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Learning from Benghazi: Fat target, feckless allies

If further investigation bears out The New York Times’s recent account of the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, the United States faces a much more daunting challenge in Libya than previously understood.

Four Americans died in the Sept. 11, 2012, incident. From the earliest days after the attack, conservatives set out to prove that the Obama administration had been negligent in preventing it and then lied about its cause, as the election loomed, to downplay any involvement by Al Qaeda. For its part, the administration initially emphasized the role of an anti-Muslim video that led to violent protests in Islamic countries. Since then, conspiracy theories have abounded.

The detailed Times investigation concluded that anger over the anti-Muslim video motivated some of the attackers who converged on the Benghazi consulate, but the operation was planned by local militia leaders, not Al Qaeda. The Times article named Ahmed Abu Khattala, a Libyan militant who may be mentally unstable, as the primary leader. Khattala, who was indicted by the Justice Department this fall, denies it. But his face was reportedly caught on film.

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Americans should take no comfort if local militias, not Al Qaeda, led the attack. A well-planned attack by a closely watched international network would be easier to guard against in the future than haphazard assaults by various militia groups — including ones the United States had considered allies. Perhaps most disturbingly, the Times account indicates that US officials relied heavily on their Libyan friends to warn and protect them, but those “friends” declined to intervene.

The Times investigation doesn’t settle the question. Both Republican Representative Mike Rogers and Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who sit on the House Intelligence Committee, dispute the newspaper’s conclusion that Al Qaeda was not involved. Several news organizations, including the Times itself, published stories casting suspicion on Egyptian militant Muhammad Jamal, who trained with Al Qaeda in the 1980s and is believed to run a training camp in Libya. He was placed on the State Department terrorist list in October. Weeks later, the United Nations Security Council also blacklisted him, due to his alleged involvement in the Benghazi attack. The Times investigation did not directly address whether members of Jamal’s network were present that night.

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Either way, it’s noteworthy that at least two potential Benghazi suspects remain at large, and the United States currently is not in a position to apprehend either of them. US officials must continue efforts to bring them to justice. As it engages with Libya’s many factions in the meantime, the United States must make more cautious judgments about their capabilities and intentions — and make decisions based on facts.