Misreading Benghazi and Terrorism

The Republican case of a Benghazi terror “cover-up” never made much sense because President Obama immediately called it an “act of terror.” But now other parts of the GOP’s contorted narrative are collapsing as well, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observes.

By Paul R. Pillar

It always has been difficult to discern any logic behind the endless recriminations about the fatal incident in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012 in which four Americans were killed — or rather about how the Obama administration is said to have described the incident at the time.

A notion somehow appears to be involved that President Barack Obama supposedly had been saying that international terrorism had been licked and didn’t want to admit that the incident in Libya demonstrated that this was not so. But Mr. Obama never had said that terrorism was licked. In fact, he had been saying a lot about it being a threat and had been shooting missiles from drones at a rate that did not suggest otherwise. And losing four Americans at an overseas mission is a bad thing to happen on any President’s watch regardless of whether the label of terrorism is applied or not.

The U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, burning on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. (Photo credit: Voice of America)

The U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, burning on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. (Photo credit: Voice of America)

Now the FBI, assisted by U.S. military commandos, has apprehended Ahmed Abu Khattala, who is accused of leading the fatal attack on the facility in Benghazi. So both the purveyors and the targets of the recriminations have occasion to make rhetorical adjustments.

Supporters of the administration can say, “All right, if you want to focus on terrorists responsible for the incident you’ve been making such a big deal about, we got the main culprit.” Opponents of the administration can say that it should not have taken two years to get him.

Mostly the opponents are falling into old habits in searching for ways to criticize Obama, by saying Abu Khattala should be taken to Guantanamo and kept out of the civilian criminal court system. That familiar posture, based on a chest-thumping desire to proclaim that we are at “war,” ignores how much Guantanamo has become a liability rather than an asset and how much more successful the regular criminal courts have been in meting out punishment to terrorists than have been the military tribunals, where the only two convictions of Guantanamo detainees who have been tried have been vacated on appeal.

Nabbing Abu Khattala and trying him for whatever role he had in the incident two years ago is the right thing to do. But the more we devote attention — regardless of one’s political posture or opinions of administration policy — to a character such as him, the more we perpetuate a misdirection of attention that afflicts much American policy debate about problems in the Middle East.

David Kirkpatrick’s profile of Abu Khattala in the New York Times describes him as a “local, small-time Islamist militant” who stood out as being “erratic” as well as extremist. He had no known connections to international terrorist groups, according to officials who have been briefed on the relevant investigations.

Oh, and as the attack in Benghazi was taking place, Abu Khattala was telling others that the assault was retaliation for the inflammatory video that administration opponents back here in the United States have strenuously argued had nothing to do with the incident. In short, the Benghazi episode is hardly a milestone in international terrorism. The apprehension of this local thug, although it serves justice, also will have little to do with the prospects for international terrorism.

The general tendency that this case illustrates, beyond the partisan motivations that have sustained the ridiculously prolonged preoccupation with this one incident, is a fixation on the malevolent intentions, real or sometimes imagined, of individual evil-doers who play leading roles in either groups or states.

This fixation is at the expense of attention to broader patterns of public sentiment or political culture (and yes, sometimes even reactions to scurrilous videos) that have much more to do with where security problems will arise and where U.S. interests will be threatened.

We saw this tendency in George W. Bush’s day, when threats to the United States were neatly packaged as “the terrorists” — so neat that a chimerical alliance between a regime and a terrorist group became a principal rationale for toppling a leader without paying attention to the broad forces this would unleash and the extremism this would stimulate, all of which is reflected in the violent mess that is Iraq today.

We saw it more recently in the bipartisan support for military intervention in Libya, with again a focus on toppling a disliked leader and again inattention to the forces and culture that would be left in his place and that led to what happened at Benghazi two years ago.

We saw the tendency in a somewhat different way with the exuberance accompanying the killing of Osama bin Laden three years ago. Bin Laden obviously was a far more consequential figure than dozens of Abu Khattalas, but by the last part of his life in hiding he was doing little directing of operations. The exuberance exceeded the impact his death had on the course of international terrorism.

President Obama never claimed that the raid at Abbottabad was a death knell of international terrorism, but Republicans’ fears that it would be seen that way — what might be called Abbottabad envy — were a major motivation for hyping the Benghazi incident the way they have.

We have seen the tendency in excessive reliance on the use of armed drones, to the point that their counterproductive effect on counterterrorism through collateral casualties and associated anger may outweigh the benefit of eradicating the individual bad guys who are the targets.

And we see it today in how alarm over ISIS focuses narrowly on the evil intentions of this one group while paying less heed to the broader conflicts and objectives that have more to do with the chaos that worries us — a focus that has led otherwise respectable people to flirt with craziness by calling for the United States to go to war simultaneously in both Syria and Iraq.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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7 comments on “Misreading Benghazi and Terrorism

  1. incontinent reader on said:

    I would agree with your analysis as far as it goes. Yet, for this reader, Benghazi is a big deal- a very big deal- and not for the statements put out to the press or even the spin or damage control advised by Victoria Nuland and articulated by Susan Rice in lieu of Hillary Clinton who was hiding in the weeds. Rather, it is a big deal for what our State Department and CIA were doing there, i.e., shipping mercenaries and arms from Libya through Turkey to Syria and directing the Benghazi operation as one of several nerve and supply centers of the jihadist war against Syria. This was part and parcel of the Administration’s plan to overthrow Assad, stoke chaos in Syria, carve it the country, and exploit the remains, just as was done to overthrow Qadaafi and break up Libya. So, yes, it is a big deal, whether for exposing the war crimes of the Administration- how many people dead, wounded and displaced because of the clandestine war the President initiated and is still fueling?- or Hillary’s complicity in it and the need to hold her to account if she aspires to the Presidency- or for just shedding more light on the circumstances and reasons for Ambassador Stevens’s death.

    • incontinent reader on said:

      Sorry, this should have read: “This was part and parcel of the Administration’s plan to overthrow Assad, stoke chaos in Syria, carve up the country…”

    • tjoe on said:

      I agree that much more needs to be done to expose the covert weapons (going into Syria) aspect of this issue…but it was not what motivated the mob. The mob WAS motivated by the video…which doesn’t excuse Clinton or Obama from the fact they did not send reinforcements when the ambassador requested them, when he feared an attack was eminent.

  2. tjoe on said:

    There was a reporter (Islamic) that filmed the Benghazi attack and also interviewed several of the attackers as the attack happened. Then he followed up with interviews at the encampment. Several attackers said it was in retaliation for the video. He was not allowed to film at the encampment, however he did confirm that their attack WAS motivated by the video…which only a couple of them had actually seen.

    I saw it on youtube following the attack but after a week or two could not find it again. I certainly didn’t dream it. It corroborates this article exactly.

    While I fault SS Clinton with NOT sending support prior to the attack (and even Obama), the attack was definitely motivated by Ahmed Abu Khattala’s use of the video to stir the mob into violence. He certainly DID use the video to motivate them into attacking the compound.

    The real question I have is: who got the youtube video removed and why?

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      You didn’t dream it up. I also recall when the attack first happened, as there were reports on the ground stating the importance of the video. This reporting was from someone who was actually there.

      Google; John McCain 4/22/11 father of terrorism ….see article with McCain in Benghazi ….just say’n!