Benghazi, Explained

An investigation just released from The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick paints the best picture yet of what led to the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last year that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.  

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An investigation just released from The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick paints the best picture yet of what led to the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last year that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Kirkpatick concludes the explanation is not black and white. Benghazi was not completely spontaneous, but not completely planned either — a clash of anger and opportunity that boiled over and got out of hand.

Questions have swirled since news broke the consulate was under attack on September 11, 2012. Originally we were told it was a spontaneous assault over a Youtube video, then that it was planned anti-U.S. terrorist attack. On the Sunday talk shows, Susan Rice, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said American intelligence officials told her the attack started over "Innocence of Muslims," an anti-Muslim short movie trailer that appeared on Youtube, and it cost her Secretary of State. The video explanation was quickly abandoned for a loved-by-Republicans conspiracy theory that says the attack was a carefully planned Al Qaeda plot to celebrate the anniversary of September 11th. 

But the video did play some part in fuelling the attack, according to Kirkpatrick, who spoke with dozens of U.S. officials and Libyans with intimate knowledge of the attack and subsequent investigation. No evidence suggests Al Qaeda or any other major terrorist organization played any part in the attack. A local militia, Ansar al-Shariah, were planning an attack on the mission, with help from Ahmed Abu Khattala, a juice-sipping "eccentric, malcontent militia leader," when the video was released. It's unclear when they were originally planning to attack. But the video infuriated them, and so they struck, and then more people joined them:

Surveillance of the American compound appears to have been underway at least 12 hours before the assault started.

The violence, though, also had spontaneous elements. Anger at the video motivated the initial attack. Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters. Looters and arsonists, without any sign of a plan, were the ones who ravaged the compound after the initial attack, according to more than a dozen Libyan witnesses as well as many American officials who have viewed the footage from security cameras.

Khattala has been fingered as a suspect before, but he has not been arrested or charged yet for his role in the attacks. The official Obama administration investigation points to Khattala as a prime suspect. He denies playing any role.

The CIA had no advanced warning that an attack was being planned against the consulate, though. American intelligence in Benghazi focused much of its efforts on Al Qaeda-linked groups — the smaller, independent militias responsible for the attack were barely on their radar. The person who knew the militias best was Ambassador Stevens:

In addition to buying up weapons spilled out during the revolt, the team was assigned to gather intelligence about anti-Western terrorists and the big militia leaders. But there were hundreds of small brigades, affiliations were fluid and overlapping, and the agents often found themselves turning to Mr. Stevens for advice because he seemed to know the militia leaders better than any other American expert.

Kirkpatrick also pieces together an intricate timeline of the attack, detailing what parts of the operation were planned and what elements spontaneously erupted. As people noticed the attack was happening, people gathered at the consulate started showing each other the anti-Muslim video, encouraging more anger. Khattala was spotted directing attackers who went in and out of the consulate building. Other militia leaders with ties to the U.S. operation refused to intervene. 

You really should spend some time this weekend with Kirkpatrick's extensive Times report —a beautiful piece of journalism and design.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.