On September 11, US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, a tragedy which reveals the state of terrorist activity within Libya and suggests flaws in US diplomatic policy in that country. Initial reports implied that Ambassador Stevens’ death resulted from protests over an inflammatory movie that sparked earlier protests in Egypt. However, more recent reports have suggested that the rocket-powered grenade attack that resulted in the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other State Department employees was in fact a calculated attack against the United States, using the popular protest as a cover. Two main pieces of evidence suggest that this attack was premeditated: the advanced weaponry used in the attack and the fact that there were apparently two separate, coordinated attacks. Whether or not a militant group did commit a premeditated attack against the US consulate, the State Department must rethink its approach to diplomatic involvement in Libya.
While the FBI has launched an investigation into the identity of the militants behind the attack, at this juncture the sheer fact that this may have been a deliberate attack is significant. This assault on the US consulate signifies the risk of unchecked extremism in Libya’s eastern territory. After the revolution, extremist groups, freed from the Qaddhafi government’s repression, have reportedly settled in eastern Libya, near Benghazi, in an attempt to use Libya’s political vacuum as a platform for jihadist movements. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism has identified thirteen terrorist organizations operating (at least in part) out of Libya. Yet extremist groups have not succeeded in influencing Libyan culture, as shown by protests in Benghazi and Tripoli against the killing of Ambassador Stevens.
A recent Global Security Monitor article explained the danger of treating Libya as a “resolved case” in the absence of strong governance. This attack can be seen as a consequence of that complacency. The US was hasty in establishing a diplomatic mission in a country whose government is not considered fully legitimate throughout the country and is unable to check the activities of militant groups. Furthermore, as it has in the past, the State Department failed to provide adequate security for a consulate in a highly volatile territory.
Moving forward, the US and Libya have a difficult task in determining the right course of action, though both Libya and the United States have made strides towards ameliorating the situation. The State Department is increasing security for the US facilities in Benghazi, and the National Congress of Libya is officially electing a new Prime Minister. The United States will need to aid the nascent Libyan government in establishing a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and reinforcing its legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan people. The US cannot pull back its diplomatic mission from Libya at a time when public diplomacy between Libya and the US is crucial for the continued strengthening of relations between the US and the Arab world; to pull back our diplomatic mission would seriously damage the strides that we have made made in strengthening these relations. However, the US must also recognize the real threat of extremist violence coming from Libya’s provinces, and cease overestimating the success of Libya’s popular revolution in establishing a peaceful and stable democratic country. As an important first step in achieving this goal, both the Department of Defense and the State Department have proposed millions of dollars in counterterrorism aid for Libya, which would be used to help build up the Libyan counterterrorism infrastructure. If approved, this aid package will contribute to eradicating extremist violence in Libya and to establishing the legitimacy of the Libyan government. It is imperative that this aid be approved, in order to help build a strong democracy in Libya and ensure the safety of Americans working there.