatch here.

Lebanon Mirrors Syria

Tripoli, Lebanon

First come the pop of fireworks set off by ultraconservative Sunni Muslims here in Tripoli celebrating news of a bombing in Beirut of a suburb controlled by the militant Shia movement Hizbullah. Civilians start edging away and head for safety as the Lebanese army soldiers lounging on their armored trucks tense and warn reporters now would be a good time to scatter before snipers respond and rocket-propelled grenades thunder down the hill.

Lebanese army soldiers know the drill – they should, having spent months trying to keep the peace here. They fire off rounds from their anti-aircraft guns as a warning but to no avail. Soon grenades are flying and AK-47 automatic gunfire rattles in a chorus of anger.

The aptly named Syria Street in the north Lebanon city of Tripoli has been the scene the past two years of 20 major clashes between Sunni Muslims, who back the rebels in the civil war raging next-door in Syria, and Lebanese Alawi Muslims, who support their co-religionist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Alawi are an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Read my report for VOA.

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.  

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.”

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.

Anger At Libyan Court Ruling On Multiple Wives

Tripoli

Human rights campaigner Farida Allaghi tells me for a VOA radio piece that Islam is being hijacked. That’s her reaction to a Libyan Supreme Court ruling overturning a marriage law that required a husband to secure the approval of a first wife before taking a second.

Allaghi says: “Here again, it is very disappointing and it is very sad that now they play with the interpretation of Islam in the 21st century to fit their agenda and to fit their interests and to fit their own ideology as men.”

You can read the web-version piece here.

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.

Lebanon Peeps Into The Abyss

And this filed on December 7 and examining the dangers to Lebanon of a spillover from the Syrian civil war.

“No one is suggesting that the clashes have yet reached a tipping point. The government in Beirut has struggled for months to try to limit the repercussions on the country from the vicious warfare raging in Syria and to avoid the that country’s conflict reviving the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990—a crisis that left 120,000 Lebanese dead and a quarter of the population wounded. But one government minister, Faisal Karami, acknowledged that the situation in north Lebanon is becoming ‘very critical and dangerous.’

Full report here.

Syria’s Kids: Children of the Rubble

December 13

I have been very neglectful of the blog the past few weeks and so am updating with four recent articles from Newsweek/Daily Beast. The first is below and was filed from the Lebanon city of Tripoli. It focuses on the trauma affecting the children of the rubble — refugees kids from Syria.

“The children are refugees from war-torn Syria, where fighting is in its second year, and more vicious than ever. The oldest child is 14, the youngest 3, and everyone has been uprooted from their daily lives; from school and teachers; from friends and familiar places. Some have seen relatives killed, friends blown up, or neighbors buried in rubble. But all have witnessed the horror of a country at war with itself.

Media coverage of the Syrian conflict focuses on the tangible: on the shooting and killing, on the tactics and military hardware, on the death toll and the wounded. But the harm is much greater than the estimated number of people killed—36,000 so far. The greatest casualty is the generation of Syrian children who are living with untold grief and trauma.”

You can read the full report here.