Benghazi attacks: planned or spontaneous?

Libyan president Muhammad al-Megarif is convinced that the September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi were premeditated and deliberate. “The way these perpetrators acted, and moved … and their choosing the specific date for this so-called demonstration, leaves us with no doubt that this was pre-planned, determined, predetermined,” he said. He believes that the attacks, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died, were planned by al-Qaeda two months before.

Update: Al-Megarif claims Libyan security officials warned the U.S. three days before the attacks of a rapidly deteriorating situation in Benghazi and “possible violent unrest.”

But the U.S. government says otherwise. U.N. ambassador Susan Rice insisted that the mob besieging the consulate was formed in spontaneous reaction to the repulsive, Islamo-phobic and crucially, American-made video that so deeply offended Muslims. “It seems to have been hijacked,” said Rice, “by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons.”

It’s possible that al-Megarif is describing one event and Rice another, because there were two distinct attacks. Deputy Interior Minister Wanis el-Sharif told reporters that the initial one was a disorganized and chaotic protest by civillians and militants. It degenerated into violence when the mob broke through the gates, tossing grenades and setting the compound on fire. In contrast, he said, “The second part was organized and planned.” Update: el-Sharif was fired on Monday. He is the only Libyan who claims the initial attack wasn’t premeditated.

NPR‘s Leila Fadel’s on-the-spot reporting confirms al-Megarif’s view but contradicts el-Sharif’s account of the first assault. “A lot of the witnesses that we’ve spoken to — neighbors, the son of the landlord, a Libyan guard who was wounded during the first part of the attack on Tuesday night — all say there was no protest at all,” Fadel reported. “They say that it began as an organized attack on the consulate.”

It’s difficult to believe that the second attack, an ambush of the convoy evacuating the consulate staff, wasn’t planned. The heavily armed assassins must have had a mole inside the consulate or in the Libyan security forces, because they knew the route the convoy would take, where the (supposed) safe house was located and when the Americans would arrive.

The timing is also suspect.

Why did the offensive video, “Innocence of Muslims,” which was released in July, languish in obscurity and then suddenly go viral? Was it because a version put out the week before 9/11 was subtitled in Arabic? The Quilliam Foundation, a “counter-extremism think tank” based in London, attributed the attacks in Benghazi to al-Qaeda, noting that its second in command, Abu Yaya al-Libi, was killed in June by an American drone strike. Quilliam suggested the attacks were meant to avenge his death. A few days later al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced that the murder of U.S. Ambassador Stevens avenged the killing of Abu Yaya.

The day before the attacks on 9/11, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri posted a video in jihadist forums confirming the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi and exhorting Libyans to avenge his assassination.

Is the refusal of the Obama administration to characterize the Benghazi attacks as anything but spontaneous a desperate attempt to deflect a charge of negligence? One that could wrench the presidency away from the incumbent? The Independent reports that “according to senior diplomatic sources, the U.S. State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and ‘lockdown,’ under which movement is severely restricted.”

The Christian Science Monitor also reports that the State Department warned the U.S. Embassy in Cairo 48 hours before, but not the U.S. embassy in Tripoli or the consulate in Benghazi, about the possible reactions to the video.

The Telegraph dismissed “the theory that the fatal incident was sparked by the YouTube video” because similar protests occurred nowhere else in Libya, not even at the embassy in Tripoli, where Ambassador Stevens spent most of his time. That certainly suggests that an informant inside the consulate or Libyan security played a critical role in the attacks, given that the consulate in Benghazi was stormed and not the embassy in Tripoli, a more likely target.

Inevitably, in the run-up to a close election the argument has turned political. Republicans, notably Sen. John McCain, scoff at the Administration’s insistence that the attack on the consulate was not premeditated. “Most people don’t bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to a demonstration,” said McCain. “That was an act of terror.” Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has gone so far as to accuse  Pres. Obama of “sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks.”

We’ll have to wait for the final word. The F.B.I., the C.I.A. and others, American and Libyan, are meticulously investigating and interrogating, looking for answers.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Islam, Libya, Politics

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