Heating Up

09.18.12

Libya’s Inferno: U.S. and Libyan Officials Investigate Bengazhi Assault

As American and Libyan officials investigate the murder of Ambassador Stevens, the threat of U.S. military retaliation has riled up extremists. Jamie Dettmer reports from Tripoli.

Tripoli—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.

The preliminary assessment is that the assault was the result of a protest that swung out of control after Libyan guards panicked and started firing at demonstrators, prompting a sharp response by fighters from the Salafist militia Ansar al-Sharia, say Libyan government sources.

Some of the U.S. officials, including from the State Department, were flown in and others were drawn from the diplomatic staff remaining at the American embassy, which was evacuated last week of all nonessential personnel. The meetings lasted most of the day and the Americans met also with commanders from other Benghazi militias. “As a militia, Ansur al-Shari did not attack. Some of their fighters did,” said the sources. They denied reports in U.K. newspapers that the Libyan authorities were working on a plan to ask militias in the eastern Libyan city to “take action against the U.S. ambassador’s killers.”

Both the Americans and Libyans are still trying to assess whether there was any involvement by Al Qaeda, but have discovered no evidence linking the terror group to the assault. The sources stressed that the assessment was an initial one and that any new leads could alter it. “Ansur al-Shari is not Al Qaeda,” said one of the Libyan sources. “We aren’t discounting there was some level of planning by some militants but we think it was more opportunistic and done that night as shooting started rather than preplanned in the sense of days.

No one has claimed responsibility for the assault on the consulate. In a statement, Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb praised Stevens’ killing but did not claim responsibility. The group urged Muslims in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania to launch attacks on American missions and diplomats to “purge our land of their filth in revenge for the honor of the Prophet.”

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said on ABC's This Week that the attack was the work of “extremists” but began as a spontaneous protest against the movie The Innocence of Muslims. As the protest unfolded, “it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that ... in the wake of the revolution in Libya ... are quite common and accessible.” Her remarks are similar to what has been coming out of the Libyan prime minister’s office in the past few days, but contradict the head of the new Libyan congress, Magariaf. He told U.S. television that al Qaeda–linked militants mapped out the attack before the protests began and then used the riot as cover to strike.  

“The Obama administration may be pushed under the pressure of U.S. election politics to do something that would be a disaster.”

Libya’s new prime minister, Mustafa Abushagur, and Magariaf were present at Monday’s meetings with the U.S. officials. The sources declined to indicate how many Americans were present and whether any were normally based in Washington, D.C.

Separately, Mohamad Al Akari, the Libyan government spokesman, revealed today that Libyan authorities were fearful in the aftermath of the attack on the consulate of a U.S. military reprisal, and that Magariaf made a direct appeal to the White House to express his worries. “We felt, we assumed, we suspected because of the increase in American drone flights over eastern Libya that the Obama administration may be pushed under the pressure of U.S. election politics to do something that would be a disaster for us and would undermine the U.S. position here in Libya,” Akari says. Akari emphasized they had no concrete or specific reason for their alarm. “But Magariaf did say that any military action would undermine the new authorities in Libya and it would be something that would help Jihadists and Gaddafi loyalists.”

Yesterday, Ansur al-Shari, whose leaders have claimed they did not order their fighters to attack the consulate, warned that Libya would turn into “an inferno for U.S. troops” if the U.S. military retaliated. Speaking to Reuters, Yousef Jehani, one of the group’s leaders, said they wanted to avoid confrontation but were ready for a showdown, if Washington acted “foolishly.”

Piecing together what happened on the night the consulate was attacked isn’t easy with witnesses contradicting each other. A security guard employed by the British security firm Blue Mountain, who was wounded in the fighting, claims there was no demonstration and the attack came out of the blue. Libyan guards say there were demonstrations beforehand. They say it was the Americans who started shooting.

Last night, General Yousef Mangoush, the army chief of staff, met with Ansur al-Sharia leaders to get their side of the story but assured them they were not under imminent threat of attack. Libyan authorities also have been mounting an outreach campaign to other Salafist militias, urging them not to do anything rash. “We are saying to them, you saw what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan” says Akari. “Do you want the same thing to happen here?”