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Politico Jumps in the Benghazi Debate

10:35 AM, Dec 30, 2013 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Blake Hounshell of Politico takes a look at the latest back and forth over Benghazi sparked by David Kirkpatrick’s 7,000-plus word piece for the New York Times.

al qaeda

Much of Hounshell’s piece deals with the politics of Benghazi, which isn’t the focus of my reporting.  However, Hounshell does refer to my response to the Times in a few passages and this leads me to make some additional points.

But first, Hounshell’s concluding point is an important one. He writes that while we are likely to keep talking about the Benghazi terrorist attack, Libya will not receive the attention it deserves. “What we’re not likely to argue much about: Libya itself, a deeply troubled country that Americans once thought was important enough to liberate—and then, scarred by a mysterious attack, left to its fate,” he writes.

Hounshell is right. The terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 is just part of the overall story. The U.S. and NATO helped free Libya from Muammar Qaddafi and then did little to help the fledgling country. Interestingly, his view of U.S. policy towards Libya is precisely the opposite of Kirkpatrick’s. In the first chapter of his lengthy Times piece, Kirkpatrick writes that the U.S. “waded deeply into post-Qaddafi Libya, hoping to build a beachhead against extremists, especially Al Qaeda.” Hounshell’s view is much closer to the truth.

Hounshell is also correct in saying there is little agreement “on what al Qaeda is.” This is a point I made in Congressional testimony earlier this year. It is directly relevant to the public debate over Benghazi.

The Times’s Kirkpatrick offers a specific view of Ansar al Sharia, one of the key groups responsible for the attack, and al Qaeda. Kirkpatrick portrays his view as fact and seeks to dismiss alternative explanations, arguing that Republicans are “conflat[ing]” distinct extremist threats. Kirkpatrick and others have declared that Ansar al Sharia in Libya is merely a “local” jihadist group, unaffiliated with al Qaeda’s “global” jihad. I think this is wrong for a lot of reasons, many of which I have set forth previously.

But here I’ll address two other points in Hounshell’s piece.

First, Hounshell writes that “there are at least two Ansar al-Sharia groups in Libya—one in Benghazi and one in Derna, a city to the east—and dozens of other extremist groups.”

The two Ansar al Sharia groups in Libya, however, are almost certainly one. The Ansar al Sharia chapter in Libya (like chapters elsewhere) does not publish an organizational chart, making it difficult for outsiders to figure out how the group is structured. But the Ansar al Sharia groups in Derna and Benghazi publish their propaganda through the same front, the Al Raya Media Foundation. Ansar al Sharia in Sirte, Libya also publishes its propaganda through Al Raya. All of the Ansar al Sharia groups in Libya use the same branding.

These groups all operate as Ansar al Sharia Libya, which maintains a Twitter feed to distribute their messages.

Examples of the coordination between Derna and Benghazi could be seen during recent fighting. Ansar al Sharia has been battling Libyan security forces in ferocious firefights. During one battle, Ansar al Sharia reportedly tried to send reinforcements from Derna to Benghazi, but the convoys were “blocked” by government-allied forces.  

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