What really happened in Benghazi?
Well, I still have no idea. But apparently a mastermind has been named.
Good news – we'll soon know the full truth of what happened on Sept. 11 in Benghazi, how the attack was planned, and how many were involved. Right?
Well, I remain skeptical. While I haven't been in Benghazi in a year and a half, I've been communicating with reporters and friends there off and on for the past few weeks and there are many divergent stories from eyewitnesses, rival militia leaders, and Libyan government officials eager to project an air of stability and authority.
The fact remains that Libya is a complex, chaotic place. While it has had a national election, its national institutions are nominal, at best. The country is overrun by militias in the absence of a strong and respected police force or national military. Members of the nascent government and bureaucracy have divided opinions, loyalties, and personal interests. Metric tons of salt should be applied to almost all claims that are made from Libyan "officials," even more so when they aren't identified by name.
For today, the blame is being pointed at Ahmed Abu Khattala who, the LA Times and other outlets report – citing unnamed Libyan officials – was an Islamist militant who did time in prison under former leader Muammar Qaddafi and was a leader in the Abu Obeida brigade, an Islamist militia that fought in the uprising.
The Abu Obeida brigade has been one of the groups blamed by various officials at various times for the July 2011 assassination of Gen. Abdel Fatah Younes, a Qaddafi regime enforcer who had defected to the rebellion. At various other times various others have been blamed. The circumstances surrounding Mr. Younes's murder were murky, complete with conflicting, contradictory accounts of who was responsible and why they did it. Rivalry? Revenge taken by former prisoners who had suffered at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli when Younes served Qaddafi? A government assassination? All were claimed. (Revenge by an Islamist group was always the explanation I favored.)
But it doesn't appear the name "Ahmed Abu Khattala" has come up before, at least not in any English language reporting. Plenty of others have been blamed in the past.
"Ahmed Abu Khattala" really could be the guy, of course. But would that, by itself, tell us much? (For what it's worth, Reuters interviewed Abu Khattala, who said he was at the consulate that night but denied being part of the attack.)
Blame has been pointed by some Libyan "officials" in the past few weeks at an Islamist militia called Ansar al-Sharia ("Helpers of Islamic law"). But the Obeida Brigade is thought to be a far more hardline Islamist takfiri jihadi group, basically in Al Qaeda's ideological wheelhouse ("takfir" refers to the practice of branding Muslims who don't agree with them as apostates, and therefore lawful targets for murder, a popular Al Qaeda tactic.) Ansar al-Sharia is claimed by some in Benghazi to be not that extreme (though I search in vain for any reporting or papers that seem definitive about the group).
To be sure, it's quite possible that there's no formal group behind the murders at all. Alliances and ideological tastes shift and evolve. Perhaps Khattala and a group of like-minded men from various militias got together to attack the US consulate. It's not as if there's command and control by leaders of any of these organizations.
Heck, I'm not even clear on the background of The February 17 Brigade that the US was paying to guard the consulate, but more on that later.