To pull back from focusing on the Romney campaign, relative to the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, we’re starting to learn more about the attacks themselves, and their significance inside Libya. More evidence has arisen suggesting these had nothing to do with a poorly produced movie insulting Islam. If anything, the movie was used as a pretext for a planned attack.
Initial accounts of the assault in Benghazi were attributed to popular anger over what was described as an American-made video that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad, which had been publicized by Egyptian media and led to a mob protest at the United States Embassy protest in Cairo on Tuesday. But administration officials in Washington said the attack in Libya may have been plotted in advance.
While the protesters in Cairo appeared to be genuinely outraged over the anti-Islam video, the attackers in Benghazi were armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Officials said it was possible that an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.
You would not typically see rocket-propelled grenades on the site of an impromptu protest. There are claims that this was revenge for a drone strike on a Libyan Al Qaeda deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi. Then again, the attack on the US consulate may have been a way to reduce US support for Libya and weaken the central government, giving more power to those who oppose it.
Residents of Benghazi, meanwhile, held up signs honoring the US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, apologizing to the United States for the incident, and stating “this is not the behavior of our Islam.”
I’m not going to begin to unravel all the different forces at work here. But here’s what I did hear from some foreign policy experts who have been on the ground in Libya. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch spoke on a conference call earlier today. He said that while the Libyan government had been making some progress, especially with the recent election, “the Achilles heel has always been the power of armed militia groups, many of which took part in the fighting (during the revolution) and have since operated with impunity.” Malinowski added that some of these groups are Salafists, which he described as religious extremists. And several Salafi groups have been launching a series of increasingly bold attacks over the past few weeks, against such targets as aid workers and the shrines of Sufi Muslims, who they consider apostates. Eyewitnesses to the attack did say that tribesmen and militia were responsible, though I don’t know how you could pinpoint that.
If the government can be faulted for one thing, it’s that they have resisted taking strong action against the Salafist militias, with whom they partnered during the revolution. “These are relatively small groups in terms of support of the Libyan people,” Malinowski said. “The vast majority of Libyans are disgusted and ashamed with what happened yesterday. But it’s necessary to stop these groups to save their revolution… It’s important that we not give up on Libya, but we have to be extremely tough on the Libyan authorities in insisting that they meet their responsibility and confront these armed groups.”
Obviously the reaction to the killing of the ambassador will lead to all sorts of outsized responses. In the Rose Garden statement today, a reporter yelled out to President Obama, “is this an act of war?” But Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress said on the conference call that withholding aid or disengaging from Libya would be the wrong move. “Chris Stevens risked his life to engage Libyans. The best way to honor him is to stick with those efforts.”
I’m withholding full judgment before reading more about this. But I think it’s clear that this had little to do with a movie.