The killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012 has become the focus of heated political exchanges in the U.S. and even appeared prominently in the presidential debates between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. But the events in Benghazi are extremely important to understand beyond their impact on American internal politics. For the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound highlighted many unanticipated developments in Libya that were a direct outgrowth of the fall of its former ruler, Muammar Gadhafi.
Even before the attack on the U.S. compound, according to an Oct. 2, 2012 report in The Washington Post, the White House held a series of secret meetings that came out of a growing concern that "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM) was gaining strength after it took control of the northern parts of the African state of Mali, where it created a new Afghan-like sanctuary. In the last year it has begun to spread its influence across the Sahara. AQIM's weaponry came from post-Gadhafi Libya, whose arsenal was boosting the arms trade from Morocco to Sinai. Israeli sources have noted that Libyan weapons, including shoulder-fired SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles, were also reaching the Gaza Strip, where one was fired last week at an Israeli helicopter for the first time.
Moreover, it was unveiled at the end of September by journalist Eli Lake that a U.S. government study this past August reported how the leadership of al-Qaida in Pakistan dispatched senior commanders to North Africa to help build its new network there. This is a pattern found elsewhere. Two Palestinian Salafists targeted by the IDF on Oct. 13 were part of an effort to reorganize and strengthen al-Qaida networks in the Gaza Strip; one of them was linked to jihadi networks in Egypt and Jordan, and had fought with al-Qaida in Iraq. These same networks are building up their capacity to operate from Sinai, in particular.
While only a small number of AQIM combatants were involved in the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, within hours U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted communications between members of Ansar al-Sharia, the main Libyan militia behind the operation, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. When the Libyan revolution began in 2011, the flag of al-Qaida was raised over the courthouse in Benghazi, indicating that elements identifying with al-Qaida were present right from the start. After the attack on the mission the black flag of al-Qaida was raised again. The rise of these radical elements in eastern Libya should not have come as a surprise.
When the U.S. Army investigated where the foreign fighters in Iraq came from during 2007, they discovered that while the largest contingent were Saudis, Libyans were the second largest group. The vast majority of the Libyan volunteers in Iraq came from two towns in eastern Libya: Darnah and Benghazi. The current Libyan government just pointed out that the head of Ansar al-Shariah, Ahmed Abu Khattala, commanded the Benghazi attack. Like other Libyan jihadists, he was let out of prison by the interim Libyan government after Gadhafi fell, though he refused to renounce violence. He apparently based himself in the Benghazi area.
Bruce Reidel, who was one of the top Middle East analysts in the CIA and later served in former president Bill Clinton's National Security Council, wrote already on July 30, 2012 that what was happening in Libya and across the Middle East was nothing less than a comeback for al-Qaida, which had created "its largest safe havens and operational bases in more than a decade across the Arab world." He specifically pointed to AQIM, which he said was now "the best armed al-Qaida franchise in the world."
Thus AQIM is on the rise. The commander of the U.S. Army's African command said this July that it was al-Qaida's "wealthiest affiliate." The new AQIM network has been at war with Mauritania, but it also directly threatens Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and whatever government arises in Libya. Their operatives have been caught in Spain and will eventually pose a threat to France and Western Europe. Given this background, it is understandable how Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who headed the U.S. security assistance team in Libya, could conclude in recent Congressional testimony about al-Qaida in Libya: "Their presence grows every day. They are certainly more established than we are."
While the debate rages in America over whether there was a cover-up of what actually happened in the U.S. compound in Benghazi, there are important trends being missed. There are considerable signs that al-Qaida elements are on the rise in much of the Middle East, and especially in the area of Benghazi in eastern Libya. Indeed, in the first half of 2012, attacks on foreigners in Benghazi escalated: The British ambassador's convoy was assaulted in June by terrorists who used rocket propelled grenades.
Al-Qaida has techniques which it has used to build up its capabilities through local jihadi organizations. These groups, which identify with aspects of its ideology, start out as local militias in the Gaza Strip or in Libya, but nonetheless come into contact with global jihadi networks which provide weapons, combat skills, and finally recruit them into the al-Qaida network. Clearly what happened in Libya did not stay a local phenomenon but radiated out to the entire region and beyond.