Political chaos in Libya hampers U.S. probe of Benghazi attacks


The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group in this file photo taken Sept. 11, 2012. Political chaos in Libya has stymied efforts to bring the Benghazi attackers to justice. (ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI/REUTERS)

More than a month after attacks in Libya left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead, the United States is struggling to bring the killers to justice. But when American officials try to speak to Libyan leaders, there’s often no one on the other end of the line.

Moammar Gaddafi’s death almost a year ago left a country with few political institutions, and Libya’s new political class is still trying to put together a democratically elected government. Infighting has grown even more bitter since the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. outposts in the eastern city of Benghazi. Many ministries, including those that would take the lead in an investigation, are on autopilot as the new lawmakers plot alliances and betrayals over endless cups of coffee in Tripoli, the capital.

Meanwhile, the Libyan investigation into the attacks is taking place a 400-mile flight away in still-unsettled Benghazi. Security there is provided by militias that have only loose affiliations with the central government, and the efforts of U.S. investigators to search the city’s dusty streets for clues have been tightly curtailed.

U.S. lawmakers visiting Tripoli have said the Libyan government has provided almost no information or cooperation as the FBI and others pursue their own investigation. Although Libyan officials say they are working to hunt down the attackers, some acknowledge that the probe is not the top priority.

“The investigation is going to be done sooner or later,” said Saleh Jouda, a member of the new legislature, the General National Congress, and deputy head of the national security committee. But Libya’s interim leaders see the undertaking as politically problematic, he said.


“They don’t want to deal with it,” he said. “They just want to hand it to the new government.”

It may be weeks before that new government is formed. Meanwhile, Republicans in Washington have seized on security lapses at the U.S. mission before the attacks — as well as the shifting explanations afterward about what transpired — to attack the Obama administration ahead of the election.

On Wednesday, House Republicans dominated a congressional hearing in which former diplomatic security officials said their requests for more security in Libya had been dismissed.

In Tripoli, the day after the attacks and just hours after President Obama announced that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens had died along with three others, Libya’s new lawmakers were not focused on the incident, although leaders did immediately condemn the deaths. They were instead voting narrowly for the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, Mustafa Abushagur, in a previously scheduled ballot.

The political uncertainty was affecting U.S. security in Libya even before the attacks. The impending vote for prime minister had been the topic of a meeting just days earlier between U.S. diplomats in Benghazi and at least two leaders of the militias that provide most of the security in the rough-and-tumble city, according to a State Department cable sent the day of the attacks. The militia leaders had accused the United States of backing Mahmoud Jibril, whom they saw as a secularist. If Jibril won, they said, “they would not continue to guarantee security in Benghazi,” according to the cable.

Abushagur beat Jibril by a hair. But after weeks of trying to form a cabinet, he lost a vote of confidence Sunday. Now, Libya’s newly elected representatives are starting all over again.

The frustration has paralyzed the capital, with small conspiracies swirling in the marble-lined hotel lobbies where the emerging political class holds its meetings. One political adviser seen deep in conversation with a pistol-packing militia leader recently suggested that all Libya’s militia chiefs surround the new congress in its building and force it to pick a government. If it didn’t, the adviser said, the militias should just force all the politicians from office. They were elected in July.


A document details the U.S. Mission in Benghazi’s react plan in case of an attack.

An interim prime minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib, and cabinet have led Libya since last year. But they lack democratic legitimacy and have little power to solve the country’s towering problems. Topping the list is the security situation. Militias that formed during the revolution have shown little inclination to disband; in large swaths of the country, they have largely replaced police and army forces, albeit with minimal control from Tripoli.

Amid the intrigue, U.S. officials say they have received little cooperation from Libyans.

“My sense is that almost everything the American government knows about the situation is what the American government has derived on their own,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), in an interview in Tripoli this week after he had been briefed by the investigators there.

Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, met with Libyan President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf and other top officials this week and called for “specific additional steps Libya can take to better assist the U.S. in ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to justice,” according to the White House.

But most Libyan officials, still stung by the revelation that far more Americans were active in Benghazi than the U.S. government had previously acknowledged, say the assistance should flow in the other direction.

“What would the FBI be doing in Benghazi by itself?” said Deputy Justice Minister Khalifa Ashour. “It will go a lot faster if there’s cooperation.”

That caution about U.S. operations can be seen in the slow pace of approvals for U.S. investigators even to enter Libya. Some of the delays were attributable to low-level bureaucrats who shiver at the very name “FBI,” said Mohamad al-Akari, a top adviser to Abushagur, still the interim deputy prime minister.

The Americans shouldn’t have sought permission for the FBI to come to Libya in the first place, at least not by that name, Akari said. “They should have said it was ‘investigative expertise.’ Why say FBI? When you say FBI, it’s like when you say Mossad.” But Libyan officials say that despite their internal wrangling, Americans should know they are not neglecting their responsibilities.

“We are trying to track down these guys and bring them to trial,” said Ahmed Langhi, a member of congress who represents Benghazi. “It’s really one of our priorities.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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