Inside the former US Consulate in Benghazi in the aftermath of an attack that resulted in the death of the American ambassador and other personnel. Rebel government forces say the attack was planned., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
September 27, 2012
Security Fears Hobble Inquiry of Libya Attack
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, ERIC SCHMITT and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
New York Times
BENGHAZI, Libya — Sixteen days after the death of four Americans in an attack on a United States diplomatic mission here, fears about the near-total lack of security have kept F.B.I. agents from visiting the scene of the killings and forced them to try to piece together the complicated crime from Tripoli, more than 400 miles away.
Investigators are so worried about the tenuous security, people involved in the investigation say, that they have been unwilling to risk taking some potential Libyan witnesses into the American Embassy in Tripoli. Instead, the investigators have resorted to the awkward solution of questioning some witnesses in cars outside the embassy, which is operating under emergency staffing and was evacuated of even more diplomats on Thursday because of a heightened security alert.
“It’s a cavalcade of obstacles right now,” said a senior American law enforcement official who is receiving regular updates on the Benghazi investigation and who described the crime scene, which has been trampled on, looted and burned, as so badly “degraded” that even once F.B.I. agents do eventually gain access “it’ll be very difficult to see what evidence can be attributed to the bad guys.”
Piecing together exactly how Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died here would be difficult even under the best of conditions. But the volatile security situation in post-Qaddafi Libya has added to the challenge of determining whether it was purely a local group of extremists who initiated the fatal assault or whether the attackers had ties to international terrorist groups, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested Wednesday may be the case.
The Libyan government has advised the F.B.I. that it cannot assure the safety of the American investigators in Benghazi. So agents have been conducting interviews from afar, relying on local Libyan authorities to help identify and arrange meetings with witnesses to the attack and working closely with the Libyans to gauge the veracity of any of those accounts.
“There’s a chance we never make it in there,” said a senior law enforcement official.
Also hampering the investigation is fear among Libyan witnesses about revealing their identities or accounts in front of Libyan guards protecting the American investigators, because the potential witnesses fear other Libyans might leak their participation and draw retribution from the attackers.
One person with knowledge of the inquiry said the investigators had gathered some information pointing to the involvement of members of Ansar al-Shariah, the same local extremist group that other witnesses have identified as participating in the attack. Benghazi residents and the leaders of the large militias that have constituted the city’s only police force insist that the attackers were purely local. They note that many of the brigades that have sprung up in the city have the ability to conduct such an attack on short notice and that a few homegrown groups — like Ansar al-Shariah — have the ideological disposition to do it as well.
American counterterrorism and intelligence officials say they have not found any evidence to indicate that the Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, ordered or planned the attack.
But the investigators are casting a wide net. To determine whether there was participation by an international element, intelligence analysts are poring over cellphone conversations intercepted before and after the attacks, as well as informant reports, witness accounts and satellite imagery.
When asked which group or groups may have been behind the violence, Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told senators last week, “The picture that is emerging is one where a number of different individuals were involved, so it’s not necessarily an either/or proposition.”
Specifically, intelligence analysts are going down the roster of known militants who operate in and around Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya, and like an Islamic extremist scorecard, seeking to determine what involvement, if any, each might have.
Complicating the investigation, these officials say, is the fact that many of these individuals align themselves with more than one group and with ad hoc organizations, making accountability to a specific group more difficult than to an individual or a group of militants.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington on Thursday that before the attack — he did not say when — “there was a thread of intelligence reporting that groups in the environment, in eastern Libya, were seeking to coalesce, but there wasn’t anything specific, and certainly not a specific threat to the consulate that I am aware of.”
General Dempsey said that information was shared throughout the government.
Assigning culpability also complicates the American response. For now, the administration awaits the F.B.I. investigation and updated intelligence reports. President Obama has said the United States will bring to justice those responsible for the attacks. But there is little appetite in the White House to launch drone strikes or a Special Operations raid, like the one that killed Osama bin Laden, in yet another Muslim country.
American officials would prefer that Libyan officials lead any military or paramilitary operation, or work alongside American investigators, to arrest any suspects. But the transitional Libyan government still does not command a meaningful national army or national police force.
At the Pentagon on Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the government was waiting on the F.B.I. investigation to determine who was responsible for the bloodshed.
“We have made clear that as a result of that, we’re going to continue to go after those that would attack our individuals,” Mr. Panetta told reporters. “We are not going to let people who deliberately attack and kill our people get away with it.”
Mr. Panetta also indicated that the attack on the mission involved some degree of advance planning.
“As we determined the details of what took place there, and how that attack took place,” Mr. Panetta said, “it became clear that there were terrorists who had planned that attack.”
Another United States official who receives daily intelligence briefings said that the planning was “a matter of a few hours, not days or weeks.”
Adding to the uncertainty of the investigation is the American government’s relative lack of information on the Islamist groups operating in North Africa, including the Algerian opposition group that renamed itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
One Western intelligence official expressed doubt that the Islamists in northern Mali were involved in the Benghazi attack. “If they were going to take direct action, it would be in Bamako,” the official said, mentioning the Malian capital, which has a number of Western targets.
Islamist extremists are believed to have a more secure foothold than ever in Africa, receiving training and fighting across borders, officials said.
“It’s not impossible that somebody who would have been trained in northern Mali would have been involved” in the deaths in Benghazi, said the Western intelligence official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
But many Benghazi residents said the city’s many heavily armed fighters needed no further training after the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and they noted that Libyans were deeply hostile to the Malians, in part because of racial animosity and in part because they think Malians provided mercenaries for Colonel Qaddafi.
“It is a Libyan job,” Ismail al-Sallabi, a commander with one of the largest so-called authorized militias here, said of the attack on the mission. “It is not Al Qaeda.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya, and Eric Schmitt and Michael S. Schmidt from Washington. Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, and Steven Lee Myers from New York.