09.17.12

After Consulate Attack, Libya Struggles to Get Its Story Straight

One leader says there was a preplanned plot from abroad, and 50 people have been arrested in the Benghazi siege. Not so, says the new prime minister. What is going on?

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.

Blaming the attack on foreigners linked to al Qaeda, Mohammed Magarief, president of the newly installed General National Congress, told CBS’s Face the Nation that about 50 people had been arrested so far. “It was definitely planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago and they were planning criminal acts since their arrival,” he said. Some of the foreigners came from Mali and Algeria.

This came as news to Libya’s prime minister, Mustafa Abushugar, who was elected the day after the attack. Just a few hours before, his office told The Daily Beast: “So far we really believe that this was a violent demonstration mainly against the movie (The Innocence of Muslims) 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.”

The prime minister’s spokesman, Mohamed Al Akari, said members of the militia Ansar al-Sharia were still seen as chief suspects, but he did not discount the possible involvement of the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, a shadowy pro-al Qaeda group, although not an affiliate of the terror group, which in May claimed responsibility for an attack on the International Red Cross office in Benghazi and in June detonated a small explosive outside the U.S. consulate.

Video screenshot

Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif spoke on 'Face The Nation'

Asked after Magarief’s CBS interview how what he said squared with what was coming out of the prime minister’s office a few hours before, Akari insisted that they had not turned up evidence linking the attack or the ambassador’s death to al Qaeda. “We are careful in our statements. We have no suspects currently. And we have no evidence of a planned attack. We are in close touch with national-security officials and with local militia and political leaders on the ground in Benghazi and we have not as yet found an al Qaeda link.”

Akari confirmed that as many as 50 people have been questioned and that a dozen have been held, but not in a technical sense arrested. “We are questioning people who were present at the protest to gain more information.” He added that the Congress president was “talking about his perceptions.”

On the same CBS program, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, took the prime minister’s line, saying the U.S. has no evidence proving that the attacks in Benghazi were premeditated.

“We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned,” Rice said. “Based on the best information we have to date,” she added, “spontaneous protests” began outside the Benghazi consulate after demonstrations erupted in Cairo about the anti-Islamic movie. “It spun from there into something much, much more violent.”

Akari confirmed that as many as 50 people have been questioned and that a dozen have been held, but not in a technical sense arrested.

Before the elections, diplomats and journalists had become accustomed to ministers, government officials, and members of the National Transitional Council, an unelected legislature the GNC replaced, making totally contradictory statements. Hopes had been high that with an elected body now in place and a new government forming under Abushugar, there would be more order and that the executive and legislature would keep to their various realms as well as restricting themselves to fact-based statements. But the last few days have dashed such hopes.

Speaking before his election by the GNC to the premiership, Abushugar told The Daily Beast that he hoped the Congress would stay within its remit and not subsume executive-type responsibilities. The NTC “did not understand the difference” between the legislature and the executive, Abushagur says; it thought it was the executive.