By Bob Dreyfuss
On Sunday, December 29, the New York Times demolished the arguments of Republican critics and hysteria-mongers over the September 11, 2012, attack on a US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that left Ambassador Chris Stevens dead, along with three other Americans. But the piece, which began on the front page and filled three entire pages of the newspaper—complete with maps and diagrams—also raised important, unanswered questions about the Obama administration’s mistakes that allowed the attack to succeed in the first place.
The Times article has sparked sputtering outrage among Fox News pundits and other neoconservative commentators and by Republicans in Congress who’ve tried to gin up a phony crisis over the attack and the supposed cover-up by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her cohorts. There’s been somewhat less response among the saner critics of the administration for its failure to anticipate the assault on the facility, despite plenty of warning and a general atmosphere of lawlessness and anti-Western and radical Islamist militia activity in and around Benghazi.
The Times conclusion: That the attack had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, which hadn’t established itself in post-Qaddafi Libya, and that it indeed began in part as a protest against the poorly made, provocative anti-Islam video that been circulated via the Internet and which caused an almost simultaneous attack by protesters against the US embassy in Cairo, too. Said the Times:
“Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fuelled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”
The Times added, citing intercepted messages from Al Qaeda gathered by US intelligence, that Al Qaeda had tried and failed to penetrate Libya in the wake of Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster, but had largely failed, except for a small beachhead in southern Libya. And, it said, the man who orchestrated the Benghazi attack was a quixotic, perhaps mentally ill man who’d managed to assemble a small but well-armed militia, one of many that were created in the Benghazi area.
Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, has long maintained that the attack in Benghazi was Al Qaeda-related, and he’s been predictably apoplectic about the Times report. But, in his comments on Fox News Sunday, Rogers seemed to back away slightly by saying that Al Qaeda had an “aspiration” to attack the United States in Libya. Said Rogers:
“There was aspiration to conduct an attack by al-Qaida and their affiliates in Libya; we know that. The individuals on the ground talked about a planned tactical movement on the [US] compound. All of that would directly contradict what the New York Times definitively says was an exhaustive investigation.”
Defending his landmark article, writer David Kirkpatrick says that it’s wrong to call every Islamist with a grudge against the United States “Al Qaeda.” He says:
“There’s just no chance that this was an al-Qaeda attack if, by al-Qaeda, you mean the organization founded by Osama bin Laden. If you’re using the term al-Qaeda to describe even a local group of Islamist militants who may dislike democracy or have a grudge against the United States, if you’re going to call anybody like that al-Qaeda, then O.K.”
A report by Fox News says that its sources “sharply challenged” the Times account that Al Qaeda had nothing to do with the Benghazi attack. Many of the right-wing critics attacking the Times say that the paper is deliberately running interference for Hillary Clinton’s planned 2016 presidential run, since the Republicans and others intend to use the supposed Benghazi scandal as a political bludgeon against a Clinton campaign. A New York Times editorial, published on Monday, notes:
“Republicans long ago abandoned common sense and good judgment in pursuit of conspiracy-mongering and an obsessive effort to discredit President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.”
And it adds:
“On the Sunday talk shows, Representatives Mike Rogers and Darrell Issa, two Republicans who are some of the administration’s most relentless critics of this issue, dismissed The Times’ investigation and continued to press their own version of reality on Benghazi.
“Mr. Issa talked of an administration ‘cover-up.’ Mr. Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has called Benghazi a ‘pre-planned, organized terrorist event,’ said his panel’s findings that Al Qaeda was involved were based on an examination of 4,000 classified cables. If Mr. Rogers has evidence of a direct Al Qaeda role, he should make it public.”
The critics of the Times report make facile equations, namely that radical Islamists, the militia group Ansar al-Sharia, and Al Qaeda are all the same thing. That’s the equivalent of the War on Terrorism catechism under George W. Bush that declared that Iran, Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban are all linked, somehow, in a global Islamist, anti-American war—a conclusion that ignores the profound difference among those entities but which conveniently allowed the Bush administration to wage war from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond and threaten war against Iran.
As the Times investigation makes clear, the attack on the US facility in Benghazi involved neither Al Qaeda nor Ansar al-Sharia, but instead it was led by a “malcontent” named Ahmed Abu Khattala:
“In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according to numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed on the American criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect. Mr. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person C.I.A. station in Benghazi that was set up to monitor the local situation.”
The Times carries a detailed profile of Abu Khattala, and it includes this pungent quote from a Libyan, a member of parliament named Mohammed Abu Sidra, who knows Abu Khattala well: “He is sincere, but he is very ignorant, and I don’t think he is 100 percent mentally fit. I always ask myself, how did he become a leader?”
Those, including Mike Rogers, who are trying to make more of this than there is, might also fit the description of not being “100 percent mentally fit.”
Bob Dreyfuss, a contributing editor for The Nation magazine, is an investigative journalist living in Cape May, New Jersey and New York, specializing in politics and national security. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, and has written frequently for Rolling Stone, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones.