Six months ago yesterday, an assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya resulted in the first killing of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

Six months ago today, the U.S. government started oversight analysis on the attack. Officials from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, the Intelligence Community, and the State Department began trying to piece together the events of the attack. Since that time, countless people have spent hundreds of hours going through thousands of documents. 

Reuters Image

The events of that night are no longer in dispute.

There were a series of security mechanisms at the U.S. Consulate. The first barrier consisted of local police officers sitting in a vehicle outside the Consulate. The two officers had only one gun between them, which is not uncommon in Libya, and the police fled when the initial attack began.

The local Libyan guard force within the Consulate as well as the U.S. Marines stationed there fought courageously to repel the attack to the best of their abilities.

Marines stationed in Portugal were then dispatched to help fight off the attack; however, the air assets that they needed to travel to Benghazi were located in Germany. This delayed the Marine’s arrival.

All of the Americans with the exception of the Ambassador eventually evacuated to the Consulate annex. It is believed that at this point the Ambassador was already dead, and after the evacuation, the looting of the Consulate began. Three more Americans then lost their lives at the annex.

After the attack was over, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was then tasked with evidence collection and intelligence gathering. Because the FBI did not have a presence in Libya prior to the attack, there was a serious time lag between the attack and the FBI arriving to investigate the scene. During this period, looters and reporters accessed the Consulate and tainted evidence. 

This attack was not a strategic intelligence failure. The U.S. government has assessed that the attack on the Consulate was an opportunistic but coordinated attack that was planned only a few hours in advance. The Consulate was a soft target, it was the anniversary of 9/11, and there may have been hope among the militants that regional fury over an internet video purporting to attack Islam could give incentive for other groups to join in once the initial militants instigated the attack.

If there was a failure, one could argue that it existed at the Executive level where there was a lack of a comprehensive national security policy for American interests within Libya. I say this because, after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Obama administration did nothing to either dismantle the Libyan militias that had popped up in Gaddafi’s absence, or to build a reliable security force that American interests could depend on. I’m not talking about anything as drastic as nation building here. I’m simply pointing out that the Obama administration took a hands off approach to security in Libya.

Those of us who work for principals in government are debating various issues going forward: How can we improve information sharing? How do we improve our national security policy? How can we improve our military posture in responding to such attacks? How can we improve our intelligence investigations?

First, I think it is fair to say that the United States has limits to its military power, because with a smaller budget, military assets that are already stretched thin will be expected to do even more with less. Second, the Obama administration has shifted the Department of Defense’s focus to Asia at the expense of security concerns in the Middle East and Africa. This reallocation of concern could allow militant organizations within those regions to rebuild their terrorist networks. Third, in order to address the gaps in the military’s threat response, the United State’s military is going to have to take a second look at their European presence. Marines stationed in Portugal should be tethered to air assets if they are expected to be first responders to terrorist activity.

The Obama administration’s insistence on using the FBI as the main mechanism for evidence collection and intelligence gathering instead of military assets had its own complications. Because the FBI had no prior presence in Libya, FBI agents had to go through official channels to make arrangements to enter that country. The FBI first had to get permission from the Libyan government, then they had to get visas, and then they had to acquire adequate security to guard them as they did their jobs. All of this took precious time.

Many Members of Congress and some in the press have taken issue with the talking points that were used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. All I will say on this issue is that the talking points were not written for her specifically, but she used them anyway and they turned out to be inaccurate. If this teaches us anything, junior intelligence analysts should not be making talking points for senior level administration officials.

In any event, the U.S. State Department is going to have to have a fundamental rethink on what it means to have a diplomatic presence in another country. There needs to be a balance between keeping State Department employees protected and their desire to take risks and properly explore a country.

The political spectrum of the Middle East and Africa are changing rapidly, and trying to understand these changes is one of the greatest challenges in contemporary foreign policy and security analysis.

Chris Stevens was a career diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and was the first U.S. envoy to the Libyan resistance, which overthrew Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. He was the ambassador to Libya for less than a year. He was 52 years-old.

Finally, I apologize for my absence over the past month, but between my work on Capitol Hill and my ongoing attempt at writing a book, I’ve had little time to update this blog properly. I promise to be more prolific in the future. 

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The first assassination in post-revolutionary Tunisia occurred today. Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and Tunisian opposition leader, had been critical of both the Islamist-led government and of the violence perpetrated by radical Muslim Salafist groups. He was was gunned down as he left his home.

Protests in the North African nation originally ignited the Arab Spring, and it has since been seen as a model for the Arab world’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. The killing of Belaid is likely to increase societal tensions, and Tunisia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouch called the assassination a “terrorist act.” Belaid was shot point-blank several times.

Belaid was a high profile politician who had been particularly outspoken against groups affiliated with Tunisia’s largest political party, the Ennahda Party, that is infamous for seeking out remnants of the old dictatorship regime. The Ennahda is an Islamist party that was originally inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It is the most well-organized party in Tunisia, and it has politically outdistanced all of its more secular competitors.

Tunisia

Belaid was a member of a leftist alliance of parties known as the Popular Front. Islamist militants had disrupted a rally that Belaid had led over the weekend. The rally was part of a string of political meetings that have been disrupted by gangs loyal to Ennahda.

French President Francois Hollande has condemned the killing by saying, “This murder deprives Tunisia of one of its most courageous and free voices.”

Tunisia’s Islamist-led government is seen as being too moderate by that country’s more radical elements. Salafist groups have labeled the government as an oppressor for its refusal to release some 900 militants arrested for various acts of violence. Two of those detainees have since died in their cells after hunger strikes.

This has put Tunisia’s Islamist leaders in a problematic position. To the secular elite, the government is too indulgent regarding Salafist groups; yet, the Salafis accuse the government of being too indulgent regarding the secularists. Salafis have thus accused the Islamist-led government of selling out the purest form of Islam. It is a fine line that Tunisia’s leaders are currently walking.

The most radical of the Salafist gangs have attacked cultural events and shrines they consider un-Islamic. Carrying sticks and swords, they have ransacked stores selling alcohol and fought with the police. Salafist militants are also accused of leading the attack last year on the American school in Tunis as well as the U.S. Embassy attack that killed United States Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

The Salafi movement is typically spread through schools run by religious teachers who have little knowledge of or appreciation for traditional Islam. The chief task of these teachers is to promote a jihadist vision that is 1) global in scope, 2) intolerant of competing with other Sunni doctrines, and 3) fanatically anti-Shi’a. A main goal of these Salafist schools has been having their pupils spread this form of Islam world-wide. Originating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Salafist movement has made Tunisia one of its latest cultural battlegrounds.

Israel Strikes Back

November 15, 2012

Even though the US Congress is well into its Lame Duck session, I’ve decided to take a moment to comment on the heaviest fighting to happen inside the Palestinian territories in years.

Earlier this morning, Israel resumed its assault within the Gaza Strip against the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Israel is acting in self defense against Hamas which has been increasing its rocket attacks that have long been terrorizing Israeli citizens.

The timing for Israel’s actions appear to be very calculated.

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Bin Laden Dead

May 2, 2011

The architect behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was killed in an operation led by the United States, President Obama said Sunday in a late-night statement at the White House.

Osama Bin Laden was probably born in 1957. He was number 17 of 57 children to a father who made his fortune in the Saudi Arabia construction industry.  It is believed that the young bin Laden got his penchant for radical Islamist ideology at his university,  King Abdul-Aziz University, in Jeddah. This is where bin Laden was exposed to Islamist thinkers.

Bin Laden was influenced by the Sunni reformist movements of Deobandi and Salafi. Going forward, Bin Laden and his followers were bolstered by a genuine belief that they were reformulating the global order.

Bin Laden’s personal brand of Islamist ideology encouraged reconsideration of earlier Islamic religious positions. Among the goals of bin Laden were the defense and preservation of Sunni norms and law. Defensive arguments within bin Laden’s Salafi movement, often referred to as jihad, are often accompanied by an unusual degree of openness to departures from past Islamic analysis and understanding. These departures include a call for a more rigid conservatism while promoting a militant vision and culture unheard-of in classical Islam.

