There are several threads that converge in the emerging drama of the Benghazi attack on 9/11/2012. One relates to the involvement of terrorists out of Egypt, with whom ousted president Mohammed Morsi is implicated. A theory about their purpose focuses on securing the release of the “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdul Rahman, sought by Morsi and referenced by him on several occasions as an issue between Egypt and the United States.
One thread involves that “awful Internet video,” Innocence of Muslims, and the fomentation of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo – by associates of the Morsi government – at the same time as the attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi. Regarding this thread, one supposition about the significance of the attacks is that they were meant to pressure the U.S. into clamping down on “defamation of Islam.” But an equally important issue is the question why the video figured so large in the official explanation of the Benghazi attack offered by the Obama administration – in contravention of the assessment provided by the intelligence community.
A third thread relates to the arms trade in the Mediterranean, including the shipment of arms from Libya – specifically, from Benghazi – to Syrian rebel groups. A key focus here has been on the possibility that Ambassador Chris Stevens, or at least someone under his supervision, was involved in brokering such shipments, perhaps smoothing their path through Turkey. A collateral issue has been the question whether the main thrust of U.S. policy was to arm the Syrian rebels – in violation of UN resolutions, and without the authorization of Congress – or to police up the vast Qadhafi-era arsenal floating, untethered, around Libya.
The arms connection
A revelation on Monday the 12th, from the attorney of one of the Benghazi “whistleblowers,” that 400 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were “stolen,” presumably from somewhere in Benghazi, isn’t really big news.
The implication of the attorney’s informant, that the U.S. government would be embarrassed by this disclosure, seems to point to a connection between whatever the CIA was doing in Benghazi and the fate of the 400 SAMs. But we pretty much knew about allegations in that regard already. As early as October 2012, Fox News and Business Insider were making the connection between U.S. activities in Benghazi and shipments of Russian SA-7 man-portable SAMs to Syria.
It’s not clear why it would be worse for the reputation of Team Obama if missiles were lost or stolen than if we were participating in shipping them to Syria. Stolen missiles might be known to have fallen into the hands of an al-Qaeda organization, but anyone who’s been paying the slightest attention knows that weapons deliberately handed to Syrian rebels are doing the same thing.
As Barry Rubin has pointed out, moreover, it seems naïve and even incompetent for an administration to go to general quarters to try and shut down rumors of gun-running, which is always epidemic during civil wars. The wonder would be if there weren’t gun-running going on, and the U.S. weren’t aware of it, or hadn’t encountered any situation in which we had to make a policy decision about it.
The new “400 missiles” story, however, comes out at the same time as a very comprehensive summary by Walid Shoebat and Ben Barrack of the information being reported in Arabic media on the involvement of the Egyptian Ansar al-Sharia terror group – also called the “Jamal network” – in the Benghazi attack. A key member of the group, Muhammad Jamal Abdo al-Kashif, played a major role in Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1990s, a career for which he had been jailed by Hosni Mubarak. (Al-Kashif gained his freedom in the prison releases during the Arab Spring revolt in 2011; more on him here.) Through al-Kashif’s associates and documents provided by Libyan investigators, Mohammed Morsi himself is implicated in the plan to attack the U.S. facilities in Benghazi.
What would prompt him – or, if we deal Morsi out of the analysis for the moment, what would prompt the Jamal/Ansar al-Sharia terrorists, who are loyal to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda – to coordinate an attack in Benghazi? The suggestion of Shoebat and Barrack, that their plan was related to the desired release of the Blind Sheikh, doesn’t quite ring sufficient to me. Why put so much firepower on a couple of poorly-defended compounds; hold the advantage in the encounter for hours; and yet come away with no hostages? From the perspective of operational analysis, it’s probably not incompetence that produced this outcome. There were more efficient ways to get hold of the ambassador (or other Americans), if the purpose was to end up with hostages and set up a negotiation for Omar Abdul Rahman.*
Arms and influence
The 400 surface-to-air missiles reminded me of something Catherine Herridge said in October 2012: that Ambassador Stevens may have been in Benghazi to negotiate a weapons transfer, as part of “an effort to get SA-7 missiles out of the hands of Libya-based extremists” (emphasis added). The significance of this passage is subtle but game-changing. Suppose the whole Benghazi issue revolves, not around whom the arms were going to, but around the fact that the U.S. presence in Benghazi was serving to funnel arms away from the groups al-Kashif, and probably Mohammed Morsi, wanted to patronize in Libya?
Indeed, suppose that the Morsi-authorized al-Kashif group wanted to gain control of the arms trade in Libya in general. Keep in mind, Morsi was president of Egypt, and was thinking 24/7 in terms of consolidating and expanding power on the nation-state model. For obvious reasons, Egypt has always has a special strategic concern about what’s going on in Libya. All you have to do to know why Morsi would want to exert control over events and factions there is look at a map.
What was the main thing standing in the way of an Egypt-based radical “outreach” into Libya, one that would include control of the arms patronage to jihadist groups arising from liberation of the Qadhafi arsenal? The United States – and, specifically, our activities in Benghazi. We had set up, in effect, as a rival to the Egyptian radicals, in our attempt to wrestle down the post-Qadhafi arms hemorrhage.
You’d have to have a pretty myopic view of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Salafi terrorists, and the intelligence of the average Egyptian in general, to imagine that the strategic importance of a Libya in chaos had not occurred to them, in the guise of both a threat and an opportunity. (This article in May 2013 suggested precisely that it had occurred to al-Kashif, aka Abu Ahmed.) To Americans, Benghazi is a remote abstraction; for the Egyptians, it is a geographic “duh”: the bustling sea port next door, where whatever the Americans may be doing will stand out against the landscape, becoming the inevitable subject of spying, maneuver, and annoyance. We can assume that, far from having a passive cross-border posture, Morsi & Co. were taking an active interest in Libya.
