PARIS, France — The late great French porno-spy writer Gérard de Villiers was beloved by spooks the world over because his plots hewed so very closely to real conspiracies. Active-duty spies would read him and they talked to him, and often it was hard to tell where fiction and fact diverged. But there is only one of his books that I’d recommend to Republican members of the House of Representatives as they spend millions of dollars to investigate the non-mystery of what happened in Libya on September 11, 2012.
First, a bit of context. The four or five thrillers a year that de Villiers churned out from 1966 until his death in 2013 were amazingly trashy. They supposedly took him 15 days to research on location and another 15 days to write; their protagonist was an Austrian prince named Malko Linge who worked for the CIA, not least so he could afford to keep the roof repaired on the family castle. Earlier translations of a handful of the books, known as the SAS series in France, sank without a trace in the United States. The couple of movies they spawned can stake a serious claim to the title of “worst film ever made.” The sex and violence in the books were so formulaic you could figure to within a page or two in any one of them where the action would be interrupted by fellatio or anal sex; or you could make another calculation if you were looking for the places where copulations would give way to assassinations.
Now, as it happens, some of de Villiers’ books are being translated afresh into English, and the first one out is among his last: The Madmen of Benghazi. It was published in French in 2011, the same year that NATO helped overthrow Muammar Qaddafi and almost a year before the infamous attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound that led to the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
But even in 2011, Madmen reflected a view among many in the European intelligence services that the pivot from a sleazy but lucrative alliance with the Libyan terrorist-tyrant Qaddafi to favor the shaky Arab Spring-inspired rebels seeking to oust him was, well, not the wisest course of action.
In Madmen, after a Libyan Islamist in cahoots with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood nearly blows up a British Airways jet landing at Cairo airport using a faulty Russian-made Strela missile from the pillaged armory of Qaddafi, Linge gets a briefing from the CIA station chief, an agent named Tombstone. (Take note, Congressmen, this is just the kind of detail you are looking for.)
Linge says then, in late 2011, that the National Transitional Council is supposed to be governing Libya.
“The NTC pretends to govern, but it doesn't have any real power in the interior,” Tombstone tells him. “Several of its members have already quit. Besides, the Libyan resistance is extremely divided. It’s made up of about 40 militias who all distrust each other.”
“But they managed to take over the country,” says Linge.
“Yeah, thanks to NATO. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that post-Gaddafi Libya is now a free-form cluster fuck.”
In fact, nobody on the ground could have missed that point, as de Villiers made clear a year before the real-life attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound and the CIA “Annex” that killed those four Americans. De Villiers even names one of the militias as especially problematic: the February 17 Brigade, which enjoyed, according to this trashy novel, funding from the filthy rich little emirate of Qatar.
In the real life-and-death story, it was the February 17 militia that failed so dismally—and so suspiciously—to defend the American installations where Ambassador Stevens and the others were killed.
The rest of the plot of Madmen, such as it is, involves a CIA/MI6 plan to install a member of the erstwhile royal family of Senussi, ousted in Qaddafi’s 1969 coup, as a constitutional monarch who might stop the country’s slide toward jihadist chaos. Malko Linge’s mission: to seduce Senussi’s beautiful British fashion-model girlfriend…. But I don’t want to spoil that part for you.
Of course, there have been other, much more serious books published since the attack on the Americans in Benghazi turned into a chronic Washington scandal. At the height of the 2012 reelection campaign, the Obama administration fumbled accounts of what happened in Libya. Congressional Republicans have been circling ever since like sharks trying to get at bloody meat.
The most recent tome about what transpired on the ground is 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, by Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team. It’s a dramatic story of macho guys doing brave (and sometimes stupid) things in places they give names like “Zombieland.”
The Zuckoff book centers on the gung-ho hired guns of the Global Response Staff (GRS), who provide security details for CIA operatives in dangerous environments like Libya. These ultra-fit but aging ex-SEALS, ex-Blackwater, ex-cops who are making $140,000 a year when on assignment know nothing about the people around them or the details of the missions the agency’s operatives are on. Which is why the book chronicles the hours when its protagonists were involved in combat, which they know a lot about.
The news-breaking revelation in this account is that the head of the CIA base at the Annex, called “Bob,” told the GRS guys to wait for the February 17 militia to arrive before rushing to the rescue of Ambassador Stevens. And since February 17 never arrived, when the GRS guys finally moved on their own it was too late to save the life of the ambassador and another staffer. A few hours later the Annex itself came under attack and two of the same brave GRS operatives were killed.
A much better and more complete account of all this was to be found in last year’s Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi, by Fred Burton of Stratfor and Samuel M. Katz, who has been reporting solid, reliable information about terror and counterterror operations for many years. Theirs was a New York Times best seller, but it did not pander to the Republican sharks, so its time on that exalted list was relatively short.
Burton and Katz—and Zuckoff, in fact—all recognize that what happened in Libya in 2012 was not really that exceptional. When there was an actual consulate in Benghazi, back in 1967, it was stormed by a mob and parts of it were set on fire. Since then American ambassadors have been murdered in Guatemala, in Cyprus, in Sudan, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan, while embassies have been blown up entirely in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, and in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. As Burton and Katz point out, “from 2001 to 2008, over 60 people were killed in attacks against U.S. embassies and consulates in Kolkata, Karachi (twice), Islamabad, Tashkent, Jeddah, Damascus, Sanaa (twice), and Istanbul.”
The fatal mistakes in Libya in 2012 were created by the entrenched bureaucracy and cover-your-ass culture in Washington, which failed to deliver the security and support needed to survive, according to Burton and Katz. Then presidential politicking transformed the Benghazi tragedy into an inside-the-Beltway circus. Still, the men and women of the Diplomatic Security Service, the FBI, the CIA and its GRS continue to do their best to operate abroad under extraordinarily dangerous conditions. In June, American commandos staged a raid in Benghazi that captured the jihadist militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala, believed responsible for the attack that killed Stevens. But a few weeks later the United States shuttered its embassy in Tripoli. As fighting swept through the Libyan capiital, American diplomats and the Marines protecting them were forced to flee in a heavily protected convoy. Libya has become, as Burton and Katz write, “a hornet’s nest of terror.” The madmen of Benghazi have won.