Benghazi’s Real Scandal: Why Is the Libyan Investigation Such a Mess?

As the Benghazi episode takes center stage in Washington, questions loom over why the Libyans have bungled the investigation

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mohammad Hannon / AP

A man investigates inside the U.S. consulate after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012

For two months now, politicians in Washington have argued furiously over who is to blame for the attack against the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which killed the ambassador and three other Americans. And while that argument is sure to rage again on Thursday and Friday during a closed-door hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, there is another controversy roiling about that disastrous assault — in Benghazi itself. There, Libyans are questioning why officials have failed to place a single suspect in custody or, for that matter, to conduct many probing interrogations, despite the attack’s damaging impact on Libya’s international standing. “There is no serious investigation being undertaken by the Libyan authorities,” Rami el-Obeidi, the former intelligence chief for the Libyan rebels’ National Transitional Council, told TIME by phone on Wednesday. He says “the Libyan authorities are unwilling to conduct a proper investigation into the terrorist attack, as this would expose them to retaliation from extremist militias.”

In phone interviews on Wednesday, some Libyans describe the investigation into the attack on Sept. 11 as haphazard, inept and in parts half-hearted. There was a sense among some of those reached that an investigation that went too deeply could set off unwanted recriminations. “I’m not sure there is any progress right now,” says Ali Tarhouni, a secular politician, speaking after he landed in Tripoli from a visit to Benghazi. “Nothing has really happened. There is no credible source of information.” Despite government assurances last month that some arrests had been made, “there are none that I can authenticate,” he says.

El-Obeidi, however, has examined the details and believes the assault was a sophisticated, preplanned operation and that Ambassador Christopher Stevens might himself have been the target. Stevens, who was popular among rebel leaders as the sole American diplomat stationed in Benghazi during the revolution, was initially believed to have been caught in the attack through sheer bad luck. But el-Obeidi says he believes armed militant groups had scoped out the consulate and knew of Stevens’ whereabouts.

Part of the problem in the Benghazi investigation, to be sure, is the general upheaval of postwar Libya, which is still digging out from 42 years of dictatorship. The country has barely a functional government, and its security forces comprise a patchwork of armed militias, some of whom are locked in lethal rivalries between one another.

But besides the possible ineptitude of some officials, el-Obeidi believes some elements of Libya’s law-enforcement structures were themselves involved in the attack, essentially compromising any probe of the details. The lack of investigation, he says, is “because of the suspected implication of some of the members of Benghazi’s law-enforcement and security services who belong to or sympathize with extremist movements.” The man named as the main suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, leader of the Islamist organization Ansar al-Shari‘a, has not been arrested, and in October, conducted interviews in a Benghazi hotel with the New York Times and Reuters. When a reporter from McClatchy Newspapers this week asked a militia commander in Benghazi why Khattala had not been arrested, he said if he arrested Khattala, “a member of his forces will get him out.”

Despite elections in July, previous attempts to form a ruling coalition have failed, and although the newest government was sworn into office on Wednesday, it still lacks an Interior Minister — the person who, presumably, would be responsible for arresting the Benghazi attackers and bringing them to court. In the vacuum, says el-Obeidi, “the only real investigation and intelligence gathering being efficiently undertaken is by the U.S. authorities.”

Then there is the matter of Libya’s justice system. On Wednesday, a Benghazi judge, Naima Gebril, told TIME that the city’s jurists had gathered shortly after the attack to appoint a judge to oversee the investigation. That judge quit quickly, however, after a single visit to the burnt-out consulate — a building that now stands in ruins and has been left unguarded since the attack nine weeks ago. “He went to look at the consulate and said it was impossible to make a good investigation, because everything was destroyed,” Gebril says. “So we chose another person from Tripoli, because he speaks very good English. But perhaps he too will say no.” Even if that process goes ahead, she says, weeks of delay has been deeply damaging to the investigation. “Much of the proof has disappeared,” she says.

Assuming witnesses and evidence can be found, there is still only a vague line of command. In her article on Tuesday, the McClatchy Newspapers journalist described the deep confusion among Libyan officials about who was even in charge of investigating the attack. The country’s deputy interior minister told her that the prosecutor was, and the Supreme Security Council, which organizes the Libyan National Army, told her that the police were. The prosecutor, meanwhile, did not know who was in charge.