As the grisly details of the attacks on American embassies in Libya and Egypt slowly break through a fog of misinformation, a grim yarn of coordinated violence and terrorist activity unspools. Originally characterized by the press as spontaneous unrest in reaction to a controversial film allegedly insulting to Islam, it has now become clear that the multiples assaults on American interests were premeditated offensives, specifically designed to turn a day of quiet remembrance and mourning into a chilling redux of bloody tragedy.
Multiple questions remain unanswered regarding the shocking inadequacy of embassy security, particularly in Benghazi, the identity of the culprits, yawning blind spots within our intelligence and defense communities, and the nature of an appropriate US response, political and military. However, out of a swarm of dubious facts, a coherent narrative can now be constructed that permits a informed discussion of these matters.
Only hours after a planned protest at the American embassy in Egypt erupted into unrestrained violence, the American embassy in Libya was similarly breached by multiple assailants. At first reported as a random convulsion of violence perpetrated by a disorganized mob, new facts have confirmed that the embassy attacks were meticulously planned and well equipped tactical offensives. According to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers: “Absolutely, I have no doubt about it. It was a coordinated, military-style, commando-type raid.” Similarly, an unnamed senior official at a State Department press briefing referred to the embassy invasion in Libya as “clearly a complex attack”. Rogers also shared that an Al Qaeda linked terrorist outfit, Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, is now considered potentially responsible for the attacks.
Also, what was initially reported as a indiscriminate outpouring of violence turned out to be two distinct offensive waves, planned in conjunction with one another, lasting nearly five harrowing hours in their totality. The shooting began around 10pm (Libyan time), targeting an embassy occupied by approximately 25-30 official personnel. The embassy is actually a self-contained compound consisting of several adjacent buildings, almost entirely guarded by Libyan security forces. (So far, there only seems to have been 2 Marines on security duty).
Within 15 minutes, the assailants, numbering about 20 and armed with guns and grenade launchers, had breached the embassy’s walls. At that point, most the building had been evacuated leaving only Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, a foreign service information manager, and a security officer in the building, which at that point was engulfed in flames.
By 10:45 the inner corridors of the building were filled with thick plumes of black smoke and the three left inside the building, unable to see, became separated. The security officer was able to escape the besieged inferno. Smith and Stevens died, but it remains persistently unclear under what conditions. It had been widely reported as confirmed that Stevens died of smoke inhalation after being carried, completely unconscious, by Libyan nationals to a local hospital. However, this has been contradicted by a senior administration official:
“At some point in all of this, and frankly we do not know when, we believe that Ambassador Stevens got out of the building and was taken to a hospital in Benghazi. We do not have any information what his condition was at that time.” Since no US official saw the body until it was turned over to American authorities at Benghazi airport at dawn, and and autopsy has yet to be performed, these reports necessarily remain highly speculative. Ambassador Stevens’ body had been missing for nearly ten hours.
“Was he killed coming back to the mission or was he trying to exit the mission? Was he trying to exit the safe house that’s now into play? There are a lot of unknown factors here,” he says.
“You may have had a situation that deteriorated so rapidly that a snap decision was made to load up the ambassador, and ‘Let’s get the hell out of dodge,’ and they just vacated and ran into a situation where you had a perimeter set up and RPGs were fired into the limo as it was departing,” he says.
By 11:20 Libyan forces temporarily regained control of the embassy, only to be repulsed by a second wave of attacks at midnight. A ferocious firefight was waged for more than two hours, killing two more security personnel and wounding another two. Finally, after four and a half hours of gunfire, Libyan forces retook the embassy.
What Motivated These Attacks?
Almost immediately following the attacks, a narrative emerged that attributed both embassy invasions to a single cause: a video posted by an obscure (even unknown) film maker, purportedly calling Islam “a cancer”, blasphemously mocking the prophet Muhammad. However, this increasingly seems unlikely. First, the Cairo attacks were almost certainly planned well before the video in question ever surfaced. As early as August 30th, the protest (by more than 2,000 Egyptians) was organized by Gamaa Islamiyya, a group designated by the US Sate Department as terrorist. The planned demonstrations were in the service of getting its spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar abdel Rahman (dubbed the “blind sheik”) released from prison. He is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the World Trade Center bombing.
It is unclear why the State Department, originally attributing the Cairo riots to the Youtube video, seemed unaware of a protest orchestrated well in advance, largely on the internet. At most, the Youtube video was an afterthought, and more likely, a useful pretense to chum the waters of an already volatile Egyptian street. Still, the media and the State Department clung to this interpretation, long after it was thoroughly debunked. Hilary Clinton, in particular, stuck to this narrative, then softened her position conceding the State Department was still “working to determine motivations” and then finally seemed to concede the point:
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.”
It should be noted that despite its designation as a terrorist organization, the State Department issued a visa to a high ranking member of Gamaa Islamiyya back in June so American officials could meet with him in Washington, along with an Egyptian delegation.Unsurprisingly, his most pressing demand was for the release of Sheikh Omar abdel Rahman. In response to criticisms over allowing a known terrorist onto American soil, the State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland responded:
“We neither had then, nor do we have now, any reason to believe that this particular individual — who at the time of his application was a member of parliament — would pose a threat to the United States.”
