Data points continue to accumulate about the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. The picture that is beginning to emerge from connecting those dots is deeply concerning on multiple levels. Two related issues dominate this analysis: The stripping of security protection from the Benghazi mission prior to the 9/11 anniversary attack and the refusal to send or even permit local help on the night of the attack.
As Fox News Bureau Chief of Intelligence Catherine Herridge suggested on the “Mike Huckabee” show on Oct. 27, both of these critical subjects may have been driven by a perceived need to cover up the existence of the role being played by the U.S. mission in Libya to serve as a command hub for the movement of weapons out of Libya to Syrian rebels fighting to bring down the Bashar Al-Assad regime.
It has now been established through the persistent work of Congressional leadership figures and such investigative journalists, media and talk show hosts including Fox News, Michael Coren at Canada’s Sun News, Aaron Klein at World Net Daily and Diana West that the Benghazi mission played a central role in a U.S. government policy of “engaging, legitimating, enriching and emboldening Islamists who have taken over or are ascendant in much of the Middle East,” as Center for Security Policy president, Frank Gaffney, put it.
Benghazi Staffed by CIA Operatives: What Was Their Role?
According to media reporting, Benghazi was staffed by CIA operatives whose job may have been not just to secure and destroy dangerous weapons (like RPGs and SAMs) looted from former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s stockpiles during and after the 2011 revolution, but also perhaps to facilitate their onward shipment to the Al-Qaeda- and Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian opposition.
President Barack Obama signed an intelligence finding sometime in early 2012 that authorized U.S. support for the Syrian rebels and by mid-June 2012, CIA operatives reportedly were on the Turkish-Syrian border helping to steer weapons deliveries to selected Syrian rebel groups. According to an Oct. 14, 2012 New York Times article, most of those arms were going to “hard-line Islamic jihadists.”
One of those jihadis may well be Abdelhakim Belhadj, former leader of the Al-Qa’eda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and head of the Tripoli Military Council after Qaddafi’s ouster. During the 2011 revolt in Libya, Belhadj was almost certainly a key contact of the U.S. liaison to the Libyan opposition, Christopher Stevens.
In November 2011, Belhadj was reported to have met with Syrian Free Army (SFA) leaders in Istanbul, Turkey, as well as on the Turkish-Syrian border. Further, Belhadj’s contact with the SFA comes in the context of official policy adopted by the post-Qaddafi Libyan “government,” which sent a delegation to Turkey to offer arms and possibly fighters to the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels. "There is something being planned to send weapons and even Libyan fighters to Syria," according to a Libyan source quoted in a November, 2011 Telegraph report.
The Libya-Syria Arms Funnel
The multilateral U.S.-Libya-Turkey agreement to get weapons into the hands of Syrian rebels – which were known to be dominated by Al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood elements -- by working with and through Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist figures like Belhadj, seemed confirmed by the appearance of a Libyan-flagged vessel, Al-Entisar, which docked at the Turkish port of Iskanderun on September 6, 2012.
Suspected of carrying weapons bound for the Syrian rebels, the ship’s cargo reportedly included Russian-designed, shoulder-launched missiles known as MANPADS, RPGs and surface-to-air missiles—all of them just the sort of weapons available in Libya.
Stevens’ last meeting in Benghazi the night he was killed was with the Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin, who is variously reported to have been there to discuss a weapons transfer or a warning about the possible compromise of the Libyan weapons pipeline to Syria. Whatever the topic of Ambassador Stevens’ discussion with Akin, he clearly and knowingly put himself in harm’s way to be there, in Benghazi, on the night of September 11.
Why Stevens Travelled to Benghazi the Night of the Attack
The urgency that compelled Stevens to Benghazi that night seems especially difficult to understand given what was known to him as well as to senior levels of the Obama administration about the extremely dangerous situation in post-Qaddafi Libya.
It is all the more baffling then that, in view of the obvious priority that the U.S. government had placed on its Libya-to-Syria weapons pipeline operation, such a systematic effort in the weeks leading up to the September 11 attack was dedicated to stripping the Benghazi base of the security protection it so desperately needed in a deteriorating Libyan security environment and despite the repeated pleas of Ambassador Stevens and others in both Tripoli and Benghazi for more security.
Increased Security Requests Turned Down
From at least February, 2012 onward, the Regional Security Officer (RSO) at the U.S. Tripoli Embassy, Eric Nordstrom, had urged that U.S. security measures in Libya be expanded, citing dozens of security incidents by “Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)…”
In August 2012, Stevens reported that the security situation in Benghazi was deteriorating, yet in spite of this, the 16-man Site Security Team assigned to Libya, comprised of Special Forces led by SF LTC Andy Wood, was ordered out of Libya, contrary to the Ambassador’s stated desire that they stay.
