Here’s an excerpt of Under Fire.
The Oncoming Storm
Libya was the place where you needed to worry about the young men who ogled a woman in the street, and you had to worry about those who didn’t!
—Dan Meehan, U.S. Diplomatic Security Service special agent stationed to Libya
The wine should have flowed freely at lunch, but this was Benghazi after all. A bottle of red or white was supposed to have been one of the trappings of civility handed to a city that had been colonized by Mussolini, but post-Qaddafi Libya would have none of the alcoholic pleasures of the West. There was very little law and order in the new Libya, bullets were still flying all over the country, and indeed much of the Arab world, but a glass of wine was forbidden by the clerics—pure and unadulterated haram—even though it would have been splendid with the meal.
The Venezia Café was one of the ritziest eateries in the western suburbs of Benghazi—a relic of those bygone days when a Qaddafi-crony elite class had disposable cash and an insatiable appetite. Establishments like the Venezia never disappeared in the smoldering debris of a revolution; they thrived. Once the smoke cleared, Venezia’s tables, where despots—or their cousins—once sat and intimidated the Egyptian and Sudanese waitstaff, were cleared and set up with china and polished silverware for Benghazi’s new movers and shakers. Diplomats, spies, businessmen, gunrunners, and oil industry magnates all competed for the best table. The Venezia was also a favorite of militia commanders, especially business-minded lieutenants who could combine the zealous passion of faith with the hard green cash of selling weapons, drugs, or women.
Located behind the sprawling estate of the unofficial U.S. diplomatic compound, the Venezia was blessed with a most convenient location. Most of the restaurant was nestled inside a plush green garden, with an impressive display of local cacti and flora. The Venezia provided pure serenity, and as a result it served as a safe haven—a no-man’s-land—for all sides who had a stake or hand in determining Libya’s future. Many considered it a Switzerland of sorts—completely neutral. Politics were left at the door, though the bodyguards never relinquished their sidearms. This was Libya after all.
The Venezia was, for Sir Dominic Asquith anyway, one of those cherished human reminders of what a world without the need for bodyguards was like, even though he was required to travel in a fully armored and fully armed cocoon of security. Her Majesty’s special representative to the newly transitional democratic Libya, Asquith was a veteran Arab hand at the Foreign Office who, despite service in such pressure-cooker posts as Syria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and now Libya, sported a youthful appearance that never betrayed his fifty-five years. As the great-grandson of a British prime minister, the ambassador was of noble stock and was considered a most capable diplomat who understood the complexities and realities of the Arab world and still reveled in its charm and wonder despite its bullet-strewn landscape. And Benghazi was indeed bullet strewn. The bodies were still being counted and scores still being settled as the port city recovered from the revolution that ended the forty-two-year reign of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, but on this June noon, with an ever-so-wonderful ocean breeze bouncing off the palm trees nearby, the madness of the city and the sometimes drowning paperwork of top secret cables and e-mails made way for a meal outside the bunker of the British consulate. There were always eateries, even in war zones, that were known as safe havens. These restaurants were immaculately maintained bastions of fine food, generous bars, and discreet waitstaffs; they were neutral hangouts in locations where spies, soldiers, and those ever-present men in dark suits who played for both sides of any conflict felt at home. These establishments made sure that a favorite meal was always purely heartwarming and that there were always enough Cuban cigars at the ready.
