The murder of Christopher Stevens, American Ambassador to Libya, and three other diplomatic staff at the US Consulate in Benghazi on 11 September was a stark reminder al-Qa’ida that the organization remains a real and present danger.
Perhaps even more worryingly, it also points to an infiltration of the security services by indigenous Islamist extremists add odds with the newly elected regime and its US backers.
I have no doubt that the Benghazi attack is the work of al-Qa’ida and that it was pre-meditated rather than a spontaneous protest about a provocative film as initial reports suggested. The US Embassy was swamped by gunmen (driving brand new cars which had been given to the Army) on a date which is highly significant to al-Qa’ida for two reasons: first, of course, it was the eleventh anniversary of 9/11; second, al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri chose this day to officially announce that his deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi had been killed back in June (this had never been confirmed by the organization). Islamic extremists had already attempted to attack the Benghazi Consulate to avenge al-Libi’s death on 6 June and, having failed, obviously waited for another chance to commemorate the man al-Zawahiri called ‘the Lion of Libya’ in his pre-recorded speech.
The Libyan government is denying the hand of al-Qa’ida, claiming instead that the attack is the work of Gadaffi loyalists. President Obama, in his speech condemning the attacks, initially also avoided mention of al-Qa’ida or the jihadi movement but Washington is now cautiously addressing the possibility.
It is painful for the new regime and the US, which played a major role in liberating the country Gadaffi, to admit that the uprising re-activated Libya’s own jihadis (who were supressed under Gadaffi) and attracted foreign Islamist fighters to the country.
Not that this is anything new: exactly the same scenario has already been played out in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year, Syria joined the club, provoking great anxiety in Washington and contributing to the Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in that country.
No serving US Ambassador has been killed on duty since 1979 when Adolph Dubs was kidnapped and murdered in Afghanistan. The attack is as devastating as that incident or the 1998 US embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi which killed 223 and first brought the world’s attention to Osama bin Laden and his embryonic organization.
Reports on the ground say that the Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah had inflamed the mob which carried out the Benghazi attack by referring to an Israeli-funded and produced film trailer which defamed the Prophet Mohammad.
There were violent demonstrations in Cairo, Tunisand Sanaa too, over the trailer which is called ‘The Real Life of Mohammad’ and depicts the prophet as a morally loose child molester and womanizer. During the 11 September demonstrations in Cairo the al-Qa’ida flag was waved by several in the angry crowds while the protests in Sanaa were orchestrated by extremists suspected of al-Qa’ida links, including Sheikh Abdel Majid al-Zandani.
The trailer has been on the internet since 1 July suggesting that the furore surrounding it has been carefully managed. Only 20,000 people had watched it before 8 September when Egyptian television preacher Sheikh Khalid Abdallah included clips it in his two hour show on al-Nas channel. On 9 September these were posted on the website of Egyptian Salafist cleric Mohammad Abdelmalik al-Zughbi.
Florida pastor Terry Jones (who is infamous for his threats to burn the Quran) poured oil on the flames by announcing his support for the film and declaring the 9/11 anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington ‘International Judge Mohammad Day’.
By 11 September the fury and indignation of thousands had gathered critical mass.
Events in Cairo and Benghazi demonstrate how radical Islamist groups have been able to exploit the Arab revolutions – a phenomenon I predicted in my new book After bin Laden: al-Qa’ida’s Next Generation.
But the extreme violence in Benghazi – which is only the worst and latest in a long list of atrocities - has even more serious implications. The inability of the new Libyan regime to adequately protect the US Ambassador and the consulate in Benghazi demonstrate just how weak it is and the inadequacy of its security apparatus. Warring armed militias continue to roam the country and in Benghazi, the seat of the Libyan uprising, al-Qa’ida men and their Libyan affiliates, are able to operate freely and with deadly efficiency. Foreign diplomats and Libyan ministers remain at high risk of attack.
National reconciliation – a pre-requisite for a successful ‘new Libya’ remains a distant prospect. Earlier this year, the East of Libya d itself an autonomous state, which Misrata is already, de facto.
The security situation is approaching that of a failed state and the anti-American feelings evidenced by the protests in Libya and Egypt must be ringing alarm bells in Washington which wishes to maintain its influence in Libya with all its valuable resources and Egypt with its Peace Treaty with Israel.
The attack also presents US President Obama with a dilemma as he faces elections in his own country. The murder of America’s envoy on foreign soil – or the failure of the host country’s security apparatus to protect him - is tantamount to an act of war, yet in a televised speech Obama emphasized that it ‘would not damage the relationship between the US and Libya’ and that the two countries would ‘work together to bring those responsible to justice’.
The ongoing problem - and it is the same problem the US has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan - is that a significant element within the Libyan and Egyptian population do not welcome American involvement in their internal affairs and are prepared to use violence to oust them.
Only the day before the murder, when President Obama attended a 9/11 memorial service at the Pentagon, he must have been feeling optimistic that the threat al-Qa’ida had been greatly diminished. Not only had Osama bin Laden been eliminated in May 2011, but many other key leaders, including al-Libi and al-Awlaki, had followed. In the days leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, two more top al-Qa’ida men were reported killed - al-Shihri (deputy AQAP) and AQIM senior commander, al-Makhloufi.
Events in Benghazi, Cairo and Tunisshow the extent of the problem the West still faces Islamist extremist groups. Al-Qa’ida’s network of affiliates and its ideology continue to develop like a large tree, with a tangled and sturdy infrastructure of roots underground. No matter how many branches are cut off – even big branches like bin Laden and al-Libi – the roots endure and new branches are able to grow.