Instead, DoS hired a British firm, Blue Mountain, to manage its security in Benghazi, and Blue Mountain subcontracted the job to a local jihadist militia called the February 17 Martyrs Brigade who have known Muslim Brotherhood ties.
Furthermore, Nordstrom testified at the October 11, 2012 Congressional hearings that “in deference to sensitivity to Libyan practice, the guards at Benghazi were unarmed"-- an inexplicable practice for a place as dangerous as Benghazi.
Then, in what may have been the attack “green light,” on September 10, 2012, AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Libyans to avenge the death of his Libyan number two, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who had been killed in a June, 2012 drone strike in Pakistan. The timing suggests that al-Zawahiri may have given the attack go-ahead after receiving word that Stevens had arrived in Benghazi that day—further suggesting that perhaps AQ knew of Stevens’ travel plans.
Gov. Sees Attack in Live-Stream Video
Once the attack unfolded at the Benghazi base, it quickly became apparent that the minimal number of U.S. and local security staff was completely unequal to the scores of heavily armed jihadist attackers swarming the compound. And yet, despite a live-streaming video from an overhead drone, plus cables and cell phone calls that, altogether, must have been received by hundreds of administration diplomatic, intelligence and military officials (including the U.S. President, Vice President, Secretaries of Defense and State, and Directors of National Intelligence and CIA), military support from regional bases was denied repeatedly to the besieged Benghazi defenders.
Worse yet, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods, who was providing security for CIA operatives at the Benghazi annex facility, and Glen Dougherty, who had arrived on a rescue flight dispatched by the CIA Chief of Station in Tripoli, repeatedly were denied permission by their CIA chain of command on the ground to go to the aid of Ambassador Stevens and the others.
Eventually, they went anyway, and succeeded in saving many lives because of their moral and physical courage. Once back at the CIA annex, they all came under heavy fire there too. Again, Dougherty and Woods requested military backup, at least to silence the mortar fire that they had been able to identify by laser painting it. They fought on alone for hours, but when no help came, that mortar barrage eventually took both their lives and seriously injured others.
Sec. of Defense Panetta Claims of "No Knowledge" Questionable
When asked why he didn’t authorize military assets to scramble to Benghazi’s defense, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta claimed that he didn’t know what was going on and “could not put forces at risk in that situation.” This is patently false on both counts: Panetta most certainly did know that an American Ambassador and other staff were under military assault by jihadist forces who had invaded the sovereign territory of a U.S. diplomatic facility. Whether U.S. military assets -- either air support or Special Forces -- could have arrived in time to save lives is unknown at this point, but the administration’s refusal to say when the president first learned that Benghazi was under attack, that the ambassador was in peril and that the Al-Qaeda-linked Libyan jihadist group, Ansar al-Shariah, had taken credit for the attack invites speculation.
The White House refusal to comment on when exactly the president first met with the National Security Council after the attack began doesn’t help either. (And the weeks of deliberately false statements from a range of administration figures who tried to claim that an obscure trailer for a film no one had ever seen was to blame for the Benghazi debacle only confirms suspicions about the administration capitulation to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) demands for limits on free speech.)
For his part, CIA Director David Petraeus has denied that either he or anyone else at CIA refused assistance to Dougherty and Woods, saying that "No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate." This leaves only the president himself responsible for the decision to allow the Benghazi base to fall and four Americans to die.
How could he or any of those present when this momentous decision was made not have tried to make every effort imaginable to defend American territory and save American lives? House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa believes President Obama had a political motive for rejecting Ambassador Stevens’ security requests because he wanted to show that conditions in Libya were improving, possibly to justify U.S. intervention in the Libyan revolution or even help pave the way for oil company investment.
Whatever the thinking that left a U.S. mission abroad so undefended that it practically constituted an open invitation to Al-Qaeda, and then, in cold blood, refused to launch military support in defense of Americans fighting and dying to defend U.S. sovereign territory from jihadi assault, the cover-up is fast becoming the worse failure. It is time for administration leaders, from the president on down, to explain both their actions and their failures to act.
Clare Lopez is a senior fellow at RadicalIslam.org and a strategic policy and intelligence expert with a focus on the Middle East, national defense and counterterrorism. Lopez served for 25 years as an operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).