Why Did Al-Qaeda Target Ambassador Stevens?
Most of the questions related to the Benghazi debacle are about the mechanics, both offensive and defensive. What did the White House know and when? What assets were available to the military? Did someone order a stand down, and if so, who? Why was “the video” blamed long after the administration knew the truth -- and didn’t the administration know the truth from the beginning? If it didn’t, why didn’t it?
All reasonable questions, but a generally unasked one deserves attention: “Why did al-Qaeda want to kill Ambassador Chris Stevens?”
The ambassador had good relations with some of the most extreme Libyan militias, including those with al-Qaeda ties. Did he upset them with something he did, or didn’t do? Was the White House fully apprised of his connections and dealings with the militias? Was he killed because of something the administration told him to start doing or to stop doing?
There are things we know and things upon which we must speculate, including the entry of surface-to-air missiles to the Levant.
Emerging from the chaos is a dim understanding that the U.S. was operating a clandestine arms operation from the CIA post that was loosely -- and incorrectly -- described as a “consulate.” Before and during the revolution, Ambassador Stevens had helped arm the anti-Gaddafi militias, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIF), whose leader Abdulhakim Belhadj later became the head of the Tripoli Military Council.
The LIF’s Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi told an Italian newspaper in 2011 (later reported in the British Telegraph) that he had fought the “foreign invasion” in Afghanistan. Captured in Pakistan, al-Hasidi was handed over to the U.S. and returned to Libya, where he was released from prison in 2008. Speaking of the Libyan revolution, he said:
Members of al-Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader.
Belhadj met with Free Syrian Army representatives in October 2011 to offer Libyan support for ousting Assad. Throughout 2011 and 2012, ships traversed the Mediterranean from Benghazi to Syria and Lebanon with arms for the Syrian rebels. Turkish and Jordanian intelligence services were doing most of the “vetting” of rebel groups; in July 2010, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had no operatives on the ground and only a few at border posts even as weapons were entering Syria. Said a U.S. official, addressing the question of even non-lethal aid:
We’ve got to figure out who is over there first, and we don’t really know that.
In August, a report by Tony Cartalucci, a supporter of the Syrian nationalist opposition, detailed the extent of Libyan and al-Qaeda involvement in Syria, calling it a "foreign invasion." In November, the Washington Post noted a $20 million contribution by the Libyan government to the Syrian National Council -- of which the Muslim Brotherhood is a member.
Ambassador Stevens would have known all of that; he was the go-to man. He didn’t seem to have a problem with it, so why did they want to kill him?
In 2011, it was reported that the Libyan rebels had acquired surface-to-air missiles from Gaddafi’s arsenal, and smuggled them into their own. They were not used in the revolution because the skies were filled with allies of the militias, but American sources worried that as many as 15,000 MANPADs (man-portable air defense systems -- or mobile surface-to-air missiles) might have “gone missing.” Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro told USA Today:
The frank answer is we don’t know (how many are missing) and probably never will.
He added that the Obama administration took “immediate steps” to secure the weapons, launching an effort to recover them even before collapse of the regime. Which is interesting, because the U.S. claimed to have no “boots on the ground.”
So who was looking for them? And if they found them, what did they do with them?
Some, at least, appear to have emerged in Syria -- in August there was a report of a Syrian government plane downed by the rebels. In October, the Russians claimed the rebels had U.S.-origin Stinger missiles. (Stingers are designed to hit helicopters and low-flying planes -- they wreaked havoc with Russian aircraft during the war in Afghanistan.) The BBC reported that the Syrians had old Soviet SA-7 missiles that can destroy an airplane flying at higher altitudes.
Whether Russian or American, the introduction of MANPADS into the region would be cause for alarm. The Levant is not isolated to Afghanistan, and the multinational nature of the Syrian rebels puts a number of countries and their interests in harm’s way. A stray shot -- or a deliberate diversion -- could be used against Israeli commercial or military aviation. Or American aviation. Turkey would have to worry that the Kurdish part of the anti-Assad revolution might divert its energies to assist in the Kurdish guerrilla movement against Turkey; Turkey’s war against the PKK is largely conducted with helicopters. Jordan would have to worry that the Muslim Brotherhood part of the Syrian rebellion could divert its energies to assist the MB in Jordan against U.S. ally King Abdullah II. Russia would worry that missiles could be diverted to the anti-Russian Sunni jihadists of the Caucasus or Central Asia.
In October, the IDF confirmed that a surface-to-air missile, said to be an SA-7, was fired at a helicopter from Gaza. Iran had not provided such weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, perhaps understanding that such an escalation would produce Israeli retaliation. The fact that Israel struck the Sudanese Yarmouk rocket/missile factory at the end of October may have been a reminder of the consequences of escalation.
So far, only the last bit is speculation.
But what if Turkish, Jordanian, Russian, or Israeli concerns about the appearance of MANPADS close to their borders made the administration decide that it had to exercise more control over weapons shipments to the Syrian rebels? What if the State Department told Ambassador Stevens to clamp down on the shipments or to stop them all together? If Stevens had told his militia allies that he was cutting back or cutting off the CIA-organized shipments to Syria, could they have been angry enough to kill him?
Al-Qaeda operatives knew of the ambassador’s presence in Benghazi -- either because they had operatives in Tripoli or because they had them in Benghazi. They knew where he was and they attacked after the Turkish ambassador left the compound. This raises the question of why Stevens and the Turkish ambassador were meeting in Benghazi at all, when both are stationed in Tripoli.
Another “what if” involves the administration response to the attack, both initially and when senior members -- including the secretary of State, the president’s press secretary, and the U.S. ambassador to the UN -- all insisted that the attack was the result of “the video.” Two full weeks later, President Obama pounded the lectern at the United Nations and denounced “the video.”
What if they needed for Ambassador Stevens’ death to be part of a larger event, unrelated to the specifics of arms, militias, al-Qaeda, and Syria?
Remember, we’re speculating here. But if the truth of an arms relationship came out, the administration would have been caught in a major falsehood right before the election -- that’s not speculation. Mrs. Clinton had flatly told CBS News in February that the U.S. would not arm Syrian rebels, specifically because of the potential for arming radicals with which the U.S. would not be associated:
What are we going to arm them with and against what? We're not going to bring tanks over the borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. … We know [al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri] is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria?
It may still fall into the realm of speculation, but it seems we were, and if we were there would be a price to pay.
In what appears to be a related event, in early November Secretary Clinton withdrew U.S. support from the Syrian National Council and proposed a differently comprised coalition that would reduce the SNC’s influence. She said it was needed in part because:
We need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution. There are disturbing reports of extremists going into Syria and attempting to take over what has been a legitimate revolution against a repressive regime for their own purposes.
She didn’t mention their American interlocutors.
That appears to be the final backing-away from an American relationship with al-Qaeda-related militias in Libya that ultimately resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Stevens, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Greg Doherty, and State Department computer specialist Sean Smith.