The Italian restaurant was only a short ride from the ad hoc British consulate, located in the affluent Western Fwayhat neighborhood. The section of the city was a vast expanse of villas and estates, warehouses and buildings abandoned by war. Towering palm trees, as well as some slightly smaller, spread generous shade to the wide avenues and the gravel-strewn side streets. The neighborhood served as Benghazi’s diplomatic enclave, home to missions and consulates, ambassadorial residences, and the city’s much-envied International School. The food, the sun, and the sea breeze made it possible, even if for a brief moment, to forget that this luxurious oasis was inside the semi-lawless grasp of the Benghazi landscape, inside the epicenter of the Arab Spring and a just-relocated battlefield in the Global War on Terror. Ambassadors could dream, of course; close protection agents were paid to worry. Ambassador Asquith was always shadowed by a team of heavily armed security agents working for Her Majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the United Kingdom did not field a specialized security arm within its law enforcement and intelligence services and, as a result, relied on special operations units, or companies fielding retired special operations unit personnel. The contracting firm responsible for protecting British interests in Libya was GardaWorld. GardaWorld, a global risk management and security services company, is the international division of Garda World Security Corporation, the largest privately owned security company in the world. Much of its corporate leadership was former British Special Forces; a member of its international advisory board was the retired U.S. Navy admiral Eric T. Olson, former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, who had been awarded a Silver Star for valor in the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, and who had played a critical role in planning the 2011 DevGru raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, targeting Osama bin Laden.
Some members of Sir Dominic Asquith’s security detail were undoubtedly veterans of 22 Special Air Service, or SAS, Great Britain’s legendary commandos, whose motto is “Who Dares Wins.” Others were members of the Royal Marines Special Boat Service, or SBS; a few were even experienced bobbies with a history of firearms use in units such as SO1, the London Metropolitan Police’s Dignitary Protection Squad; SO6, the Diplomatic Protection Group; SO14, the Royal Family Protective Unit; and SCO19, the Specialist Firearms Command. Anyone accepted for such hazardous duty was considered top tier. All were veterans of Britain’s terrorist wars—either overseas or at home, in London and beyond. The old-timers who had served in Northern Ireland, as well as those who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially those from the SAS, never left home without their Browning Hi Power 9 mm automatic—the regiment’s favorite and most reliable sidearm.
Ambassador Asquith’s security detail moved out of the restaurant, some walking in front of and others walking behind the diplomat, toward the awaiting vehicles; the driver from each vehicle in the ambassador’s package remained behind at the wheel in order to prevent any malicious elements from sabotaging the armored SUVs or in case the detail had to escape with no time to spare. When the ambassador finished his meal, the vehicles were summoned and pulled up in front of the main entrance.
The warm and soothing June sun had already baked everyone’s face a shiny glow of reddish brown. With the sun and coastal breeze and the palms swaying ever so gently as they spread shade along the boulevard, Benghazi could have been a Club Med. It was even plausible, if just for a second, to forget that only five days earlier Abu Yahya al-Libi, the Libyan-born deputy commander of al-Qaeda, had been blown to bits by a CIA drone strike in Mir Ali, a rugged patch of hell in the northern part of Waziristan, Pakistan.
Ambassador Asquith could never enjoy the breeze of driving in a Benghazi June, because he rode in an armored SUV whose bullet-resistant windows were closed at all times. There were several cars to his motorcade—a lead, a follow, the principal’s vehicle, and that of the armed specialists who escorted the ambassador everywhere. Traffic was frenetic that beautiful afternoon, Sunday, June 10, but maneuvering through any Arab city was always an exercise of honk, brake, curse, brake, honk. Protection specialists were always taught to never become a statistic in traffic, and Ambassador Asquith’s motorcade swerved in and out of lanes as it moved along its short path toward the consulate. Two months earlier, on April 2, a U.K. consulate car found itself in between three warring militias—one of which was the local traffic police—and barely managed to escape from the melee. The warring militias weren’t thugs or gangster groups, however; well, not officially at least. They were actually uniformed members of the local law enforcement community—the men sworn to protect and serve rather than rape and pillage—who were flexing their muscles and settling some scores.