In the case of the Libyan attacks, an unnamed American official observed: “It bears the hallmarks of an organized attack”. Again, as in Egypt, the evidence mounts that the attacks were planned well in advance and orchestrated by a militant faction called Ansar al Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law), possibly in conjunction with a North African affiliate of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Al Qaeda’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahri recently posted a video online demanding that revenge be delivered for the killing of an operative last June in Pakistan by an American drone. The video chillingly entreated Muslims to take up arms against Americans: “…blood is calling on you, inciting you to fight and kill crusaders”. Still, American officials have strongly discouraged the formulation of speculative theories that precipitously assume two similar attacks, planned well in advance and executed within hours of each other, possibly linked through a nexus of terrorist organizations, and carried out on 9/11, have any connection.
Questions Regarding Security and Intelligence
It’s impossible to ignore discomfiting questions regarding woefully inadequate security measures at both embassies and the flat-footed preparation of our multiple intelligence organizations. First, there seem to have no special security precautions taken in either instance, despite both protests being telegraphed well in advance. In the case of Libya, the British consulate had been attacked before and specifically warned that the American embassy could be potentially attacked as well. Also, a congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contractingissued a warning back in 2009 that an excessive reliance upon low-bid contractors was undermining the overall quality of security being provided for the embassy in Libya. Further, the Diplomatic Security office, a department within the State Department, repeatedly warned that its insufficient funding jeopardized embassy security. Despite all this, a senior American official stated, that in regard to Libyan Embassy Security, it was “similar to the way we are postured all over the world”. In other words, no special arrangement was made in response to the gathering threat.
To matters even worse, there is evidence that the Libyan nationals primarily responsible for guarding Ambassador Stevens may have leaked information regarding his relocation from the traditional embassy to a “safer” compound. There has been no comment forthcoming from Obama’s administration indicating that this rumor is under investigation. Furthermore, why was Stevens only guarded by two Marines? Since Marines are typically charged with security detail at embassies, their paltry number is conspicuous.
It is also worth fleshing out the proximate chronological context of the dual attacks. On September 9th, a feverish wave of bombings and shootings killed 92 people in 13 cities. On September 10th, a car bomb in Pakistan killed 11. On September 11th, a rocket attack on a US base killed 3 Afghans and a suicide bomber killed 5 more, wounding 6. Also, an assassination attempt was made on the Yemeni defense Minister, killing 13. In the midst of such a deluge of targeted terrorist violence across the Middle East, in conjunction with the planned protests in Libya and Egypt, why didn’t the US significantly bolster its security?
The Egyptian Response: Not Exactly an Apology
Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil issued a statement calling the attacks on the American embassy “regrettable”, an innocuous term to describe an act of aggression committed on US soil, and only because “the people who produced this low film have o relation to the (US) government”. In other words, he considers a violent reaction to perceived blasphemy legitimate as long as properly aimed. His audacity continues:
“We ask the American government to take a firm position toward this film’s producers within the framework of international charters that criminalize acts that stir strife on the basis of race, color or religion.”
Even after the attack, and the obsequious apology quickly issued by the State Department immediately following them, Kandil still demands that the US condemn an act of free speech. To layer insult on top of injury, Egyptian President Morsi has announced his intention to take “legal measures” against any films in the US also guilty of blasphemy.
There is ample precedent to suggest that Egypt does not take seriously the invasion of embassies within its borders. On September 9, 2011, the Israeli embassy was stormed by an angry mob, threatening the lives of six security officials barricaded inside. Not only did Egyptian authorities do nothing to stop them, they refused to take calls from Israeli officials pleading for assistance. Only after entreaties from the US did Egypt finally intervene. For charges as serious as “sabotage” and “an assault against diplomatic missions” all 76 men charged were given, this last August 26th, suspended sentences and sent home without jail time.
Leading From Behind
Just over 33 years ago, the American embassy in Iran was attacked, hostages were taken, and American sovereignty was violated. President Carter’s tepid response and conciliatory tone only emboldened terrorists who took his diplomatic gesture as a sign of weakness. Carter proved unable to bring that crisis to a close, and lost his presidency, because he failed to understand the a steadfast demonstration of strength is itself a necessary diplomatic tool. He tried to substitute empathy and an earnest openness to dialogue for steely fortitude. Our enemies were unimpressed by his maturity then and continued to be unimpressed now.
President Obama insists on following Carter’s dubious lead, replacing declarations of commitment to American principle with sheepish apologies for our purported injustices of the past. More than any other foreign policy position, his refusal to unambiguously support Israel in its existential struggle with Iran has incentivized its thwarting of international law, as well as its continued pursuit, with impunity, of a nuclear weapon. The terrible wages of such pusillanimous posturing must be eventually paid and the effects are now visible in the increasingly bold attacks on American interests, on its soil. Obama calls his passive foreign policy brew of concession and contrition “leading from behind” but it looks closer to falling behind, and being led into decline. The great Roman historian Tacitus famously reported that the Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Obama tweets while our flags smolder. One can hope our own empire meets a happier fate.
Ivan Kenneally is the Editor in Chief of the Daily Witness.