A Deadly Mix in Benghazi
Months of investigation by The New York Times,
centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had
direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no
evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had
any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters
who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and
logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And
contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in
large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating
A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests
lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows
the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy
durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from
allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of
anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the
American involvement in Syria’s civil conflict.
attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants
around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating
Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests.
In this case, a central figure in the attack was an
eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according
to numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed
on the American criminal investigation into the killings call him a
prime suspect. Mr. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he
placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list
of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist
groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person C.I.A.
station in Benghazi that was set up to monitor the local
Mr. Abu Khattala, who denies participating
in the attack, was firmly embedded in the network of Benghazi
militias before and afterward. Many other Islamist leaders consider
him an erratic extremist. But he was never more than a step removed
from the most influential commanders who dominated Benghazi and who
befriended the Americans. They were his neighbors, his fellow
inmates and his comrades on the front lines in the fight against
To this day, some militia leaders
offer alibis for Mr. Abu Khattala. All resist quiet American
pressure to turn him over to face prosecution. Last spring, one of
Libya’s most influential militia leaders sought to make him a kind
of local judge.
Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s
death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in
Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.
One has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired
spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version,
based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly
by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security
The other, favored by Republicans, holds that
Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark
the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up
evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s
claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the
raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The investigation by
The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and
murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was
not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local
threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have
been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or
without warning signs.
Mr. Abu Khattala had become well
known in Benghazi for his role in the killing of a rebel general,
and then for declaring that his fellow Islamists were
insufficiently committed to theocracy. He made no secret of his
readiness to use violence against Western interests. One of his
allies, the leader of Benghazi’s most overtly anti-Western militia,
Ansar al-Shariah, boasted a few months before the attack that his
fighters could “flatten” the American Mission. Surveillance of the
American compound appears to have been underway at least 12 hours
before the assault started.
The violence, though, also
had spontaneous elements. Anger at the video motivated the initial
attack. Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the
video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that
guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters.
Looters and arsonists, without any sign of a plan, were the ones
who ravaged the compound after the initial attack, according to
more than a dozen Libyan witnesses as well as many American
officials who have viewed the footage from security