The Facts About Benghazi
An exhaustive investigation by The Times goes a long way toward resolving any nagging doubts about what precipitated the attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The report by David Kirkpatrick, The Times’s Cairo bureau chief, and his team turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or another international terrorist group had any role in the assault, as Republicans have insisted without proof for more than a year. The report concluded that the attack was led by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s air power and other support during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and that it was fueled, in large part, by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.
In a rational world, that would settle the dispute over Benghazi, which has further poisoned the poisonous political discourse in Washington and kept Republicans and Democrats from working cooperatively on myriad challenges, including how best to help Libyans stabilize their country and build a democracy. But Republicans long ago abandoned common sense and good judgment in pursuit of conspiracy-mongering and an obsessive effort to discredit President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.
On the Sunday talk shows, Representatives Mike Rogers and Darrell Issa, two Republicans who are some of the administration’s most relentless critics of this issue, dismissed The Times’s investigation and continued to press their own version of reality on Benghazi.
Mr. Issa talked of an administration “cover-up.” Mr. Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has called Benghazi a “preplanned, organized terrorist event,” said his panel’s findings that Al Qaeda was involved was based on an examination of 4,000 classified cables. If Mr. Rogers has evidence of a direct Al Qaeda role, he should make it public. Otherwise, The Times’s investigation, including extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack, stands as the authoritative narrative.
While the report debunks Republican allegations, it also illuminates the difficulties in understanding fast-moving events in the Middle East and in parsing groups that one moment may be allied with the West and in another, turn adversarial. Americans are often careless with the term “Al Qaeda,” which strictly speaking means the core extremist group, founded by Osama bin Laden, that is based in Pakistan and bent on global jihad.
Republicans, Democrats and others often conflate purely local extremist groups, or regional affiliates, with Al Qaeda’s international network. That prevents understanding the motivations of each group, making each seem like a direct, immediate threat to the United States and thus confusing decision-making.
The report is a reminder that the Benghazi tragedy represents a gross intelligence failure, something that has largely been overlooked in the public debate. A team of at least 20 people from the Central Intelligence Agency, including highly skilled commandos, was operating out of an unmarked compound about a half-mile southeast of the American mission when the attack occurred. Yet, despite the C.I.A. presence and Ambassador Stevens’s expertise on Libya, “there was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests,” a State Department investigation found. The C.I.A. supposedly did its own review. It has not been made public, so there is no way to know if the agency learned any lessons.
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The pilot who flew the survivors of the Benghazi tragedy to Germany says we could have rescued those who died and that the State Department knew who was attacking as it listened to the terrorists on captured cellphones.
(Eric) Stahl, who — like Clinton — was for some strange reason never interviewed by the State Department's Accountability Review Board, says, no, we didn't do whatever was necessary and that none of the survivors knew anything about a spontaneous protest or a video that was put forth by her and by Obama repeatedly as the cause.
In fact, says Stahl, the State Department knew that night it was a terrorist attack.
Stahl told Fox News' Bret Baier that members of a CIA-trained Global Response Staff who raced to the scene of the attacks were "confused" by the administration's repeated implication of the video as a trigger for the raid, because it "knew during the attack ... who was doing the attacking."
The administration knew, according to Stahl, because immediately after leaving the consulate in Benghazi and moving to the (CIA) safe house, there were reports "that cell phones, consulate cell phones, were being used to make calls to the attackers' higher-ups."
Stahl also disputes the claim that we could not have mounted a timely rescue attempt. That was always an odd explanation for not trying, since at the time no one knew how long the attack would last. He says he and his C-17 crew could have reached Benghazi in time to have played a role in rescuing the victims of the assault and ferrying them to safety in Germany.
"You would've thought that we would have had a little bit more of an alert posture on 9/11," Stahl told Baier. "A hurried-up timeline probably would take us (an) hour-and-a-half to get off the ground and three hours and 15 minutes to get down there. So we could've gone down there and gotten them easily."
CAIRO — Ahmed Abu Khattala was always open about his animosity toward the United States, and even about his conviction that Muslims and Christians were locked in an intractable religious war. “There is always hostility between the religions,” he said in an interview. “That is the nature of religions.”
During the assault on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, Mr. Abu Khattala was a vivid presence. Witnesses saw him directing the swarming attackers who ultimately killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Afterward, he offered contradictory denials of his role, sometimes trying to say that he did not do it but strongly approved. He appeared to enjoy his notoriety.
Even after President Obama vowed to hunt down the attackers, Mr. Abu Khattala sat for repeated interviews with Western journalists and even invited a correspondent for tea in the modest home where he lived openly, with his mother, in the el-Leithi neighborhood of Benghazi.
But for all his brazenness, Mr. Abu Khattala also holds many tantalizing secrets for the Americans still investigating and debating the attack.
Captured by military commandos and law enforcement agents early on Monday, Mr. Abu Khattala may now help address some of the persistent questions about the identity and motives of the attackers. The thriving industry of conspiracy theories, political scandals, talk show chatter and congressional hearings may now confront the man federal investigators say played the central role in the attack.
