Timed to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the killing of the American ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens, in a furious attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi by heavily armed assailants does not seem to bear the fingerprints of a “spontaneous” assault.
As the haze over the tragedy that unfolded on Tuesday night begins to lift, it is becoming clearer that the late ambassador, a career diplomat, was probably the victim of an expertly configured plot, masterminded by experienced practitioners of terrorism. It has emerged that a core group of around 20 people may have carried out the deadly attack. The hundreds of angry protesters aggrieved by an amateur American film that showed Prophet Mohammad in poor light who had assembled outside the consulate on Tuesday afternoon apparently had nothing to do with the strike. Their presence, which swelled towards dusk, seemed to provide the attackers the perfect smokescreen for infiltration.
Quillam, a British think-tank that monitors extremist groups, is inclined to pin the responsibility of the strike on jihadi groups. Quillam’s president Noman Benotam told Washington Post that the tactics pursued during the attack had the signatures of “uncontrollable jihadist groups”.
The possibility of involvement of Islamist extremist groups in the strike is reinforced by the recent call for revenge by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over as leader of the al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s death in May, 2011. In a 42-minute video on Monday, he acknowledged the death of Libyan-born cleric Hassan Mohammed Qaed, better known as Abu Yahya al-Libi, during a U.S. drone attack in June. The al-Qaeda head called upon Muslims, especially Libyans, to avenge the killing of Libi, who was a key aide to bin Laden. “With the martyrdom of Sheikh Hassan Mohammed Qaed, may God have mercy on him, people will flock even more to his writings and his call, God willing,” Zawahiri said in the video. “His blood urges you and incites you to fight and kill the crusaders.”
In hindsight, Ambassador Stevens may have been the victim of his country’s reckless post-9/11 policy of “regime change”. The policy targeted pan-Arabist, staunchly secular though iron-fisted regimes that had cracked down hard on Islamist extremists. The global war on terror that followed 9/11 first toppled Iraq’s Saddam Hussain on the false pretext that his regime was developing weapons of mass destruction that could be used for terrorism.
Consequently, the collapse of the Ba’athist government opened the floodgates for jihadi groups to infiltrate Iraq and fan out in the region. The NATO-supported grisly killing last year of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, who had kept a lid on extremists, has been followed by an unprecedented jihadi assertion in the country, led by the Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
LIFG leader Abdelhakim Belhaj sharpened his skills in the 1980s during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. After 9/11, Belhaj headed for Pakistan and then Iraq, where he befriended terror kingpin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Writing in Asia Times , columnist Pepe Escobar said that in 2007, LIFG merged with the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and this marriage was officially announced by Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s number two.
Since 9/11, LIFG had been under the constant scrutiny of the CIA, leading to Belhaj’s arrest in Malaysia in 2003. Belhaj was apparently tortured in a secret Bangkok prison, and a year later handed over to the Libyan intelligence after relations between the U.S. administration and the Libyan regime markedly improved. However, Qadhafi’s government freed the jihadi leader in March 2010 as part of a public-relations exercise. The decision boomeranged on the former regime, for it was Belhaj’s “Tripoli brigade” — well-trained by U.S. Special Forces — that formed the vanguard of a Berber militia that swooped down from the mountains and overran Qadhafi’s well-fortified Bab-al-Aziziyah compound.
After the so-called success of the “Libyan Revolution” under the rubric of the Arab Spring, Libya has become the hub for the spread of al-Qaeda linked terror in large parts of North Africa and West Asia.
In a column in National Interest, Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, has acknowledged that AQIM, an ally of the LIFG as noted by Asia Times ’s Mr. Escobar, has established “a new stronghold in Africa in northern Mali, its largest since the fall of Afghanistan in 2001”. He points out that AQIM has aligned itself with Ansar Dine, a local extremist group, and the two have established effective control over two-thirds of Mali in the north. “The new alliance now is destroying the Islamic heritage of the fabled city of Timbuktu, much as al-Qaeda and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s historical treasures in the years before 9/11,” Mr. Riedel observes.
The imprint of the al-Qaeda is now firmly established in Syria, partly through the exertions of the LIFG. It is “regime change” that has led to a region-wide resurgence of the al-Qaeda. It can only spell disaster far greater than the unfortunate tragedy that befell a U.S. diplomat in Benghazi.