The Salafi and Deobandi movements are typically spread through schools run by religious teachers who have little knowledge of or appreciation for traditional Islam. The chief task of these teachers is to promote a jihadist vision that is global in scope, intolerant of competing with other Sunni doctrines, and fanatically anti-Shi’a. A main goal of Salafi and Deobandi schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan is having their pupils spread this form of Islam world-wide.

U.S. intelligence tracked the al Qaeda leader to a 3,000 square foot, custom built compound with high walls and two security gates. The compound is near the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. Bin Laden’s movements were monitored for months until President Obama decided that there was enough evidence for the U.S. military to act.

U.S. operatives moved on the compound early Monday local time. Helicopters descended on the fortified compound in Abbottabad, and a small contingent of the U.S. Navy Seals killed bin Laden in a raid.

President Obama announced the news at the White House. He called the death of bin Laden “the most significant achievement to date” in the war against al Qaeda.

“After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body,” the president said, warning that the U.S. must remain vigilant because al Qaeda will “continue to pursue attacks against us.”

There are arguments that both support and oppose the hypothesis that suicide bombers are foremost a product of religious extremism.

Since 1980, suicide bombings have been identified with a variety of religious and secular ideologies. These ideologies include: the Hindu BKI in India, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the SSNP in Lebanon, the PFLP in the Palestinian territories, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the PPK in Turkey.

Salafi, Deobandi, and Marxist ideologies are three of the most common belief systems that are associated with suicide bombings. Marxism is a socio-political and economic worldview that is not historically associated with religion. This would suggest that suicide bombings are at least not completely a product of religious extremism.

Focusing on the Deobandi and Salafi movements, both of which I have written on in this blog before, neither Deobandi nor Salafi are unified belief systems. There is no single authority on either. Quintan Wiktorowicz has written in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism that “(t)he divisions within the Salafi community, in part, represent a generational struggle over sacred authority–the right to interpret Islam on behalf of the Muslim community.” In other words, Wiktorowicz claims that there is no single and exclusive understanding within Salafi ideology regarding actions such as suicide bombings. With this knowledge, one can assume that other ideological factors other than religion are also contributors in the making of a suicide bomber. We can come to this conclusion, because there is no homogeneous authority within a belief system like Salafi to encourage every believer into becoming a bomber. If there were, the world would have experienced millions more of these bombings.

What Makes A Suicide Bomber?

Suicide bombers seek to coalesce their religious beliefs to existing socio-cultural views influenced by their economic status, national identity, and political views. Therefore, they may seek out extreme religious ideologies because they are in line with their pre-existing socio-cultural worldview. This would indicate that religious extremism is not a catalyst in creating a suicide bomber as much as it is an approbation.

Individuals associated with suicide bombings tend to experience a progressive radicalization. A better understanding of what role religious extremism may play (and may not play) in that experience could save future lives. However, it is important to not sensationalize religion’s influence on acts of suicide bombings.

A lack of data on successful suicide bombers is a contributing factor to the ambiguity that religion plays in these events. Many groups that plan the bombings put off releasing the bomber’s identities in order to protect their families and larger community from revenge. Yet, data from failed suicide bombers is available, and it is conclusive. There are plenty of instances where groups like the Taliban recruited uneducated youths and indoctrinated them with an extreme religious ideology to incite and encourage them. However, there are just as many instances where failed bombers turn out to be extremely educated, and these people are just as likely to cite nationalistic and economic inducements as they are to espouse religious ones.

One of the few consistent factors in suicide bombings is that the bombing itself is an act of contesting authority.

Suicide bombers are reactionary. They are reacting to their socio-economic-cultural realities. They are disgruntled by factors (both real and perceived) within their community, region, or nation state.

I think it is pragmatic to state that suicide bombings are not singularly a product of religious extremism. But, for those instances where religious extremism is a factor, it would be beneficial to ask if suicide bombers (who we know are religious) subscribe to an extreme religion because they are already disgruntled, or does an extreme religion advance their militancy?

Iranian Physics professor Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed by a bomb blast outside his home on Tuesday.

The Iranian government has accused the United States and Israel of being behind the killing. The bomb, which was placed on Mohammadi’s motorcycle, detonated by remote control when he approached. It is worth noting that Mohammadi has been tied to the Iranian regime’s opposition movement. There has been speculation that the Iranian government was secretly behind the assassination.

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