It is less likely that Morsi or al-Kashif wanted, generically, to “give America a black eye” than it is that they simply wanted to get rid of our inconvenient presence in Benghazi. Our poor security precautions there made the job easier; it was foolish of us to think we could set up to snatch arms from extremists, in Benghazi, Libya, without needing a heavier presence and really good security. Meanwhile, the theory that al-Kashif and/or Morsi wanted to drive us out of Benghazi because of our arms-related activities there has the merit of explaining why a planned, military-style attack on our facilities was mounted, but without any success – in spite of opportunities – at hostage-taking.
Breaching the compounds may have been intended as a means of looking for weapons stores as well as terrorizing us, but I’m not so sure the attackers needed that opportunity to search. As previously revealed in some detail, security for the U.S. facilities in Benghazi had been provided by members of the Feb. 17 Martyrs Brigade, of which the Libyan version of Ansar al-Sharia – connected, like the Egyptian Ansar al-Sharia, to al-Qaeda – was a spin-off. The attackers, who were associates of the Feb. 17 group, already knew what was inside the compounds.
“The video made ‘em do it”
This leaves us to account for the peculiar readiness-to-hand of the “Internet video” story, when the Obama administration was crafting talking points for the Sunday news shows after the Benghazi attack.
If you haven’t followed the genesis of the “video-as-catalyst” drama from the Egyptian perspective, traced in lengthy detail by Walid Shoebat (see also here and here), it’s worth your time to get acquainted with it (and don’t worry; if you’re not a fan of Shoebat’s premises or analysis, you won’t be asked to take anything on faith. It’s all documented).
What Shoebat and Barrack clarify, with Shoebat’s backstory in mind, is that there is evidence of an elaborate plan, in which members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau were involved, to use the video as a pretext for attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facilities.
This alters the character of the Obama administration’s fixation on the weird little video, from strange to something else. If you had happened to watch Al-Nas TV in Egypt, a few days before 9/11/12, you might perhaps have been aware that the video was being used by a couple of Islamist activists – one of them from the Nour Salafi Party in the Egyptian parliament – to encourage the event that became the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Perhaps the especially acute awareness of this video in the upper reaches of the Obama administration was due to diligent reporting from TV buffs at the U.S. mission in Egypt.
But blaming the video for what happened in Benghazi is not a conclusion U.S. analysts would have come to unprompted. Indeed, we know that the intelligence assessment forwarded to seniors at State and the White House identified terror groups as probably the responsible parties, and made no mention of the video at all.
All of this is known. But considering it in light of Libyan revelations from the Shoebat-Barrack report – i.e., that launching attacks and blaming them on the video was a plan approved by members of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood – puts a new slant on the situation. Rather than merely going off on a tangent of some kind with the “blame the video” line, the Obama administration was, in effect, retailing a Muslim Brotherhood theme.
Hook, line, and sinker?
The character of this response from Team Obama is clear: it was not that they detected the theme in operation; it was that they bought into it. They didn’t tell the American people that the Muslim Brotherhood wanted us to believe the attacks were in response to the video. They told us that the attacks were in response to the video.
It’s not clear how this theme, reportedly planned by the Muslim Brotherhood, became so immediately significant in the Obama administration’s talking points. Their intelligence advisors didn’t give them the theme; “the video made ‘em do it” is not what U.S. intelligence thought to be the case. If the Libyan information referenced by Shoebat and Barrack is valid, it’s what the Muslim Brotherhood wanted us to think. But a U.S. administration that knew that would not retail the story as if it were true. Team Obama reacted like a convinced audience of disinformation, rather than like a partner in it or a savvy detector of it.
Potential avenues by which this theme could have reached the top level of the Obama administration – in the guise of special, perhaps “inside” information or analysis – include the Morsi-government contacts of the U.S. mission in Egypt, and, of course, Huma Abedin.
I stress here that we need not imagine spies and Cold War-style – covert – agents of influence to be at work in this drama. American diplomats could have picked up the story in the normal course of talking to their Egyptian contacts, given that it was a narrative being fostered by Morsi. As related to the embassy attack in Egypt, they could have pieced it together from the news there. Even going through Huma Abedin to Hillary Clinton’s office, the transmission path for the theme could hardly be called secretive or covert.
Nor is it nefarious, in and of itself, for foreign governments to foster their own narratives or seek to introduce them to other governments through diplomatic channels. What is at work in this case is not so much shocking nefariousness in the path of influence, as it is the apparent credulity of the Obama administration, especially about the source in question – a Muslim Brotherhood-run government – along with the administration’s anxiety to push the narrative of the video at the expense of facts about the Benghazi attack, which to this day have been ignored, denied, or withheld from Congress and the public.
We can take it to the bank that whatever narrative the Muslim Brotherhood wants to foster will be a lie; its signature on a narrative is nefarious, and will inevitably involve suppressing or distorting the truth. It is disquieting to see the Obama administration apparently caught up in a Muslim Brotherhood narrative about the Benghazi attack.
Meanwhile, I am beginning to think we can deduce a key reason – perhaps the main reason – for the attack on Benghazi. Haplessly or otherwise, we were doing something there that effectively thwarted the plans of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaeda. Our Benghazi operation had to be shut down so that they could have a free hand in brokering arms and influence among the jihadis in Libya. And so it was.
* In fairness to those who have been advocating the kidnapping/hostage theory – such as Shoebat – I urge readers to consider their arguments on the merits. The Shoebat links in my discussion of the “video” theme contain an extended treatment of the topic. I can also recommend Doug Ross (Director Blue), who has been on this from the beginning.