The two assailants, masked persons unknown behind their camouflage fatigues and dishdashas, were waiting behind the neatly manicured trees and brush. The attack site was chosen very carefully. The terrorists had conducted advance surveillance of the area in order to pinpoint a specific choke point, known as the “X”, where the motorcade would be at its most vulnerable and where the escape avenues would be easiest to access and they could disappear into the Benghazi landscape. Surveillance would have been intense, as the terrorists would have needed to know the travel patterns of the motorcade, as well as nearby traffic patterns; there could have been several RPG teams pre-positioned throughout the area, all connected by disposable mobile phones. The terrorists picked the X based on an extensive review of predictable patterns and, possibly, with the assistance of someone on their payroll who knew details of the ambassador’s movements that day.
Reconnoitering the X was basic terrorist tradecraft. Their surveillance efforts illustrated that the assassination team was well trained and tactically proficient. And they also illustrated an inherent chink in the armored ring protecting the British ambassador. It is doubtful that Ambassador Asquith’s security detail was large enough to field a countersurveillance force; without security controlling the geography, bad things could always happen.
The security detail could not have known that the assailants had taken weeks to reconnoiter the area in preparation for the attack, and they didn’t know if an SMS from a member of the restaurant’s kitchen staff had alerted them to the ambassador’s departure back to the office. The details didn’t matter the moment Ambassador Asquith’s convoy crossed the parallel and horizontal lines of the RPG-7’s optical sight and the cone-shaped antitank rocket was launched from the ubiquitous Soviet-era weapon. The RPG-7 was the perfect weapon system for en masse deployment. It was the perfect armor-punching tool for third-world revolutions and terrorists—cheap, easily produced, and designed for fighters who didn’t have the time or the cerebral hard drive for in-depth training. The weapon was usually deployed by a two-man team. One operator inserts the projectile grenade into the tubelike launcher, and the second man takes aim and fires. The sound of an RPG being fired is unmistakable: a heavy whistling sound followed by the eardrum-pounding impact of a fiery thud.
The British security specialists did not see the two-man firing crew emerge from behind cover to take their shot. They did, however, hear a thud and then a swoosh and then saw a fireball when the penetrating punch of the warhead fell short of the target and erupted in a concussive wave of fire and shrapnel.
Traffic came to a complete standstill when the RPG was fired. Even the Benghazi natives who were so used to the sounds and sights of war were frozen by the sudden burst of bloodshed; instead of honking their horns and cursing out the window, they stared openmouthed in horror. A small cloud of black smoke began to cover the area. The warm summer sun disappeared into the spreading darkness.
The RPG-7 warhead fell short of the ambassador’s vehicle yet still dangerously close. The bullet-resistant glass held up well, but when the cone-shaped high-explosive antitank projectile—capable of punching through nearly a foot of armored steel—detonated, chunks of the vehicle’s armor protection splintered inside. Two protection specialists were seriously hurt by fragmentation when the blast and rocket punched out the windshield of the lead vehicle; their blood splattered throughout the vehicle’s interior and then onto the street. One of the specialists called for help on the police radio mounted below the SUV’s dashboard, though his left hand was covered in blood and the pain was severe. The specialist found it hard to depress the talk button to transmit word that they had been attacked. The British agents, as per procedures rehearsed a thousand times in training, rushed Ambassador Asquith out of the targeted vehicle and into the follow car, which sped, against the flow of traffic in the other lanes, back to the consulate. A trusted local doctor would look at him and then let him know if he was medically sound enough to return to top secret cables and e-mails detailing the harrowing account of his close brush with death.
The security specialists had hoped to engage the attackers with their Glock 19 9 mm semiautomatic pistols, drawn from holsters hidden inside their safari jackets, but the terrorists were not interested in a fight. The attackers, as many as five, according to eyewitnesses, fled into the invisible scenery of walls and brush.
