The emerging consensus about the embassy attack in Libya that killed an American ambassador and several other Americans is that it was a “well-planned commando style attack.”According to a government and journalist source we have spoken to, this actually does not appear to be the case. Rather, the attack appears to have been a spontaneous decision by an extremist group to capitalise on otherwise non-violent protests about an anti-Muslim film trailer.
First of all: “This was not a commando style raid, that’s ridiculous, this type of thing can be put together in a matter of minutes with a few cell-phone calls,” said Matthew VanDyke, a filmmaker (with his own web page here) and expert analyst on Libya and the Middle East. VanDyke is an American who actually fought on the side of the Libyan rebels during the Libyan revolution and was taken as a prisoner by Qaddafi for five and half months.
VanDyke has had close friends in Libya for years, from his days of motorcycle travel. Many of them lost family members in the initial fighting, and were still losing family members when they contacted him in the states.
VanDyke’s network gives him an enhanced view of military operations in the still restive region. He is in the United States right now, but he says he’s been getting messages nonstop since the assault on the consulate. And he thinks he knows what happened.
“It’s really simple how it happened. First there was the video, that no one would have known about if it weren’t for the Egyptian media blowing it up. Then people protested in Cairo, and people in Libya saw it on TV, so they decided to protest in Benghazi.”
From there, VanDyke said, all it took was a few phone calls.
“The people up in the green mountains, the extremists, they saw their opportunity to pounce.”
VanDyke said the video protestors probably had no intent to get violent.
“The extremists, who the government knew was there, they used the protestors as a shield. I’ve experienced how quickly the mobilization can happen firsthand. All it takes is a couple cell phones. All of sudden there’s a handful of trucks packed with fighters.”
Derna, a city located between the Green Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, used to be lush and well-taken care of, affluent even until Gaddafi developed a grudge.
“This extremism is only one generation deep, I assure you. And that area, in Derna, has been left festering by the government ever since the revolution.”
VanDyke said he thought that possibly the government was waiting until it was better organised to clean out the area of training camps.
“Those camps have been there. There’s no excuse for that. They’re about 2 hours from the consulate, so these guys probably saw it on TV, made a few cell-phone calls, grabbed some gear, and got on the road.”The attack developed quickly, and included rockets and small arms fire. Although VanDyke said the weaponry does not indicate advanced training.
“They don’t have the infrastructure or military history to make commandos, that’s really absurd. Like I said, the extremism is one generation deep. And the fact that they have RPGs is irrelevant. The whole population has RPGs and weapons, how do you think they overthrew Gaddafi. Even I have an arsenal out there, RPGs, AKs.”
So then how did they overcome consulate guards to kill four Americans, including an Ambassador?
I also talked to a State Department Official with intimate details about operations, security, and administration. The official was only willing to talk on condition of anonymity.
The official said the problems in Libya stem from our post-revolution diplomatic stance, which is risky, but could potentially pay big dividends.
“The secretary [Hillary Clinton] wanted to do what’s called ‘aggressive expeditious diplomacy’ – which is like sending diplomats out to Iraq, Libya, Egypt, countries that are in a transition, where we want to have influence, but are still experiencing incredible unrest – the overall policy goal is to maintain influence of governments in nations after the awakening.”
Photo: KHALED DESOUKI / AFP / Getty Images
In the past, the U.S. would simply close embassies in times of transition, but in this region things are different. American foreign policy in the region hinges on good relations with incoming, or newly forming government bodies.Maintaining that influence also means issuing a certain amount of “trust” currency.
Therein lies the risk.
“Really it’s an abysmal failing on [Libya’s] behalf. We expect reciprocal protection, just as we give their dignitaries here. You know, the NYPD doesn’t actively protect embassies, but if a riot or protest started in front of one, they’d be out there breaking it up. But they’re unstable as a whole, there’s no real government there.”
As a part of that trust, the U.S. can’t send in thousands of troops to fill in the cracks, so to speak. It also can’t go throwing around deadly force.
