WILL PRESIDENT OBAMA BE FORCED INTO A ‘SHOW OF STRENGTH’ IN LIBYA?
As President Obama strives for re-election, pressures may be mounting on him to strike at those who killed the US ambassador and his colleagues in Benghazi on 11th September. The process of identifying and selecting the possible assassins in Libya is well advanced. The President’s reactions in this matter will be guided by public opinion at home as well as by strategic imperatives. To allow the killer of one of his ambassadors to go unpunished will have both domestic and international repercussions. Whatever the outcome, the killing of Ambassador Stevens will change the way US diplomats conduct their business abroad and security considerations will limit their effectiveness.
There is no shortage of those who suggest that the USA has lost influence in Africa as a result of President Obama’s weakness. There are indications, for example, that the Egyptian army is ‘retiring’ many officers suspected of being too close to the USA. The al Qaeda led destabilisation of Mali is likely to affect Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The tension between the Muslim north and the Christian south of Nigeria will open up many opportunities for the promoters of violence, notably the al Qaeda franchise Boko Haram.
The US policy in Libya must be seen in the wider context. ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’, now in de facto control of much of Mali, has been seeking a foothold in Libya and has found friends in the Salafist ‘Ansar al Sharia’ militia brigade in Benghazi and Derna. The US has long been interested in Derna, the seaport some miles to the east of Benghazi, where a number of young men were recruited to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan and some have been returned to Libya by way of Guantanamo.
One Derna resident in particular has a most interesting profile according to Wikileaks. He is Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda Bin Qumu who was a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay for six years. He was a member of the ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ and later trained in an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and fought there as a commander of Arab volunteers. When in 2007 the Guantanamo Bay issue became and embarrassment to the Obama administration Bin Qumu was released and returned to Libya where the Gadaffi regime agreed to keep him in prison. However, in 2010 he was released from the notorious Abu Salim jail as part of an amnesty for anti-regime prisoners. He is one of founders of the ‘Ansar al Sharia’ militia in Derna and Benghazi and it is this group which is suspected of the attack on the US embassy on 11th September. A 30,000 strong street protest in Benghazi led to the disbandment of ‘Ansar al Sharia’ but there have recently been a series armed attacks in Benghazi which indicate that many militiamen have gone to ground, taking their arms and ammunition with them.
The investigation which followed the killings on 11th September is not yet complete but an interesting hypothesis is developing along the following lines. Soon after the civil war in Libya got underway the US established a CIA post in an annex near the US embassy in Benghazi. From here signals traffic between Libyan suspects and al Qaeda units were monitored. It is probable that the location and function of this annex became known to the Ansar al Sharia militia. It is also supposed, on good grounds, that this militia was recruited by ‘Al Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb’.
It is argued that ‘Ansar al Sharia’ made a plan to attack the embassy and the annex which were surrounded by high walls and guarded by some US security specialists and some locally employed contract personnel. The plan was left ‘on the vine’ to await an opportune moment for its execution.
That came on 11th September when angry crowds demonstrated outside the US embassy against a now notorious and ill-conceived anti-Islamic video. Ambassador Stevens was also visiting the embassy on 11th September, apparently to interview a Lebanese contractor. Did Ansar al Sharia have foreknowledge of the ambassador’s presence in Benghazi?
When the protest started outside the embassy ‘Ansar al Sharia’ militiamen launched their attack. They were appropriately armed and used mortars to lob bombs over the high walls. The nature of the attack in which weapons were used skilfully means that experienced fighters were involved. It was well planned operation which took the form of two assaults, the first on the embassy and the second on the so called annex situated about half a mile distant.
US drones launched above Benghazi and Derna soon after the attack picked up telecoms between ‘Ansar al Sharia’ operatives in Benghazi and known al Qaeda units. It is, therefore, likely that the attackers were linked with ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’. Among the American personnel evacuated from Benghazi after the attack were about a dozen C.I.A. operatives and contractors whose presence may have been betrayed to ‘Ansar al Sharia’. There are few foreigners in Benghazi at the moment and the presence of so many Americans must have been obvious. It is has always been a city where news spreads rapidly by word of mouth. Unless the US personnel lived without locally employed domestic servants their lives would have been subject to the closest scrutiny.
President Obama will have a number of options to consider. He has, however, made it clear that the US will punish the killer of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues. What will he do?