A special operations team from the U.S. mission arrived on the scene first. The operators, looking every bit the part with their long hair and ratty beards, used their armored SUVs to create a perimeter, while the team’s medic attended to the injured British agents. The Benghazi preventive security forces arrived a good wait later. The Libyans knew little about crime scenes and wandered curiously across the pavement littered with debris and shiny glass spall. Transmission fluid and antifreeze flowed slowly out of one of the SUVs and mixed with the blood from the two specialists injured in the attack. Uniformed police officers scanned the destruction and used their AK-47s to wave off a throng of curious onlookers that was growing every minute; the policemen seemed angry that the terrorist attack required them to stand outside and keep the crowds at bay, rather than sit inside their American-supplied orange-and-white spanking-new—and always air-conditioned—Toyota Land Cruisers. The patrolmen trod carefully over the debris, though they crunched the specks of glass under the weight of their shiny black boots.
But an attack on an ambassador was not something that police commanders could treat nonchalantly, and the officers knew that the news cameras would be by shortly. Clearly there would be a live feed breaking the regularly scheduled broadcasts on the BBC and Sky News. Al Jazeera, the Doha-based regional super channel and network that was amenable to airing terrorist tapes, loved assassination attempts. Diplomats being killed were great for ratings.
The patrolmen read the pamphlets left behind around the scene, pamphlets from the Brigades of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, with feigned curiosity. A greater concern was evident on the faces of the detectives and police commanders who left their safe havens in town and responded to the crime scene once they received word of the attack over their iPhones and Nokia smartphone devices. Senior commanders from the CID, the elite investigative branch of the Public Security Directorate, took deep drags on their Atlas cigarettes and sighed with a foreboding sense of dread. They were, of course, pleased—relieved!—that Ambassador Asquith had not been seriously hurt. Images of a dead Western ambassador would have been very bad for Libya’s image had they gone viral on the Web, but they shuddered as to what was happening in the city. An attack, this brazen an attack, by jihadists fighting in the name of the Egyptian-born blind sheikh who was incarcerated in the United States, was not a promising sign for the new Libya.
Operationally, the terrorist attempt to assassinate the British ambassador that afternoon in Benghazi ended in failure. Strategically, the attack achieved its desired objectives. The British abandoned Benghazi days later.
* * *
It was summer in the Arab Spring. From North Africa’s Atlantic coast to the oil-flush sands of Bahrain, the old world order was crumbling under the unstoppable force of democracy, Islam, iPhones, and Facebook. Some of the old guard evaporated into exile or prison with a muted bang. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, old-guard dinosaurs who had used an iron fist to enforce uncontested power and Just for Men to retain the eternal facade of youth, had been removed from power without the usual mass carnage of Middle Eastern foreplay. But nothing was ever easy in the Middle East. In Bahrain, where a Shiite version of the populist Arab Spring attempted to reroute the power of the emir, the calls for democracy ended with a brutal crackdown and scores of broken bones. And then, of course, there was Syria. Syria was the linchpin of Middle East madness where Sunnis and Shiites, Russians and Americans, Turks, Saudis, Qataris, and Iranians were all gambling with enormous stakes over who would own the winning hand in the struggle. By the summer of 2012 some thirty thousand combatants—men, women, and children—had been killed in the hell of the crumbling regime in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria; the Lion Cub of Damascus was determined not to repeat the fate of Colonel Qaddafi and bow out pathetically in a suicidal escape rather than a Saladin-like last stand inside the Syrian capital.
The Arab Spring spark that lit the fuse to the Libyan civil war was rooted in the economics of Qaddafi’s corrupt rule and not in the flames of militant Islam. Inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, housing riots erupted in Benghazi in January 2011; the rage soon spilled to other cities—primarily in eastern Libya. The rioting and repression that followed spread throughout the country. By the end of February, the protests had turned violent, and an armed opposition was challenging Qaddafi’s forty-two years of rule. The country was in full-blown civil war.
