BENGHAZI, Libya — A boyish-looking US diplomat was meeting for the first time with the Islamist leaders of eastern Libya’s most formidable militias.
It was Sept. 9, 2012. Gathered on folding chairs in a banquet hall by the Mediterranean, the Libyans warned of rising threats against Americans from extremists in Benghazi. One militia leader, with a long beard and mismatched military fatigues, mentioned time in exile in Afghanistan. A US guard discreetly touched his gun.
“Since Benghazi isn’t safe, it is better for you to leave now,” Mohamed al-Gharabi, leader of the Rafallah al-Sehati Brigade, recalled telling the Americans. “I specifically told the Americans myself that we hoped that they would leave Benghazi as soon as possible.”
Yet the militiamen also gushed about their gratitude for President Obama’s support in their uprising against Moammar Khadafy. They emphasized that they wanted to build a partnership with the United States, especially in the form of more investment.
The diplomat, David McFarland, a former congressional aide who had never before met with a Libyan militia leader, left feeling agitated, according to colleagues. But the meeting did not shake his faith in the prospects for deeper involvement in Libya. Two days later, he summarized the meeting in a cable to Washington, describing a mixed message from the militia leaders.
Despite “growing problems with security,” he wrote, the fighters wanted the United States to become more engaged “by ‘pressuring’ American businesses to invest in Benghazi.”
The cable, dated Sept.11, 2012, was sent over the name of McFarland’s boss, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Later that day, Stevens was dead, killed with three other Americans in Benghazi in the most significant attack on US property in 11 years, since Sept. 11, 2001.
The cable was a last token of months of American misunderstandings and misperceptions about Libya and especially Benghazi, many fostered by shadows of the earlier Sept.11 attack. The United States waded deeply into post-Khadafy Libya, hoping to build a beachhead against extremists, especially Al Qaeda.
It believed it could draw a bright line between friends and enemies in Libya. But it ultimately lost its ambassador in an attack that involved both avowed opponents of the West and fighters belonging to militias that the Americans had taken for allies.
Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had a role in the assault.
The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Khadafy. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.
A fuller accounting of the attacks shows the risks of expecting US aid to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment.
The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding US interests.
In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according to numerous Libyans present at the time. US officials briefed on the criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect.
Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Khadafy on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the CIA unit in Benghazi.
Abu Khattala, who denies participating in the attack, was firmly embedded in the network of Benghazi militias before and afterward. He was never more than a step removed from the most influential commanders who dominated Benghazi and who befriended the Americans. They were his neighbors, his fellow inmates, and his comrades in the fight against Khadafy.
Fifteen months after Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.
One has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Obama’s national security adviser.
The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s assertion that the group has been decimated.
The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but contained grave local threats to US interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.