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Bengazi Compound

Cradle of Libyan Revolution

Benghazi: Unanswered Questions, The Diminishing Reality of Safety and Truth

Phil Johnson, Ph.D., Benghazi, Libya posted April 29, 2013

If you ask a Libyan, he will tell you that Egypt is dangerous and out of control these days. If you ask an Egyptian, he will tell you to steer clear of Libya; it is filled with terrorists.  Different places; different perceptions.


I’ve worked in both locations and at times each perception is correct. And at times each perception is wrong. But perception isn’t truth. And the issue of truth is what keeps nagging at the heart of the Benghazi issue.


It’s been a little more than two years since the Libyan Revolution rid the world of Muammar Gaddafi. Libyans remain optimistic, if a bit more realistic that rebuilding a nation isn’t the same as downloading a file from the Internet. It’s going to take some time. They will also tell you that Libyans are peaceful and have no interest in terrorism. They will tell you that Libya is safe. At times that seems true. Until it isn’t.


On September 11, 2012, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American nationals found out that their world wasn’t safe. An armed groups of militants attacked the diplomatic mission in Benghazi on the evening of the 11th. Their weapons included rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), AK-47s, hand grenades, mortars and heavy machine guns. A second attack, which began just after midnight, occurred on the nearby CIA annex. (Murphy, Webb 2013). In the end, four Americans lay dead: Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Ty Woods and Glen Doherty.


Seven months after their untimely deaths, questions remain: What did the US president and his senior staff know and when did they know it? Was it possible to send help to our citizens in Benghazi? If so, why didn’t we? Who is responsible for these attacks? Was it a spontaneous escalation based on a protest regarding a YouTube video that insulted the Prophet, Mohammed? Or was it a preplanned, calculated assault on Western interests using heavy weapons? Why were previous requests for more security from the Benghazi mission left unfulfilled? After all, there had been several acts of violence prior to September 11th and Ambassador Steven’s diary itself noted the increasing threat of extremism and the growing influence al Qaeda. (CNN, 2012.) And why have we not heard from the survivors of that attack? Where are the answers? Where is the truth? If something is being covered up, for what purpose?


Senator Lindsey Graham is calling for testimony from the survivors and he believes that they are being intimidated into silence. He recently stated this: “[The administration is] refusing to give us the identity of the survivors and allow them to come to Congress to be interviewed. I've talked to a couple and their story is chilling. They’re scared to death to come forward without some institutional support.” ( 2013.) White House press secretary, Jay Carney denies that anyone has been asked to remain silent. So, why aren’t the survivors telling their story?  On April 18, 2014, Speaker of the House, John Boehner, posted from his official website that the five House committees charged with investigating the attack in Benghazi will soon release a progress report. He says, “We are determined to get to the truth regarding the terrorist attack on our Mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans lost their lives.”  This thing is not over.  But not much is any clearer.


Here in Benghazi, answers are no more forthcoming. I sat down with Mr. Fateh Younis Elkhashmi, the chief editor of the New Quryna, Libya's largest Arabic newspaper, to discuss the region and questions that continue to itch at the wound of Benghazi.


When asked about the possibility that the US is engaging in secret wars in North Africa waged by US special forces or private security firms, Mr. Elkhashmi remains vague, but offers this statement: “Everyone knows that the US does whatever it wants. There are few nights that we don’t hear US drones in the sky. We know that the US is looking for terrorist activity in Benghazi, in Derna and in the Green Mountains. We know they are here. We know what they are looking for.” It sounds like blowback may have played some part in this incident.


Another speculation is that Ambassador Stevens was collecting weapons that were left over after the revolution. Some say that he was coordinating the transfer of heavy weapons from Libya to Turkey and then to Syria to aid in the support of the Syrian rebels - effectively dealing in an off-radar weapons trade program. Since those who are fighting against President Assad in Syria include jihadists, supplying them with heavy weapons would be a political problem for the US - if it is confirmed that we are indeed arming extremists.


According to Mr. Elkhashmi, since the revolution, weapons are in the hands of everyone. Are they being collected and sent to Syria? Maybe, he concedes, weapons are in the hands of those who are going from Libya to Syria to fight the jihad, but otherwise, he doesn’t know for sure. What he does think is that if the US and its allies wanted President Assad gone from Syria, then he’d already be gone. But Elkhashmi believes that the US is uncertain of the regional outcome if Assad goes. Who would take over? And getting rid of Assad would likely destabilize the region in regards to Israel and Lebanon. Time will tell, but it doesn’t look like Bashar Assad will go willingly. But neither did Mr. Gaddafi.


