Libya's investigation of Benghazi consulate attack in limbo

Fear of reprisals by one of Libya’s strongest militias might be hampering the investigation of the attack at the U.S. Consulate.
Fear of reprisals by one of Libya’s strongest militias might be hampering the investigation of the attack at the U.S. Consulate.
Published Nov. 23, 2012

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 inquiry 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 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 Libyan's conduct of the inquiry.

At the United Nations in New York, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters, "You know the FBI and the State Department's Accountability Review Board are conducting investigations as we speak. And they will look into all aspects of this heinous terrorist attack, to provide what will become the definitive accounting of what occurred.

"None of us will rest, none of us will be satisfied until we have the answers, and the terrorists responsible for this attack are brought to justice," she said.

From Libya, there has been little sign of an investigation.

Numerous senior security officials in the city approached by the Associated Press knew nothing about the inquiry, and none said they had been questioned by investigators. The commander of Joint Operation Room who oversaw the security forces' reaction during the attack said he sent a report to the ruling General National Congress but received no feedback and had not been contacted by investigators.

"We were surprised that we were not summoned. . . . Very strange," said the commander, Abdel-Salam al-Barghathi. "I don't see anything on the ground" by way of investigation.

Several witnesses reported seeing an Islamic militant commander, Ahmed Abu Khattala, help direct the attack. Abu Khattala denies involvement but says he was at the scene to help rescue men trapped in the consulate. He has not been questioned by investigators, whether as a witness or a suspect.

"No one from Ansar al-Shariah has been summoned, or even told they are wanted," Abu Khattala told the Associated Press. 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 from Benghazi.

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

He was replaced by a judge in Tripoli, but al-Baraghathi said it was not clear if he had started work. The commission also includes the Interior Ministry's Criminal Investigation Division and Libyan intelligence.

The judge who stepped down refused to give details.

"I no longer have anything to do with this case, and I have nothing to say about it," said Salem Abdel-Atti.

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

Speaking two weeks ago, ministry spokesman Ezz Eddin al-Fazani said the results would be released soon.

He and other Interior Ministry officials say they don't even know how many people have been detained. Early on, top officials said they made anywhere from 6 to 40 arrests, but no one can say if anyone is still held. In any case, all of those detained were post-attack looters, not gunmen who stormed the compound, former Prime Minister Mustafa Abu-Shagour told the Associated Press.

The confusion reflects the broader disarray of Libya's state security. To keep a degree of peace, authorities rely on the numerous militias made up of tens of thousands of young Libyans who took up arms against Gadhafi. It is often difficult to draw clear lines between those providing security and those causing instability. Many militias are under the Interior Ministry's Supreme Security Committee, giving them a veneer of state authority to handle security tasks police would normally perform, but they remain virtually independent, loyal to their own commanders and agendas.

Security officials are fearful of confronting the militias, which are far better armed than security forces. Ansar al-Shariah and its mother group, the Rafallah Sahati brigade, are among the strongest militias in Benghazi.

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."

Details of the attack remain muddled. The Obama administration says it was a planned terror attack by militants, after initial confusion over whether there was also a protest against an anti-Islam film. Libyan security guards at the consulate and most witnesses say there were no peaceful protests outside the mission, but there were onlookers attending a wedding at a hall named Venice outside the mission's main gate.

Libyan security officials continue to give contradictory statements. Al-Barghathi, the head of the command center, told the Associated Press that there were protesters and he withdrew troops from in front of the consulate because he did not want to cause casualties among civilians. But in the report he submitted to the National Council — shown to the Associated Press — he makes no mention of protests.

Even the time the attack began is unclear. A U.S. time line says it started at 9:40 p.m., but most witnesses say the first firing began an hour earlier. Another question is why Stevens did not have stronger security and why Libyan security reinforcements did not arrive until 11 p.m., even though military and security bases are nearby.

The void of information has only fueled conspiracy theories among Benghazi's residents. Al-Barghathi, for example, is convinced the United States wanted Stevens to be killed.

"They brought him here to get rid of him. We have information that he was about to convert to Islam," said al-Barghathi. "Why else would he not have enough security?"