Headlines today have carried graphic footage and accounts of the chaos in Libya resulting in the death of the US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and at least three other Americans. Piecing together what transpired is still in the initial stages, but a review of the known evidence is telling.
First, two of the Americans killed were highly trained members of the Diplomatic Security Service and an unknown number wounded. Although details of whether they were Security Protective Specialists (SPS) or Special Agents remains unknown, these security officers typically have over a decade of law enforcement and military expertise with elite special forces units and combat experience. Their deaths show beyond any doubt that the retaking of the compound was intense, high level combat against a well-armed and coordinated enemy. The firefight included enemy use of heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled-grenades (RPGs), machine guns, improvised explosive devices, and potentially even mortars and raged for hours. These are not weapons of a mob, but of a well armed military or terrorist faction. Only a large, well-organized group enjoying at least partial support from the local government in major urban centers of Libya could have accomplished this.
Next, the fact that both the US diplomatic enclaves were attacked in a near simultaneous fashion by large groups (in the hundreds) that sent the local security fleeing and the Americans at the mercy of the mob screams of a coordinated attack plan. American embassies are hardened to resist these type attacks, but it is clear that the defenses were breached and not designed for the threat level required for a country like Libya. Nonetheless, only through prior intelligence, surveillance, and heavy weapons would this still have been possible to this degree as security enhancements had been added. Small arms simply are not sufficient overwhelm the defenses of a U.S. embassy or consulate.
Motives for these attacks have been primarily linked to a video allegedly portraying the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light; however, a more likely motive is available. Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri in a video released to his Al Qaeda affiliates on September 11, 2012 urged revenge attacks against Americans for the drone killing of Abu al-Libi. Abu al-Libi, as his name suggests, was a Libyan and leader of Al Qaeda cells. Many of his fellow jihadist fighters were active participants in the violent overthrow and murder of the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Further, members of Ansar al Sharia, a known Libyan political organization that has been widely considered the Libyan arm of Al Qaeda, was witnessed at the scene of the massacres. Note that Ansar al Sharia is an organization that Gaddafi tried to suppress before the U.S began providing its members support to overthrow Gaddafi. Ambassador Stevens was a vocal supporter of this action to arm known former and current jihadists.
Collectively looking at the picture, it is clear White House statements suggesting this was a small, uncoordinated, non-representive cadre of thugs are simply untrue. Further, it appears that jumping to blame a video made in a free country that protects free speech is grossly reactionary and premature. In fact, it appear now that the immediate use of this explanation may be done for political reasons to spin attention from the fact that a very real Al Qaeda threat has been created in Libya by a deliberate, yet ill-conceived plan by the White House.
From a security perspective, it is clear the U.S. Embassy in Libya was not prepared and significantly underestimated the threat. From a manpower perspective, it is the host nation’s responsiblity to protect foreign diplomats, but common sense should dictate a robust security staff for any high-threat country like Libya. More “shooters” would likely have repulsed the attack and saved the Ambassador and other Americans. Further, accepting the risk of using a temporary building rather than a purpose-built embassy that incorporated the latest security and defensive measures in a high-threat nation was a critical failure. Warnings about the poor state of security readiness have been raised for years and were not implemented in a timely fashion. The decision to stay in a soft compound approaches reckless and stupid since the country threat was known to be high. Not only is it still not stable and internecine post-revolution violence continues, but a bomb was planted in front of the US Consulate in June that detonated wounding a local guard.
On the intelligence front, the CIA and Department of State threat intelligence organizations failed to effectively warn of this impending storm. This is the second massive failure in as many weeks. The previous weekend a US Consulate Peshawar motorcade was obliterated in a vehicle borne suicide bombing attack in Pakistan resulting in the wounding of two outstanding and highly experienced American security specialists.
All of this points to the single responsible person, the ambassador. The ambassador is charged with the ultimate care and safety of all United States citizens in his country and as such, this disaster is a direct result of his leadership and guidance. Much like a ship’s captain going down with the ship, Ambassador Stevens went down with his ship. Sadly, Ambassador Stevens appears to have been a dedicated, well-liked, and highly educated diplomat, but failed to recognize the difference between the ground truth and ideological concepts. For this, he and at least three other Americans unnecessarily paid the ultimate price.