When President Obama vowed to “bring to justice the killers who attacked our people” in Benghazi this week, it was a reminder of a long US military history in Libya – from US Marines fighting Barbary Coast pirates along “the shores of Tripoli” more than 200 years ago to last year’s ousting of Muammar Qaddafi as part of a NATO force.
For now, US boots on the ground are limited to a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) of 50 Marines sent to protect and, if necessary, extract Americans from Libya in the wake of the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other embassy personnel this week.
More menacingly, the number of US Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean is being increased from four to five, including two to be positioned off the coast of Libya. The destroyers are armed with satellite-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles, many volleys of which were launched during the initial attacks against Libyan military and communications facilities in order to establish a no-fly zone during the anti-Qaddafi uprising in 2011.
Meanwhile, intelligence-gathering drone aircraft are looking for terrorist training camps, other suspicious facilities, or movement on the ground that might hint at what now is suspected to have been a coordinated attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. The FBI is involved as well.
A key question involves any connection Al Qaeda might have to the attack.
Media reports say the Libyan deputy interior minister has announced several arrests in connection with the killings. No further information was available. But in recent days, American officials have mentioned a potential Al Qaeda link.
“Clearly, it has all the hallmark of an Al Qaeda-style event,” said US Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
“For months we've seen Al Qaeda in the Maghreb looking for western targets…. all across Northern Africa,” Congressman Rogers, who is a former FBI agent, told CNN Wednesday. “We have seen certain activities that certainly lead you to believe today that it is an Al Qaeda affiliated group.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has voiced the same suspicions.
Whether or not it was Al Qaeda per se, the organization has cooperated with a number of known terrorist groups worldwide including “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” according to GlobalSecurity.org.
In a 2008 cable leaked by WikiLeaks, Ambassador Stevens himself had described the port city of Derna (in eastern Libya, as is Benghazi) as "a wellspring of Libyan foreign fighters" for Al Qaeda in Iraq.
It is highly unlikely that the killing of an American ambassador on the anniversary of 9/11 was a coincidence, says retired Army Col. Ken Allard, former dean of the National War College.
“It's far more probable that Al Qaeda wanted to send us a message, and that they intentionally exploited a lightly defended soft spot in order to make a statement,” he writes in The Washington Times. “As Sept. 11 should have reminded us, they have a history of doing just that.”
As US military services and the FBI continue their search for the attackers in Libya, questions also are being raised about the level of security at potentially dangerous US outposts in the region.
The consulate in Benghazi was classified as “an interim facility” not protected by the contingent of Marines that safeguards embassies, Politico reports.
Citing a US intelligence source, Politico reported: “The Benghazi consulate had ‘lock-and-key’ security, not the same level of defenses as a formal embassy.... That means it had no bulletproof glass, reinforced doors, or other features common to embassies.”
The result, as Colonel Allard puts it, was a diplomatic outpost left "too far outside the wire."
The attack on the consulate in Benghazi is a case where US diplomatic and military activities clearly overlap.
On Wednesday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called Florida pastor Terry Jones (who infamously burned copies of the Quran in April), asking him not to promote the anti-Islam YouTube video at the heart of protests that have spread from Egypt and Libya earlier this week to Yemen, Tunisia, Iran, and Afghanistan.
“Clearly, the military considers the film a serious threat to national security,” Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in USA Today Thursday. “If the military takes it seriously, there should be consequences for putting American lives at risk.”
The difficult legal question involving free speech is whether the offensive video in this case amounts to what US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919 called a “clear and present danger” akin to someone “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
In addition to Stevens, two other Americans killed in Benghazi have been identified: Foreign Service Officer and information technology specialist Sean Smith and security guard Glen Doherty, a former US Navy SEAL. The fourth victim has yet to be identified. At least three other Americans were injured in the attack. They, along with about 25 other personnel assigned to the consulate, have been flown out of Libya.