Lessons in the bedlam from Benghazi

Jan 16, 2014 By The Seattle Times

Bravely working on the front lines of upheaval after the assassination of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, U.S. diplomats and security officers lost their lives to fatal assumptions.

An extensive report recently in The New York Times, led by reporter David D. Kirkpatrick, laid out the circumstances surrounding the four deaths in 2012, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Congress held hearings last May to blame the Obama administration for a cover-up of an attack by al-Qaida, and manifest failures by the administration to protect U.S. personnel in Benghazi.

The meticulously researched and well-sourced New York Times report determined that al-Qaida had nothing to do with the attack -- one of many misunderstandings and misconceptions raised during the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.

Instead, The Times found an explosive combination of tensions among layers of local militia groups in Benghazi, where the revolt against Gadhafi began.

The Times report doesn't exonerate the government by any means. The U.S. was operating on assumptions in unfamiliar territory about who was a friend or foe of any U.S. presence. They proved fatal when supposed allies were asked for local intelligence or, eventually, help.

An already dangerous and combustible atmosphere was ignited by a crude American-made video spread on YouTube that denigrated Islam in the eyes of the faithful.

A Muslim cleric in Benghazi had denounced the video and America to his followers days before the attack. A combination of local religious, political and economic tensions focused wrath at the U.S. compound in the midst of Benghazi.

Volatile local conditions among fragmented militias, not al-Qaida or any external group, were behind the attack. Local looters, not international terrorists, were present at the blaze, which killed the ambassador by smoke inhalation.

The congressional blamers got no further than being mocked on "Saturday Night Live."

The fatal flaw was a lack of local knowledge about the local players in a dangerous setting, amid the lethal consequences of religious tensions easily exploited.

These are lessons the U.S. has not learned in several venues and war zones.

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