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The Attack In Libya, How The U.S. Should Respond


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan at NPR West in Culver City, California. Another attack on a U.S. embassy, this time protesters in Yemen broke through the main gate and burned the American flag. They chanted death to America. In Libya, more than 50 Marines arrived to take over security at the U.S. Embassy in security with FBI evidence teams also reportedly on the way and U.S. warships over the horizon.

President Obama said yesterday that the United States would work with the Libyan government to bring justice to those who carried out the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, an attack that House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers described to the Associated Press as a planned, coordinated, well-executed, military-style event.

We still don't know who's behind that attack, exactly, or the significance of the fact that it happened on 9/11. Just who produced, financed and translated the amateurish anti-Islam film that sparked at least some of the protests also remains murky.

If you have questions about what happened on Tuesday and where we go from here, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, to Jordan and that country's response to civil war next door in Syria and to the flood of refugees. But first to Benghazi and the Guardian's Libya correspondent Christopher Stephen, he's with us by phone. Nice to have you with us today.

CHRISTOPHER STEPHEN: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: The attackers in Benghazi, well-armed, apparently well-organized. Do we know anything more about who was behind this assault?

STEPHEN: Well, we assume it was some sort of splinter group in the Islamic faction. There are a number of predates here who have fallen under the spotlight of suspicion. Exactly who it was remains unclear, but certainly it was a very hard-line jihadist (unintelligible). Most people in Benghazi say it was the same people who fired a rocket at the British ambassador, who burned up the Red Cross compound, who attacked the U.N. convoy and who destroyed British war graves earlier this year.

CONAN: And in those previous incidents, did anybody take responsibility?

STEPHEN: No one's ever taken responsibility, although in the case of the war graves, they were filmed doing it. So a lot of diplomats have said, well, you know, if the authorities wanted to make arrests these past months, you know, they could have done so. No arrests have ever been made for any of these things, and I think the pressure is now on the authorities to explain why.

CONAN: And can you tell us more about what actually happened in this assault? As I understand, the consulate headquarters itself was the first target.

STEPHEN: That's right. The assault began at 11 o'clock that night, when the protests degenerated into a firing. Who fired first, you know, one can't say. There is a suggestion that the Libyan security guards in the embassy fired over the heads of the crowd. But there was a firefight. Eight of the 12 Libyan guards were wounded, and then the crowd breached the wall.

The ambassador and two security guards then ran into a sort of fortified compound, where the two guards were killed, and the ambassador appears to have died from smoke inhalation. Now at the same time, another group of diplomats managed to get into a Jeep and bust out of the gates.

They came under fire. The Jeep was hit by bullets, but it was an armored Jeep. It then drove a mile down the road to a second compound, which is an accommodation compound, and they went in there. They closed the gate. An hour later, that compound came under attack from the same mob.

And I've been to see both compounds. I've been taken around by the landlords. In the second compound, in the accommodation compound, an RPG was fired at the roof, and there's a lot of blood where he says that the fourth man was killed. So two diplomats and the ambassador were killed in the consulate, one more at the accommodation compound.

He also says that the security guys in the accommodation compound managed - they sort of turned it into an Alamo. They managed to fend off the attack, and then at about dawn, security forces finally turned up. And obviously if this is true, then the Libyans have to explain why the army spent seven hours waiting before it intervened.

CONAN: And how these attacking forces had amassed quite so much firepower as to sustain these attacks for hours.

STEPHEN: Yeah, there's a great deal of - I mean, there are a lot of weapons in this country, and there are an awful lot of militias. But what I'm being told in Benghazi is everyone's pretty sure who are behind it, and the are jihadist militias, some of them based in Benghazi and some based in other towns nearby.

And it's been, you know, a source of great tension among - between the people here and the jihadists, who kind of want them out. And, you know, the popular feeling here is there's a lot of regret. There have been demonstrations in favor of America. There were two last night, and there's going to be another one tonight.

And people are desperate for the government to take action. They say that the government knows who these jihadists are and that they should, you know, take a firm hand.