Despite extensive speculation about the possible role of Al Qaeda in directing the attack, Mr. Abu Khattala is a local, small-time Islamist militant. He has no known connections to international terrorist groups, say American officials briefed on the criminal investigation and intelligence reporting, and other Benghazi Islamists and militia leaders who have known him for many years.
In several hours of interviews since the attack, Mr. Abu Khattala was happy to profess his admiration for Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda. He insisted that American foreign policy alone was to blame for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he remained a distant admirer of Mr. Bin Laden’s organization, having spent most of his adult life in and out of jail for his extremism under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Even by the standards of Benghazi jihadists — and even among many of his friends — Mr. Abu Khattala stands out as both erratic and extremist. “Even in prison, he was always alone,” said Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sidra, an Islamist member of Parliament from Benghazi who spent several years in prison with Mr. Abu Khattala.
“He is sincere, but he is very ignorant, and I don’t think he is 100 percent mentally fit,” Mr. Abu Sidra said. “I always ask myself, how did he become a leader?”
When the revolt against Colonel Qaddafi broke out in February 2011, however, Mr. Abu Khattala’s years in prison were an attractive credential to the young men looking for tough-talking “sheikhs” to follow into battle.
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He formed a militia of perhaps two dozen fighters, naming it Obeida Ibn Al Jarra for an early Islamic general. But by the summer, Mr. Abu Khattala and his band had become notorious across Benghazi.
A group of Islamist militia leaders decided to “arrest” and investigate the main rebel commander, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, who had also become NATO’s preferred partner among the rebel leaders. His captors held him overnight in the headquarters of Mr. Abu Khattala’s brigade, and General Younes’s body was found the next day on a roadside, riddled with bullets.
Mr. Abu Khattala “became a boogeyman” across Benghazi, said Mohamed al-Gharabi, the Islamist leader of the Rafallah al-Sehati Brigade. “People started to fear him,” he said.
Mr. Abu Khattala appeared to enjoy his new infamy. When the Islamist-dominated militias reorganized into a centralized coalition, he rejected it as insufficiently Islamist. Complaining that the coalition supported the Western-backed provisional government instead of demanding a theocracy, he pulled back from the front.
“He thinks he owns God and everyone else is an infidel,” said Fawzi Bukatef, the coalition’s former leader.
In the period before the attack, Mr. Abu Khattala was living in el-Leithi, known for its high concentration of militant extremists. He made his living as a building contractor in blue Dickies coveralls. But he was still active with a small, part-time militia, which at certain times over the last two years controlled at least one checkpoint on a highway near Benghazi.
On the day of the attack, Islamists in Cairo had staged a demonstration outside the United States Embassy there to protest an American-made online video mocking Islam, and the protest culminated in a breach of the embassy’s walls — images that flashed through news coverage around the Arab world.
As the attack in Benghazi was unfolding a few hours later, Mr. Abu Khattala told fellow Islamist fighters and others that the assault was retaliation for the same insulting video, according to people who heard him.
In an interview a few days later, he pointedly declined to say whether an offensive online video might indeed warrant the destruction of the diplomatic mission or the killing of the ambassador. “From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad,” he said.
Several witnesses to the attack later said that Mr. Abu Khattala’s presence and leadership were conspicuous from the start. He initially hung back, standing near the crowd at Venezia Road, several witnesses said. But a procession of fighters hurried to him out of the smoke and gunfire, addressed him as “sheikh,” and then gave him reports or took his orders before plunging back into the compound.
Spotting him as the central figure in the attack, a local official, Anwar el-Dos, approached Mr. Abu Khattala for help in entering the compound. The two men drove into the mission together in Mr. Abu Khattala’s pickup truck, witnesses said. As the men moved forward, the fighters parted to let them pass.
When the truck doors opened inside the walls, witnesses said, Mr. Dos dived to the ground to avoid gunfire ringing all around. But Mr. Abu Khattala strolled coolly through the chaos.
“He was just calm as could be,” a young Islamist who had joined the pillaging said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Mr. Abu Khattala showed up on internal security cameras at about 11:30 p.m., according to American officials who have viewed the footage.
A short time later, Mr. Abu Khattala drove to the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah, a local Benghazi militia whose members, witnesses said, also played a prominent role in the attack.
Although widely seen at the attack, Mr. Abu Khattala made no attempt to flee. The safest place for him may have been Benghazi, where Libya’s weak central government feared exerting its authority because of the superior power of the local Islamist militias.
Mr. Abu Khattala’s neighbors and other residents of Benghazi were apparently unaware of his capture, perhaps because they assumed he was caught up in other fighting in the city. A renegade general has been waging a local campaign against Islamist militants such as those in Ansar al-Shariah and Mr. Abu Khattala.
In interviews after the news emerged, two Benghazi residents said they had last seen Mr. Abu Khattala on Sunday. A neighbor in the el-Leithi district said he had seen Mr. Abu Khattala leaving his house alone in an Afghan-style jallabiya, with a Kalashnikov rifle slung over one shoulder and a Belgian FN rifle over the other.
“Then he walked deep into el-Leithi,” the neighbor said. “We haven’t seen him since.”
As the attack in Benghazi was unfolding a few hours later, Mr. Abu Khattala told fellow Islamist fighters and others that the assault was retaliation for the same insulting video, according to people who heard him