On the 11th Anniversary of the September 11th Terror attacks that rocked the United States, Ansar al-Sharia Islamist militants attacked U.S. government personnel in Benghazi, Libya. The attack took place on September 11, 2012, and resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the then US ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. The aftermath of the attack was characterized by the controversy which drags on to date. The 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya are discussed below.
5. Background of U.S. Involvement, Civil War, and Growing Tension -
2011 marked the year of the Libyan Revolution as war broke out between forces in support of Muammar Gaddafi and forces in opposition to his government. The civil war came in the wake of other similar uprisings in North-African Arab states such as Egypt and Tunisia. The war was preceded by deadly protests in Benghazi which then fueled a full-blown civil war. In February 26, 2011, the United Nations voted to sanction Colonel Gaddafi, and President Obama of the U.S. announced that Gaddafi held office on questionable legitimacy. President Obama would later take matters further on March 3, 2011, by the direction the Department of Defense and the State Department to look into actions aimed at supporting the Libyan opposition. This directive was followed by testimony by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the House of Representatives endorsing the Libyan opposition. The then U.S. diplomat J. Christopher Stevens was subsequently appointed to liaise with the Libyan opposition. Over the next several months, the US and several European countries launched a series of airstrikes aimed at Gaddafi’s forces. On July 15, 2011, the U.S. formally recognized the Libyan National Transition Council and Gaddafi was eventually killed by rebels on October 20, 2011.
The civil war officially ended on October 23, 2011, after which Libya was briefly governed by the National Transitional Council before elections were held on July 7, 2012 to place a new government into power. Conflicts after the war in Libya emerged with several factions wanting control over Libya. The interim government, formed in eastern Libya, faced opposition from some autonomous militia groups who refused to disarm. A Gaddafi insurgency also emerged from groups loyal to the slain Colonel.
4. Ansar al-Sharia -
The Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law) is a Jihadist group in support of Sharia Law’s implementation across Libya. Founded in 2011, the group is comprised of the Ansar al-Sharia Derna and Ansar al-Sharia Brigade in Benghazi. The group was formed after the Libyan Revolution to do away with US and Western influence in the country. The Ansar al-Sharia is mainly concentrated in Benghazi and constitutes an unknown number of former militia rebels. The group was thrust into the international spotlight after its alleged role in the Benghazi American attacks. After facing a lot of backlashes both from Libya and abroad, the group has attempted at re-branding, including denouncing violence. The Ansar al-Sharia group has been involved in social services and charity work in the recent years, even as foreign and local intelligence allege it is involved with other extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda.
3. The Attacks -
On September 11, 2012, a video filmed in the US mocking Prophet Mohammad angered Muslims in numerous Islamic states, notably including Egypt. A group of Egyptian protesters in Cairo had breached a U.S. Embassy’s wall and tore down the American flag. On the same night, a group of protesters stormed the diplomatic compound of the U.S. in Libya after overwhelming the Libyan and American forces mandated with the provision of security. The U.S. ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and the Information Officer Sean Smith retreated to another building which was set on fire by the intruders. The two died due to smoke inhalation. A second attack in the nearby CIA annex building led to the deaths Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods after a heavy exchange of gunfire.
2. Outcomes and Aftermath -
After the assault, the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated that the government did not have prior intelligence regarding the assault, and that the military personnel stationed in Libya had been too far away from the scene to aid the Americans that were attacked. Most of the impact of the attack was felt in the U.S. political landscape. The Republicans demanded information from President’s Obama’s administration regarding the attack while pointing out discrepancies from the information provided.
The devastating attack ignited anti-militia demonstrations in Libya, in opposition to the continued operations of militias formed to oust Colonel Gaddafi. The demonstrators paid particular attention to Ansar al-Sharia, invading the group’s facilities and giving the weapons found in the national army. The protests were followed by an ultimatum by the government of Libya to the militia, to either surrender to government control or disband. Security was subsequently heightened in U.S. embassies around the world, and a U.S. Marine FAST team of 50 members was deployed to Libya to facilitate security and stability.
1. Public Outrage, Investigations, Hearings, and Ongoing Controversy -
The attack was met with great local and international outcry. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on several talk shows after the attack and basing her assessments on a CIA report, suggested that the attack had been fueled by the anti-Muhammad video that had also inspired protests in Cairo. Republicans in Congress, however, raised a series of questions regarding the attacks. These questions led to five House Committees, the FBI, two Senate Committees, and the State Department alike investigating the matter. Intelligence officials, the Secretary of State, the Defense Secretary and officials from the diplomatic convoy to Libya were among the summoned during the investigations.
The State Department declared the Ansar al-Sharia militia a terrorist group, and the United States filed sealed charges against its founder, Ahmed Abu Khattalah, for his connections to the attack. Subsequent investigations pointed out to inadequate security in the U.S. diplomatic compound amidst criticisms from the Republicans. The Senate Committee’s reports disclosed systematic failures in the State Department and stated that the attack would have been prevented. An 800-page report was released by the House Republicans, which indicated that there were security lapses while insecurity in Libya and inadequate resources were the contributing factors in the months leading to the Benghazi attack. The attack, however, remains shrouded in controversy, as Republicans in Congress continue to use the attack as one of their greatest criticisms of the Obama administration. On August 8, 2016, two parents of the Benghazi attacks’ victims filed a lawsuit against the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton on the grounds of wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress among others.