Benghazi, the birthplace of the Libyan revolution, was the city where NATO—and the United States—drew their line in the sand. With a UN Security Council resolution providing the international mandate, U.S. aircraft launched a series of devastating air strikes against loyalist armored forces ordered to raze Benghazi to the ground. Qaddafi had labeled Benghazi’s residents as “rats,” and the U.S. air raids that eradicated Libyan air defenses and armor capabilities saved the city from certain destruction—the same kind of destruction that ultimately befell Homs and Aleppo during the Syrian civil war.
The NATO intervention—one of a small and deniable Special Forces and precision air strikes—decapitated the loyalists’ command-and-control capabilities, as well as their control of the skies and roadways. Abandoned by defections and regional isolation, Qaddafi’s forces waged a cruel campaign against the Libyan rebels and Libya’s citizens. The mad colonel, interestingly enough, was prophetic in blaming al-Qaeda and bin Laden loyalists for the challenge to his rule, though his rambling seemed to inspire fundamentalist forces to play a role in the fighting. Unable to trust his own forces, Qaddafi hired mercenaries—inexpensive ones from Mali, Niger, and Ghana, as well as more costly dogs of war from the former Yugoslavia—whose thirst for cold-blooded killing was chilling. But when the United Nations endorsed NATO military involvement, Operation Unified Protector, Qaddafi’s fate was sealed. The bloody internecine fighting lasted another six months and resulted in the deaths of some thirty thousand Libyan civilians. Qaddafi’s fate was an ugly one. Found hiding in a desert ditch, he was manhandled, sodomized, and then executed.
Democracy had come to Libya, though—as seen in the petri dishes of Iraq, Tunisia, and Egypt—the electorate’s wishes often conflicted with Western hopes. The National Transitional Council, or NTC, the provisionary government in Tripoli, officially declared Libya liberated on October 23, 2011. Freeing Libya from chaos would be another story.
The evaporation of the police state enabled an insidious reality to enter Libya. Weapons and MANPADs (man-portable air-defense systems) were everywhere. There were, of course, scores to be settled with the business end of the AK-47 and profits to be made trafficking in everything from cigarettes to narcotics. Criminal gangs flourished in the lawless chaos; the weapons, tools of conventional combat, fetched a high price in the arms bazaars of Mali, Niger, and Chad. Islamic gangs, also known on the street as militias, that had fought in the civil war now staked their claim on precincts of property. Like Beirut during the civil war and any other godforsaken war zone on the continent, checkpoints were everywhere. The situation was frighteningly evident to visiting members of the UN Support Mission in Libya. In an interview, Ian Martin, the secretary-general’s special representative to Libya, stated, “The transition from the revolutionary brigades that were there at the end of the conflict, to state security forces having a monopoly on force, a national army and a proper police force—that can’t be created overnight. The majority of the revolutionaries don’t want to be in the security sector, they want civilian occupations—that’s a big challenge. Libya has enormous borders—particularly its southern border is open to the trafficking of people, weapons, and drugs. Getting a grip on that is a huge challenge.”
The challenge, in fact, was insurmountable. And Benghazi was an ideal junction for the confluence of violence. Benghazi had been conquered by the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Italians and bombed heavily during World War II by both the Axis and the Allies, reducing its Mediterranean-style avenues and Italian-inspired architecture to rubble. The city was once again ravaged by Qaddafi loyalist forces during the bitter fighting of the Libyan revolution. In teeming Benghazi, a city of some one million inhabitants, grief, violence, and opportunity came together as one. It had always been a magnet for Africans, Berbers, and North African Arabs seeking work and safe havens for their varied and sometimes covert causes. With Qaddafi dead, arms smugglers from the Palestinian Authority, Bedouin narcotics traffickers from the Sinai, and Malian militants had flooded into its lawless confines. Libya, a global destabilizing force under Qaddafi, remained a source of regional mayhem.
Fundamentalist Islam was never a strong current in Benghazi, but the vacuum of authority allowed it to gain strength quickly in the shadows. The city’s beach-and-bikini culture always seemed to be an antidote to medieval attempts to throw back the clock. But al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, a terrorist franchise that had escaped the wrath of the U.S. drone war in Pakistan and Yemen, was by mid-2012 still malignant and well entrenched, with new influence in all the countries impacted by the Arab Spring.
