Yesterday the Pentagon announced that the Islamist leader Ahmed Abu Khattala had been captured in a US raid in Libya. Abu Khattala is the Americans’ number one suspect for the 2012 attack on the US consulate in the eastern Libyan city Benghazi, which left their ambassador dead. The attack has surprisingly become a huge political issue in the US, with the Republicans using it as a stick to beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So what exactly happened in the attack, and how has it been used since then? And what does this say about US politics?
The attack took place on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. An Islamist militia surrounded the US consulate in Benghazi and attacked it with grenades, before setting the building on fire. The US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, failed to make it out. Despite the best efforts of locals who dragged him out of the building and tried to resuscitate him, Stevens died of smoke inhalation, along with another diplomat. A few hours later a CIA building was attacked, and two CIA employees killed.
Apart from controversy over insufficient security, one of the points that led to this becoming political fodder for the US is the lack of clarity surrounding what actually happened. The first reports from the US government suggested that it was a protest over an anti-Islamic film that had got out of hand. However, it later became clear that there was no protest, and that it was a planned attack by the Ansar al-Sharia militia. It appeared that the government had been covering up the real nature of the attack, and the lack of security at the consulate. To make matters worse, the attack took place in the last two months of the presidential campaign between Romney and Obama, and Romney seized the opportunity to portray the president as weak on terrorism. He also accused Obama of covering up the real facts of the attack to protect his campaign for re-election.
While Romney lost the election, the Republican Party has kept the issue alive for two years, with numerous investigations and panels. Now that Obama is safely re-elected, the person coming under the most fire is Hillary Clinton. She was Secretary of State at the time, and is seen as having a very good chance of winning the 2016 presidential elections if she decides to run. In May the 8th congressional panel on the Benghazi attacks was set up by the Republicans, and the chief “inquisitor” of the panel is expected to place the blame on Clinton and the State Department (exactly where previous panels have placed it). You can expect to hear about the Benghazi ‘cover-up’ time and time again if Clinton decides to run
This is another issue which shows how vicious American politics have become. Both parties have accused the other of politicising the deaths of Americans. An interesting comparison is the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. 241 US soldiers, seen as being allied with the Christian government of Lebanon, were killed by a suicide bomber. Security at the barracks was extremely low, even after a previous bombing of the US embassy. An investigation by the Reagan government found that the military chain of command was responsible for the lax security, but there were certainly not eight different congressional investigations. These days though the Democrats and Republicans seem to attack their opponents with anything they can.
As political as the investigations into the attacks are, Clinton didn’t come out of the aftermath looking good. She may be hoping that the trial of Abu Khattala helps put the whole episode in the past. Finally, it’s interesting to note that Abu Khattala will be put on trial in a federal court in Washington DC, instead of vanishing into Guantanamo Bay. Whether or not the Obama administration covered up the attacks, they have at least made the excellent decision that an open trial is a better way of dealing with their enemies.