The truth about Benghazi

A lengthy investigation begins to find answers

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What happened in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, which included the killing of four Americans, with U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens among them, has been the subject of controversy and disgracefully uninformed, politicized speculation ever since it occurred.

New York Times former Cairo bureau chief David G. Kirkpatrick, in a front-page piece Dec. 29, has set out what — as of now — appears to be the full story of what occurred, based on long work and extensive interviewing, including of some of the saga’s more murderous participants.

He has left unanswered only one pertinent question. That is, who commissioned and paid for the anti-Muslim film that it turns out was the primary motivator of the Libyans’ deadly attack on the American office in Benghazi that day.

One disputed point has been whether the attack was a well-organized, planned-in-advance al-Qaida-directed operation or instead was stimulated somewhat spontaneously by the 14-minute anti-Islam film, which was produced in California and shown on Egyptian television. The film provoked rioting against the American Embassy in Cairo and across the Muslim world.

The first important point of Mr. Kirkpatrick’s study was that al-Qaida played no role in the attack. Evidence indicated that the organization did not even know of the attack until after it had been reported in the media. The Sept. 11 events were instead the work of on-the-ground Libyan militias, who, as far as can be determined, carried out no advance coordination with al-Qaida.

A second important point was that the viewing by Libyan militants of the film in question was what prompted them to attack the American installations in Benghazi. There was already in Benghazi considerable sentiment against Americans, despite their role in helping the Libyans overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, but it was, according to Mr. Kirkpatrick’s sources, the film that ignited them to action.

For many years the Libyans have been strongly influenced by what they see in Egyptian media. Speeches by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser heard by young Libyan army officers in Benghazi in the 1960s were one major stimulus to Gadhafi’s overthrow of the Libyan monarchy.

Mr. Kirkpatrick and the Times fail to address the third critical point in the chronicle — the origins of the film that provoked the fatal attack. The article says only that ‘‘someone” dubbed it into Arabic earlier in September. The fact of the matter is that the film, although somewhat crude, was made with professional actors, with sets, in color and cost thousands of dollars to produce. The Egyptian Coptic Christian in Los Angeles to whom the film’s production has been attributed, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is an unlikely candidate for villain of the piece. He had no experience as a film producer, and, most importantly, he had no money, having been jailed at one point for bank fraud.

There is speculation as to whose bright idea the film was, although so far no clear evidence has emerged. Like so many Middle Eastern mysteries, many candidates are available, including the Pentagon or CIA. If that were the case, of course, it would put the cat firmly among the American political pigeons. The question of the genesis of the film remains one that U.S. media and official inquiries need to answer if the truth is to be known.

The fourth point that emerges from the article is that U.S. security in Benghazi, relying on a handful of Americans and unreliable Libyan militiamen and guards, was grossly inadequate.

Part of the problem is that Washington and perhaps even embassy personnel in Libya assumed, based on imagined Libyan gratitude for the U.S. role in getting rid of Gadhafi, a more pro-American, benign atmosphere than actually existed in Benghazi. A second point on this issue based on my experience at the American embassy in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, is that local guards simply cannot be relied upon because they are frequently tangled up in local politics or unwilling to shoot fellow countrymen to defend Americans. They might do that, but they would be more likely to take off when things got rough, as they did in Benghazi.

The bottom line, though not in Mr. Kirkpatrick’s article, is that what took place in Benghazi was clear evidence that the United States basically does not know what it is doing when it intervenes in the internal affairs of a country in that region — as it did in Libya and Iraq and has threatened to do in Syria and Iran. In Libya, it put an oil-rich country of 6 million in the hands of unruly militias, some of them extremely anti-American Islamist in character.

In Iraq America destroyed on false premises what was a brutal regime headed by Saddam Hussein but which nonetheless had been able for years to keep the lid on a dangerous collection of elements who are now tearing that country apart. Are Libya or Iraq better off through our armed intervention and the regime change we brought about?

Mr. Kirkpatrick’s study should at least make it possible for further U.S. political discussion of the Benghazi affair to take place in a much better informed manner, freer of the nonsense that has sometimes prevailed until now. The question of the origins of the anti-Muslim film clip remains to be explored.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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