CONAN: And the government, at least according to people in other parts of Libya, has, if anything, favored Benghazi.

STEPHEN: Favored Benghazi or favored the jihadists?

CONAN: Favored Benghazi as a regional area.

STEPHEN: Well, actually what one hears is the opposite, that under Gadhafi that Benghazi was neglected. And local people here say yes, a lot of the government are from Benghazi, but so far, they haven't seen much sign of any sort of help. And again, security is the key here because, you know, you have these jihadists who seem to have carte blanche.

I mean, two weeks ago, jihadists in Tripoli destroyed the Sufi mosque with a bulldozer, and the security forces, instead of stopping it, actually stopped protesters from getting involved and tried to arrest journalists. So one has the feeling that these jihadists, while perhaps not very large in numbers, that they seem to have sort of carte blanche.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we're going to begin with - if we can get the button pushed - there we go. Judith(ph) is on the line with us from Chico in California.

JUDITH: Yes, it's my understanding that eight were killed, eight - Liberians - Libyans were killed defending the American consulate. And very few news coverage that I've been hearing is mentioning that. And I think it's an important point to mention that people died trying to protect the Americans.

CONAN: You mentioned that earlier in your reporting, Christopher Stephen. Is the number correct, eight?

STEPHEN: It's - well, eight wounded is what the hospital director to me. One of them was operated on today. The other seven have been released. There are no reports of any deaths. But I think your caller raises an important thing, that the Libyan guards fought, seem to have fought quite bravely to protect their American diplomats.

I mean, there was a sustained battle, and eight of the 12 guards were wounded in this battle, and I think as your caller says, you know, I don't think one can say that this is a jihadist country. If anything, it's quite the opposite. And, you know, the reaction in Benghazi is aghast at what's happened.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Judith.

JUDITH: OK, and I appreciate you covering that because like I say, I think it's critical for Americans to hear that. Thank you.

CONAN: And these jihadist elements, we hear the word Salafi. Explain to us what that means in the Libyan context.

STEPHEN: Salafi is basically a Sunni Muslim who is a very sort of absolutist, who believes in a very strict interpretation of Islam and the Salafi elements, that's why they attack the Sufi mosques because the Sufis, although they're Sunnis, they inter saints and priests who die in their mosques. And the Salafis believe that's a sin.

Now on the other hand, if you talk to the average Libyan, they will say yes, we don't agree with what the Sufis do, but we also don't think that you should blow up the mosques as a punishment. And I think there is this great fear here that the Salafi strain, that by terrorizing people, it will turn the West against them, it will stop business, it will complicate government, and then you'll have the very scenario that the Salafis want: You'll have chaos and war and no business and no progress and no schools, and it sort of plays into their hand.

CONAN: Christopher Stephen, thank you very much for your time today.

STEPHEN: Thank you, it's a pleasure.

CONAN: Christopher Stephen, Libya correspondent for The Guardian, he joined us by phone from Benghazi. As we often do when we talk about events in Libya, we turn now to George Joffe, research fellow and lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. He specializes in the Middle East and North Africa, with us by - from a studio at the BBC in Cambridge. Nice to have you with us again.

GEORGE JOFFE: It's very nice to be back.

CONAN: And these attacks serve as a reminder that post-Gadhafi Libya is still a very dangerous place and that there is - well, to say that there's a well-organized central government would be an exaggeration.

JOFFE: I'm afraid that's true, and it's one of the problems, in fact, that exists now in Libya. They've had elections. They've got a new government that's just been appointed. But the one thing they can't do is to guarantee that in effect, the government can guarantee security.

There's still around 350 different militias occupying the towns of the country and providing what security there is. And although the government's made three different attempts to try to improve that, they haven't yet succeeded. And given that, the situation is bound to be very precarious, and it gives an opportunity to extremist groups of the kind that clearly were operating in Benghazi to seize opportunities to push their arguments, their case and their activities.

