Mystery surrounds attack on Benghazi’s US consulate
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New reports gleaned from Libyan officials and militia commanders suggest that, contrary to earlier accounts, last week's deadly attack in Benghazi occurred at two different sites in two stages.
Amid contradictory accounts of whether the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was spontaneous or premeditated, alarming new details have emerged on the September 11 assault, which killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
According to senior Libyan officials, as well as militia sources and witnesses on the ground, last week’s seemingly carefully planned assault occurred in two stages at two different sites in the eastern Libyan port city.
In an exhaustive account of the attack, the French daily Le Figaro reported Sunday that only US Ambassador Christopher Stevens perished – from smoke inhalation – inside the US consulate premises. (Click here for the report in French.)
At least three other people, including two US Marines, were killed in a house – sometimes called “a farm” by Libyan sources – about a kilometre away from the US consulate premises, according to Le Figaro.
In a timeline of the sequence of events that fateful night - which Le Figaro described as “worthy of a spy novel” – a rebel commander told the French daily that hours after the attack on the US consulate began, he was ordered to go the Benghazi airport to support US Marines who had flown in from the capital of Tripoli.
The order came at around 3am on September 12, according to Imad Shaqabi, a commander of the Dernaa Brigade, one of numerous militias still operating in Libya following the 2011 uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
According to Shaqabi, they were given no details of their mission. His men assumed they were being called to provide support for the US team to reach a Benghazi hospital to recover Stevens’ body.
The body of the US ambassador to Libya was extracted from the consulate around 1am and had been taken to the hospital in a private car minutes later, according to witness reports.
But when the Libyan militia fighters arrived at Benghazi airport, US Marines provided them with GPS coordinates of a second site about a kilometre from the consulate where US diplomatic staff had fled, the newspaper reported.
A secret second site?
Reports of a second site - which some Libyan officials have called a “safe house” - emerged days after the attack, which killed the first US ambassador in more than 30 years.
In an interview with Reuters last week, Libyan Deputy Interior Minister Wanis Al-Sharif said hours after the attack on the consulate started, US commando units arrived from the capital of Tripoli to evacuate the consulate staff from a Benghazi safe house.
"It was supposed to be a secret place and we were surprised the armed groups knew about it,” Sharif told Reuters.
Sharif’s account of a US commando unit arriving from Tripoli, as well as the deaths of two US personnel in a second Benghazi location, matches the sequence of events relayed by the Dernaa Brigade commander to Le Figaro.
If true, the reports suggest that the assault had been planned in advance by a group – or groups - with access to sensitive security information.
Planned or spontaneous?
Details of the September 11 attack have been sketchy, with senior US officials warning reporters against jumping to conclusions while investigations are still underway.
But over the weekend, senior US officials appeared to backtrack from earlier statements that the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi was premeditated.
"People gathered outside the embassy (consulate) and then it grew very violent and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya and that then spun out of control," US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told Fox News Sunday.
"But we don't see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, a premeditated attack,” she noted.
Her comments however were in stark contrast to the assessments of senior Libyan officials as well as militia sources in Benghazi.
"The way these perpetrators acted, and moved... leaves us with no doubt that this was pre-planned, determined, predetermined," Mohammed al-Megaryef, president of the Libyan National Congress, told CBS News.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Benghazi, a fighter with the Shuhada Libya al-Hurra brigade, who declined to be named, said he witnessed the assault on the US consulate and he was sure it was a planned attack.
“They knew the embassy (consulate) very well. They came with heavy weapons and they overtook the place very fast, it was very quick. You can’t do something like that without planning,” he said.
According to the Shuhada Libya al-Hurra brigade fighter, he was unable to get near the consulate premises due to the heavy fighting Tuesday night. Instead his group of fighters were stuck a few blocks away from the by-now burning building, vainly awaiting orders from their commanders.
“It was a mess, there was very heavy fighting. I didn’t understand what was going on. The people attacking the consulate looked like Islamists, they were not at all like the fighters from my katiba (brigade). It was obvious that they had planned this before and they now had a good pretext to attack the embassy (consulate),” he said.
An unclaimed 9/11 attack
The timing of the assault – on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US – has also raised questions among security experts.
In a message posted on jihadist sites before the attack, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Libyans to target Americans in order to avenge the death of his former deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed on June 4 by a US drone in Pakistan”.
In a statement released over the weekend, the Yemen-based al Qaeda affiliate AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula) said al Libi’s killing “increased the enthusiasm and determination of the sons of (Libyan independence hero) Omar al-Mukhtar to take revenge upon those who attack our Prophet".
But the group has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
Libyan officials have arrested around 50 suspects in the attack and have pointed a finger at a Salafist group, Ansar al-Sharia, or “Supporters of Islamic law”.
But following the public outcry against the attack by Benghazi residents, the group’s leaders have tried to distance themselves from the assault, often in what the New York Times called “muddled or contradictory ways”.