“There’s only a certain amount of State Department Special Agents out there, on site, to protect the diplomat, a handful really. And you can’t use deadly force because you want to maintain a decent relationship with the government. It’s not like the military, it’s not shoot first and ask questions later, they’re more likely to ditch the post and try to leave with the ambassador.”
The State Department official said the ambassadors to these regions are fully briefed, and know they’re walking into an unstable region, with a disorganized government, one unlikely to have adequate security or instant first responders.
In fact, reports are that the Libyan security outfit responsible to protect the consulate fled the scene.
“We knew what we were walking into there,” said the official. “They’re not really a functioning government, so expecting them to provide security is not realistic. No one goes to Benghazi without knowing just the instability of the environment is an incredible threat, there’s certain posts that are just high-risk posts.”
A Marine counter-terrorism unit has been deployed to protect remaining personnel at the Embassy in Tripoli, and drones fly the skies over both Tripoli and Benghazi, searching for jihadis, but the State Department official said he doesn’t expect any American military confrontations.
To do so would be counter to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s plans for diplomacy.
What happens from here, what is the next step?
“Well, what the Americans will do is put pressure on the government to capture or kill these extremists, but they’ll do that privately, and probably will provide intel to the Libyan military,” said the journalist VanDyke.
Publicly, both governments will conclude on a united message.
“Already they’re saying this was planned, but there was no long term planning with this, they just saw an opportunity and went for it. What’s important now is that they act fast to clean out those camps up there, before these guys get too much time to celebrate.”
Many news organisations here in the States have broadcast the administration’s official account, that this was a complex, planned attack; ABC even quotes an unnamed “intelligence official.” But the network hedges its bets by saying that Benghazi’s account of the attack “has not yet been verified.”
In all likelihood, the Obama administration already knows who’s to blame, and is pressuring the government to take care of them. They’ve got drones over the area now, said VanDyke.
“Finding these guys won’t be difficult, there’s not many people in Libya, and the names are very distinct—again, it would take a half hour with a cell phone and a decent network to find out who is responsible,” said VanDyke.Regardless, the mainstream news fed into both the U.S. and Libyan administration’s confusing “who knows, it’s still an investigation” public statements that immediately followed the violence. Privately though, VanDyke said, they’re likely tussling with how to handle it.
“There’s no doubt that both intelligence arms, Libyan and American, and their PR people, are collaborating to come up with something that makes them look good, a unified statement, which they should be doing,” VanDyke said.
Fox News reported earlier that “current and former U.S. lawmakers, and others, claimed Wednesday that the attack looked like a coordinated strike.” Sure there was plenty of strong language coming from American political or intelligence figures, but VanDyke maintains that that is largely to save face.
“Also, other reporters are playing up Anti-American sentiment, but that’s not true either, Libyans like Americans, because they helped. Even some of the extreme Islamists of the past have given up violence.”
VanDyke says this will help narrow down the suspects. Former virulent cells of violent Islamists have given up violence in exchange for political clout in the newly independent government. They don’t want to risk their new power—and, since turning political, these leaders have been targets of assassination, so they will likely cooperate with authorities.
The U.S. government acknowledges some of these reformed extremists, so finding the guilty parties may be relatively easy.
“What’s important here is action, and I think they’ll take it. They knew the extremists were there, and are certainly kicking themselves for not taking action sooner, but now, things have changed,” said VanDyke.
The stakes are high—not just for the U.S., but for Libya.
“This hurts Libya in terms of international development. It’s a problem they’ve allowed to fester there since the end of the war. Already tolerated too much already. And if they don’t act, I promise you these protests will spread, and the small pockets of militants will become emboldened.”
Protests have recently been reported in Tunisia. VanDyke said he wouldn’t be surprised to see them in Afghanistan either.
“I understand diplomacy, but you can’t let people climb on your embassy walls and get away with it,” he said.
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