Monday, February 19, 2018

Libyan investigation into consulate attack stalled

BENGHAZI, Libya — After more than two months, Libya's investigation into the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi appears in limbo. Key security commanders and witnesses say they were never questioned. No suspects have been named, and gunmen seen participating in the assault walk freely in the eastern Libyan city.

Hanging over the probe is a fear of reprisals from extremist militiamen. Farag al-Fazani, a young commander of a Libyan security force commissioned to protect the U.S. post at the time of the Sept. 11 attack, says he sees militants he recognizes from that chaotic night.

They recognize him too.

"I get death threats by phone (saying) you are an infidel and spilling your blood is permitted," said al-Fazani. "No one can protect me. I see them and they know me."

The dangers in the city are clear. On Wednesday, the head of one of the city's security agencies, National Security chief Col. Farag el-Dersi, was shot to death by three attackers as he headed home from work. It is the latest in a string of killings of officials with no word on who is behind them, though there is no indication they are connected to the investigation.

U.S. and Libyan leaders have sworn to hunt down those who carried out the Sept. 11 assault, in which gunmen blasted their way into the consulate compound after nightfall and killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. Most officials and witnesses have blamed fighters from Ansar al-Shariah, an Islamic extremist militia in the city. But much remains unexplained — including what was the attack's motive, why did Libyan security pull back from the consulate and even what time the attack started, much less the bigger questions of whether outside terror groups like al-Qaida had a hand.

The FBI, which sent a team to Tripoli immediately after the attack to work with Libyan investigators, has said nothing about its findings so far. At FBI headquarters in Washington, spokesman Michael Kortan on Wednesday declined to comment on the Libyans' conduct of the probe.

From the Libyan side, there has been little sign of an investigation.

Numerous senior security officials in the city approached said they knew nothing about the inquiry, and none said they had been questioned by investigators.

Several witnesses reported seeing an Islamic militant commander, Ahmed Abu Khattala, help direct the attack. Abu Khattala denies involvement but admits he was at the scene to help rescue men trapped in the consulate. He has not been questioned.

"No one from Ansar al-Shariah has been summoned, or even told they are wanted," Abu Khattala said. Abu Khattala is a frequent visitor of Benghazi's el-Fadheel hotel, which is owned by Adel Galgoul, the owner of a safe house to which staffers from the consulate were evacuated during the attack, only to be hit by mortars that led to two of the American deaths.

Al-Fazani, the protection force commander, said Ansar al-Shariah carried out the consulate attack, led by Abu Khattala. "They divided themselves into two groups, one stormed the place and the second gave protection and supply," he said.

Al-Fazani said he was told to go to Tripoli to speak to U.S. investigators, but he was too afraid to do so.

"I don't want to get into this. Security and things here are still tense," he said.

The investigation commission created by the National Congress to work with the FBI is largely based out of Tripoli, 400 miles away from Benghazi.

It has faced personnel problems. Initially it was led by a judge in Benghazi, but he stepped down after only two weeks, said the head of the Benghazi Cassation court, Fatma al-Baraghathi, who appointed him.

Deputy Interior Minister Omar al-Khadrawi insisted the investigation was "going well" but could not say when it would be completed.

Fawzi Wanis, head of the Supreme Security Committee, is convinced militiamen within the committee fed information to the consulate attackers. But "I don't have the capability to carry out an internal investigation."

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