Not a whole lot is clear these days. The world is seemingly more complex with more shadows and less truth, even as the sheer amount of information available has increased exponentially. Aside from the big question of how the US failed to protect its representatives abroad, the question remains: Exactly who was behind the attacks. Within hours of the events of September 11th, Ansar al Sharia, the largest Islamist group in Libya, took responsibility for the attack. However, a week later, Ansar al Sharia leader, Mohammad al-Zahawi denied that the brigade had any role in the attack, but said the group would not give up its weapons. "We are in a battle with the liberals, the secularists and the remnants of Gadhafi," he told the BBC. (Maher, 2012.)


The New Quryna’s  Elkhashmi affirms that Ansar al Sharia was not responsible for the attack. He says that Libyans  - including members of Ansar al Sharia - simply want good lives and the freedom to follow their faith. But that begs one final, but very important question: What if the perception of “following your faith” requires you to remove obstacles - or your perception of obstacles - that stand in its way? According to an interview given to BBC news, (Maher, 2012) Ansar al Sharia leader, al-Zahawi, admitted to destroying and desecrating Sufi shrines in Benghazi because his group views them as idolatrous. “It is a religious duty to remove these shrines because people worship the deceased and this is prohibited. It’s is not me who says so but rather our religion.”


So what does a group with an extreme interpretation of the Koran and Sharia law do with the existence of a YouTube video that insults Islam?  What do they do with societies that believe in, but do not always agree with, the free speech of others? What happens if a group, even a relatively small and loosely formed group like Ansar al Sharia, views “free speech” as a “shrine” that stands in the way of being able to follow what you believe is the one true religion. And what if you believe your interpretation of that religion is the correct one. What does your religious duty compel you to do? Does another person’s free speech and personal freedom of conscience then stand in the way of another's faith? After all, everyone’s in favor of free speech until they don’t like what’s being said. At what point do we curtail freedom of expression and at what point do we simply trust God to deal with those who insult Him or who choose not to follow Him in the way that you think they should?


When asked whether he believes that the attack on the Benghazi mission was the spontaneous result of a protest against a video or a preplanned attack, Elkhashmi gives a shrug and says, “Who knows?” If the most reliable news source in Libya knows the answer to this question, they’re not saying. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it like this when answering this same question before Congress, "What difference at this point does it make?"


I’m sure it makes a difference for the families and friends of those people who lost their lives. It makes a difference that governments seem incapable of telling the truth and serving the interests of their citizens. It makes a difference that some radical perceptions are colliding with reality and the result is producing a more dangerous and unstable world. It makes a difference that the actions of a few extremists impact the image of a billion people.


All of this matters. But it’s also important to remember that only a relatively small percentage of people are creating the chaos. Most people who have strong faith and religious values aren't interested in removing “shrines” and limiting free speech. Most are interested in the freedom to pursue their beliefs, influence those around them, pursue opportunities and respect those who disagree with them. As we found out recently during the Boston Marathon, it only takes a few people to create instability and insecurity in the world. The very unpredictable nature of danger makes it possible for a very few to disrupt the lives of many. With truth and safety becoming rare commodities, people are going to have to think hard about where to find truth, how to interpret truth, and where to place their feelings and longings for security. My guess is that the world is not going to become safer or more predictable.












"CNN finds, returns journal belonging to late U.S. ambassador"By the CNN Wire Staff: September 23, 2012




Maher, Ahmed. (September 18, 2012) “Meeting Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi of Libyan Ansar al-Sharia”




Murphy, Jack and Brandon Webb (2013). Benghazi: The Definitive report. New York, NY: HarperCollins Inc. pp. 25–58. ISBN 9780062276919.


“Sen. Lindsey Graham: Benghazi Survivors "Scared to Death to Come Forward" After Obama Admin Told Them to Keep Quiet" (April 17, 2013)




Speaker of the House: John Boehner Press Office, (April 18, 2014) “Speaker Boehner: Five Houst Committess INvestingation Terrorist Attack in Benghazi”



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