It should have then come as no surprise that the black flags of the al-Qaeda and fundamentalist movements would become so prominent in Benghazi. Qaddafi had been a secular dictator who jetted to the capitals of the Middle East with a harem of beautiful female bodyguards adorned in tight-fitting and cleavage-revealing fatigues. Qaddafi was the champion of left-wing and nationalist terrorist movements, but he was a fierce opponent of the Islamic fundamentalists. Qaddafi’s secret police and intelligence services had used the iron hand of cruelty in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood and other underground Islamic groups; bin Laden would not have found a safe haven inside Qaddafi’s Libya. And once Qaddafi was dead, the fundamentalists embraced their newfound freedoms with religious zeal. Foreigners, especially Christians, were behind Libya’s tragic years, preached clerics who emerged from the shadows to men who had previously avoided the mosques for years. “Libya was a weak nation, a lost nation,” an Islamic militia member boasted in Benghazi to an amateur cameraman covering a fundamentalist demonstration that would be posted online, “because it had abandoned God’s ways.”
The telltale signs of a nation, or city at least, fueled by an Islamic awakening became obvious after Qaddafi’s death. Men who once sported jet-black mustaches and wore polyester shirts and Western slacks now sported galabiya gowns and thobes. They grew long beards and dyed them bright orange with henna; these men, young and old, cropped their mustaches the way the Prophet did. Plain black kufi hats became unmistakably prevalent throughout the markets and at checkpoints, where armed men in camouflage chic now enforced neighborhood Sharia law in full Islamic regalia.
The new Islamic push in the city was spiced with violent militancy. On June 7, 2012, four days before Ambassador Dominic Asquith’s armored convoy was targeted by Salafists, Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamic militias staged a show of force with a parade and rally. Ansar al-Sharia, or Supporters of Sharia, was a Salafist-jihadist militia headquartered in Benghazi; it was led by Sufian Ben Qumu, alleged to be a former driver for Osama bin Laden and, ultimately, a Guantánamo Bay detainee who was returned to Libya in 2007. Other Islamic militias, known as katibas, or battalions, raised their flags and fired magazine-emptying bursts of AK-47s into the air that day. The militia names were all insidiously telltale of violent intentions and, according to Western intelligence sources, constituted the bulk of al-Qaeda’s power in Libya.
The jihadist show of muscle and firepower was held near Liberation Square, along the main coastal road. Where Libyan women in miniskirts once flirted with eager suitors, now thousands of men raising their AK-47s in defiant gestures rode in a parade of sedans and Toyotas sporting huge black al-Qaeda-like flags. The hypnotic cadence of vehicles blaring their horns turned the sunny seafront into an earsplitting storm of sound. The firepower on display was daunting. Dozens of Toyota pickups, rigged with twin-mounted 23 mm antiaircraft cannons, moved slowly along the boulevard, rotating their long barrels around in a celebratory challenge. Some of the super-tactical vehicles sported emblems belonging to one militia or another.
According to video footage, several vehicles bearing the emblem of a militia known as the February 17 Brigade were seen as well.
Men in Saudi robes, and those with Yemeni-looking features, sported RPGs and PKM machine guns; thousands had gathered, but many of the armed men with long hair and longer beards were definitely not Libyan. Egyptians, Tunisians, Palestinians, and southern Africans had all come to Benghazi in search of a war. Some men, perhaps indicating previous service in the campaigns of Kandahar and Helmand Province, wore the woolen pakol hat ubiquitous in Afghanistan. Still, there were remnants of a secular Libya on parade—some of the militants wore Lionel Messi Barcelona soccer jerseys underneath their robes, displaying more secular passions—but Benghazi that foreboding morning was an armed Islamic camp.
