The surge in jihadist attacks on US diplomatic missions in September 2012 largely obscured the complex realities around a number of individual incidents and locales, particularly the Libyan situation.
Embassies and diplomatic missions of the United States — and those of some other Western states — began to come under attack in Muslim states from Islamist-led mobs beginning on September 11, 2012, the 11th anniversary of the al-Qaida-led attacks on major US targets in 2001. Contrary to US Government official statements, these attacks were carefully planned, coordinated in many respects, and were predictable. But they also reflected local conditions and political developments not necessarily related to the overall condition of the “Muslim world”. Nowhere was this more the case than in Libya.
The attacks in themselves need not necessarily lead to major strategic consequences, but were, more importantly, the anticipated outcome of the US decline in influence. They were very much symptomatic of conditions which evolved following the creation of a strategic vacuum in the world — and particularly the Middle East — caused by the scaling back of US global power.1
Quite apart from the fact that there appeared to be hard tactical intelligence warning of the impending initial attacks — against the US Embassy in Cairo and the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya — there were other clear, longer-term indicators. These included the logical reality that September 11 — the anniversary of the initial attacks — provided an iconic rallying point, as did the fact that a US “drone attack” on June 4, 2012, killed Abu Yahya al-Libi (born Mohamed Hassan Qaid), the Libyan-born number two man in the al-Qaida terrorist group, in Mir Ali, in Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal region. Abu Yahya was linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah bi-Libya: LIFG), which was itself built from the core of Libyan Islamists who had fought in Afghanistan.
What is significant is that LIFG was supported substantially by the US Government when it allied itself to the bid to overthrow then-Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in 2011. It is not an overstatement to note that this group, which took a key rôle in the September 11, 2012, attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi, was empowered and enabled by the US Government itself, with the pro-Islamist policy of US Pres. Barack Obama. Moreover, the coordination of the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi (and other sites) implies strongly a linkage between some of the al-Qaida franchise members, such as LIFG, and the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan), now governing in Egypt, despite nominal disavowal of the attacks by the Ikhwani Egyptian Government of Pres. Mohamed Morsi.
There was much more to the situation than that, however.
Firstly, there was the element of revenge in the attack by LIFG on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Cyrenaica, resulting in the humiliation and then killing of the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, 52, and three other US Embassy employees, on September 11, 2012. The nominal excuse for the attack — Muslim anger over a US-made film said to demean the Prophet Mohammed — was just that, an excuse. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to show that the excerpts of the amateur film shown on YouTube had the sound-track altered to make the dialog of the film clip, entitled The Innocence of Muslims, more inflammatory to Muslims. This took time, preparation, and purpose, and the purpose included building up a rationale for attacks to be staged against US targets on the 9/11 anniversary. There was also an indication that al-Qaida and other Islamist elements applied pressure on LIFG to make the Benghazi attack part of the 9/11 “uprising”.
Significantly, there were pressures on Amb. Stevens to ensure that he was in Benghazi, rather than at the US Embassy in Tripoli, on that date. Why was the attack specifically intended for Benghazi and not Tripoli?
Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica (the key area for oil and gas production), was the key to the anti-Qadhafi uprising in February 2011, when moderate Libyan Muslims of the Sanussiyyah sect sought to restore the 1951 Constitution, which would have wrested control of Libya from Tripoli, and made Libya, once again, a balanced confederation of the three regions: Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania. This original impetus for the uprising, however, was usurped by Islamist elements, strongly supported by the United States, and by envoy (and later ambassador) Stevens. Even following the ouster of Mu’ammar al- Qadhafi as the power in Libya, the Cyrenaican leadership under the moderate Sheikh Ahmed Zubair sought to rid the region of armed, foreign Islamist fighters, particularly those from Qatar.2 These radical Islamists were essentially supporters of the former Qadhafi minister who became Chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil.
Jalil, after the elections of July 7, 2012, failed to favour the Tripoli faction (despite Tripolitania having 101 seats in the new, 200-seat General National Congress (GNC), returned to Cyrenaica — his power base, even though he is not of the moderate Sanussiyyah sect which dominates the area — to attempt to manoeuvre against Sheikh Ahmed Zubair, and to stop Ahmed’s moves against the non- Libyan Islamist elements which support Jalil.