Fathers dressed their children in black headbands imprinted with slogans yearning for martyrdom. Men in fatigues concealed their faces from the eyes of curious intelligence services that might have been in the crowd by wearing ominous black balaclavas. The black al-Qaeda flags of the jihad were everywhere.
An older policeman, standing next to his white patrol cruiser, watched helplessly as he smoked a cigarette and listened to a long line of men vowing death to the foreigners. He didn’t even attempt to coordinate traffic. Law and order—sanity—had fled Benghazi. Four days later, Ambassador Asquith barely escaped a military-style attempt on his life.
On June 14, Libyan authorities had identified the assailants responsible for the attempt on Ambassador Asquith’s life as Salafists from the Jamarat Islamiya Al-Moutashedida. The attack was only the beginning for this self-professed al-Qaeda-linked gang. That same day gunmen from Jamarat Islamiya Al-Moutashedida shot up a beauty salon in Benghazi, because women were receiving Western hairstyles. On June 18, a swarm of heavily armed Salafists stormed the Tunisian consulate in Benghazi to express outrage over a display in the Tunis suburb of La Marsa, where artists had presented a naked woman being eyed by fundamentalists and the word “Allah” spelled out by a line of ants.
The growing jihadist base in Benghazi was sparking both interest and fear. The British left the city after the attempt on the ambassador’s life. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, suspended operations in Benghazi and Misrata on August 5, 2012, after a series of terror strikes on its offices in both cities; the first attack, on May 22, was perpetrated by the Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman Brigade, Red Cross officials stated, “because the group claimed that the ICRC was distributing Bibles and trying to convert Libyans to Christianity.”
The fundamentalist militias were growing more brazen in their attacks and in their assault on the new Libyan security apparatus. The public security directorate headquarters in Benghazi, the epicenter of all counterterrorism efforts in the city, was attacked in a dedicated strike by Salafist gunmen. The Libyan Military Intelligence headquarters was blown up in the city. Senior police and government security commanders were assassinated; some were killed as they left their homes, while others were shot in the back of the head as they prayed in city mosques.
Libya had become an al-Qaeda-inspired, if not al-Qaeda-led, training base and battleground. One of the terrorists, a Saudi national who was killed in a large-scale jihadist raid in Sinai on June 18, 2012, that resulted in the deaths of twenty Egyptian policemen, had trained with al-Qaeda in Libya. On June 21 the Tunisian Air Force engaged and destroyed three suspected al-Qaeda vehicles believed to be transferring arms from Libya to Algeria. Al-Qaeda had obtained advanced weapons—including MANPADs, antitank rockets, and heavy cannons—that the militias had pilfered from Qaddafi’s military; more weapons and ammunition, some brand-new, had been supplied to all the anti-Qaddafi militias fighting for a new Libya by the intelligence services of the State of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates; these weapons were distributed generously, and with tacit U.S. approval; a good percentage of the hardware, though, ended up in jihadist hands. Many of these advanced systems were finding their ways into the hands of Islamic extremists fighting in northern Mali.
Weapons, similar to those being used in the Syrian civil war, were being sold and traded openly. To the men of the intelligence agencies—Western and other—with an interest in toppling the Assad regime, Libya was a wholesale market for military surplus that the revolutionary fighters desperately needed, and Benghazi became a battlefield of those who were sellers, those who were buyers, and those determined to thwart both sides of the arms trade equation.