The question must be asked, then, as to how much Jalil, or his followers, were involved in attempting to get US Amb. Stevens to Benghazi on September 11, 2012, to position him for demonstrations, ostensibly over the US film, by Jalil’s crowds. These “spontaneous protests” — such as they were; they were fairly insignificant — were used as a cover for the well-planned LIFG attacks, which specifically addressed LIFG’s desire for revenge for the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi. But they also served a strong purpose of Jalil in trying to discredit Sheikh Ahmed and the traditional Cyrenaican leadership.
It was not insignificant that the interim President of Libya, the newly-elected Dr Mohammed Yussef al-Magariaf, a strong supporter of the Sanussi movement, and — in keeping with the modernist and pro-Western Sanussiyyah movement — Western-style governance, condemned the Benghazi attacks on the US Embassy, and issued a formal apology to the US for them. But he also made it clear that the attacks were not about protests against the so-called anti-Muslim film clip, but more about internal Libyan politics and the engagement of foreign-backed jihadists.
The great irony of the September 11, 2012, attack on Amb. Stevens and the Consulate is that Amb. Stevens and the US State Department had so strongly supported the Islamists who ultimately conducted the attack, using them as allies to take control of the anti-Qadhafi movement through 2011 and 2012. This pro-Islamist support took the form of working with the Government of Qatar in fielding and arming what has amounted to a Qatari “Foreign Legion”, which aimed at supporting the Islamist Muslim Brothers (the Ikhwan) in Libya, in particular, and then — and currently — in Syria, fighting against the Syrian Government of Bashar al-Assad, and providing support, too, to the Ikhwan in Egypt. This has been the policy line from the Barack Obama White House, but it led directly to the killing of Amb. Stevens and his colleagues.
It begs the question as to whether the original intent of the uprising against Qadhafi — to restore the 1951 Libyan Constitution — would have been in the interests of a stable and prosperous Libya, and therefore Libya’s Mediterranean and international trading partners. And why the Obama White House felt that it could replace US pragmatism, and US strategic projection into the Middle East, with a power vacuum and appeasement of the forces which specifically oppose the US and Westernism?
Clearly, the results of the US Obama Doctrine are now clear. There is a power vacuum which will lead to increasing instability in the Middle East.
1. This condition and outcome was forecast specifically in this journal in its 10/2008 edition, which noted: “Now, with the election of Sen. Obama, and his implicit promise to revive US military/strategic isolationism, the threat felt from the US has been dramatically removed for many societies, whether in Western Europe or in, say, Iran. The US is now an economic power, but its power — already in decline in real terms for the past two dozen years — can now be ignored in many respects. The states of the world are going their own way. They will play with the US when it suits them. They will look Washington in the eye, and turn away when they wish. As the US ability to build security coalitions (or to retain them in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq) declines, US diplomats will become more strident, and yet more ineffective, in their pressures on onetime allies and foes. Their coercive powers will be seen, increasingly, as having been vacated.” — Gregory Copley, in the “Early Warning” column, Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 10/2008. The report, which also appeared in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis on November 7, 2008, also noted: “The ostensibly non-belligerent Obama Administration will attempt to utilize coercion and naïve guile to retain US strategic credibility and power. Within hours of the Obama election, for example, it had already been discussed that a senior ‘special US envoy’ would be named to the Palestinian Authority so that Obama could be seen to be foresaking Israel, thereby winning support from the Muslim world. It was also suggested, for much of the same reason and in order to retain US access to Afghanistan through Pakistan, that a “special envoy”, perhaps even former US Pres. William Clinton, would be appointed to help resolve the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. This is akin to offering a lollipop to bribe billionaire Warren Buffet into a slick investment. It will prolong the talkfests, but ultimately highlight the vacuity of US understanding of these regional problems. And US credibility will continue to slide; its relationships with its allies will become less fruitful; and the restiveness of its foes grow more bold.”
2. See: “Can Libya Repel the Invaders and Survive?” in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 7/2012 (also in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, July 27, 2012). See also: “The Predictable Libya Conundrum”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 4/2012.
By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.