Wherever there were terrorists, there were bound to be spies, and Benghazi had become a den of spies. By the summer of 2012, those nations with the stomach to remain behind in Benghazi were represented by operatives, assets, and sources. Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, possibly even the Israelis, all had an interest in what was transpiring inside the Benghazi arms bazaars, as did the secret police agencies of a dozen or so African states worried that the malignancy growing inside Libya would metastasize inside their own volatile countries. And, of course, wherever al-Qaeda ventured, especially an al-Qaeda thought to be in tatters and an al-Qaeda situating itself in a city with enough ordnance to start a large-scale African war, the Western and Arab intelligence agencies were never far behind. It would be safe to assume that there were spies loyal to several dozen nations wandering about Benghazi, meeting with sources and paying assets. Men in blazers and dark glasses wandered about the narrow streets of the medina, the old city, with briefcases full of cash and 9 mm semiautomatics—the classic killing tool of the European spy. Rent-a-guns, militiamen with AK-47s and no qualms about killing, stood outside the cafés and restaurants where men with cash and those with missiles exchanged business terms. Benghazi was a cross between Chicago in the days of Prohibition and Sicily at the height of the Cosa Nostra’s reign of crime and terror. The confluence of intelligence operatives, swindlers, and opportunists inside the Libyan city was akin to Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca.
Benghazi was a le Carré urban landscape where loyalties changed sides with every sunset; there were murders, betrayals, and triple-crossing profits to be made in the post-revolution reality. The police were only as honest as their next bribe. The floors of cafés in the notorious Assabri area near the old city were littered with disposable SIM cards that were destructively snapped in half—the telltale sign of a city populated by secrets and men with prices on their heads.
Most governments were eager to abandon the danger and intrigue of Benghazi. By September 2012 much of the international community had pulled chalks and escaped the inevitable cauldron of the city’s violence. Other nations left Libya altogether. Even the Iranians, one of the world’s most prominent state sponsors of global terror, who had seven members of its Red Crescent relief agency kidnapped in Benghazi by one of the government’s primary militias, escaped the city.
Some countries remained. The Bulgarians, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Italians maintained consulates in the city. The European Union maintained a full-fledged consulate; the Germans staffed a small liaison office. The Turks and the Qataris stood fast, as well. Benghazi was very much a hub for their geopolitical interests and objectives.
Libya was a target-rich environment for American political, economic, and military interests, and the United States was determined to retain its diplomatic and intelligence presence in the country—including an embassy in Tripoli and a mission in Benghazi. Benghazi, rife with peril, was a linchpin of American concerns and opportunities in the summer following the Arab Spring. Tunisia had been swept by revolution, and so had Egypt. A Libya run by Qaddafi would have been a malignant growth inside the aspirations of both newly democratic nations. Qaddafi’s time had come. “The United States was typically optimistic in its hope for Libya,” an insider with boots on the ground commented, smiling. “The hope was that all would work out, even though the reality of an Islamic force in the strong revolutionary winds hinted otherwise.”
Hope was fueling many fires. The United States no longer had the resources or the national will to commit massive military manpower to its outposts in the quagmire-strewn remnants of what was once defined as the new world order. This wasn’t a political question but a boots-on-the-ground statement of reality. The fight against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as the desire to quench the thirst of democracy in this part of the world, was a brand of warfare that would not be fought with brigades and Bradley armored fighting vehicles. This kinder and friendlier Global War on Terror would be fought by diplomats and spies and watched from above by drones and satellites. The footprint of the United States in this unsettled country and its ever-important but dangerous city would have to be small and agile.
Benghazi would be a test—one of many—for this new type of warfare on this new and untested battlefield. Washington knew of the dangers that existed in Benghazi; American diplomatic and intelligence representatives on the ground in Libya had sent precise reports detailing the threats in country. They had requested additional assets and protection to mitigate the uncertainty and violence that were rampant in the country.
Benghazi was considered too valuable a seismic sensor in the Middle East—and Arab Spring—for the United States to abandon, even though the security situation in the city was considered critical. The United States was staying put, even though the landscape was pure lawlessness.
“Benghazi was the kind of city,” reflected a veteran Middle East war correspondent, “that once you left you never wanted to return to.” It was the city where American diplomats and the men sworn to protect them would wage the small-footprint, covert chess match of expeditionary diplomacy in the uncertain double-barreled fusillade of an angry Arab Spring.