CONAN: These 350 different armed militias, how do they break down? Are these different religious factions, for example Salafis? Are they tribal? Are they loyal to individuals?

JOFFE: They cover all three areas and a few more besides. Most of them arise from a geographic location. They formed spontaneously during the early stages of the civil war. Some of them became very powerful. The military in Misrata, for example, and that in Zintan too, both in Tripolitania, close to Tripoli. Others were based on religious configurations.

There were, particularly around Benghazi, a series of militias that developed that were derived from the old Libyan Islamic fighting groups. And although the members of those groups had been arrested, and been imprisoned, and they'd renounced (unintelligible) violence, nonetheless in the context of the civil war, some of them came together again and re-formed. They form another group.

Then there are other groups that do have a certain tribal content, but they tend to be linked into particular currents in the political scene in Libya and as such really operate on a geographic basis.

CONAN: And Zintan, you mentioned, this has turned out to be a quite important place. This is where one of Colonel Gadhafi's sons, for example, is going to be standing trial.

JOFFE: You're quite right. Saif al-Islam was arrested by part of a Zintani militia in the deep south of Libya, and that shows you the scope that some of the militias now have. And he's been held in Zintan ever since, despite demands by the International Criminal Court for him to be handed over to them for trial as a result of a United Nations resolution empowering them to do so and despite the fact that the Libyan government itself wishes to actually conduct the trial.

And as a result, it's open to some doubt as to whether he's going to receive a trial which would be really fair. And that's a measure, indeed, of the fragmentation of the security scene inside Libya today.

CONAN: We're talking about what happened in Libya on Tuesday. We'll also be bringing up later what happened in Egypt and also what didn't happen in Egypt and discuss where we go from here. If you have questions, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from NPR West in Culver City, California. And we're talking about the events that happened on Tuesday in Benghazi, Tripoli and - excuse me, Benghazi, Libya; and also earlier that day in Egypt, those events apparently, at least in some places, in response to a film broadcast on YouTube, a trailer of an anti-Islamic diatribe.

And that film has prompted all sorts of reactions around the world: Who exactly made it; what for; and who is going to be held responsible, if that's going to be possible. Well, those are questions that remain to be answered. We're doing what we can to answer questions about what happened in North Africa on Tuesday and what that may mean for the United States and for the region.

Our guest is George Joffe, research fellow and lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, with us from a studio at the BBC in Cambridge in England. And George Joffe, as you look at this fragmentation, as you described it, of what's been - of the previous Gadhafi policy in Libya, this shattering has occurred not just in Libya but has affected many other regions of North Africa.

JOFFE: Well, it's true that the aftermath of the Arab spring has been very difficult to accommodate for many of the regimes that have now emerged, but nowhere is quite like Libya. Nowhere has seen the actual core institutions of the state collapse to the degree that they have in Libya, particularly security institutions. That's not been the case in Tunisia, and despite the difficulties that the new government in Egypt has had, it's not been the case in Egypt either.

But Libya has been quite peculiar in this respect, and it reflects the fact, I think, of the way in which the civil war there emerged and developed because it was fought on a local basis, because NATO could not intervene on the ground and because it went on for so long. The only way of responding to the violence of the Gadhafi regime itself was through these local militias.

And given the fact that in Libya, too, there were an enormous amount of armaments and weapons and that they became released to the general population, partly by the Gadhafi regime itself, that's only fed the chaos and the fragmentation that's occurred.

CONAN: And some of those previous Gadhafi elements have also fled the country, creating difficulties, indeed a really bad situation in neighboring Mali.

JOFFE: Well yes and no. The - what's actually happened in Mali is slightly different, I think. There, a Tuareg group, which is a desert tribe that had been recruited by the Gadhafi regime, returned back to Mali after the collapse of the Gadhafi regime itself and then created problems in a region which is already very unstable, where there were already other groups operating. So in a sense, I think that's a sideshow.

What's much more important, I think, is the way in which the Gadhafi regime quite deliberately - and this might recall for you what happened in Iraq under Saddam Hussein when the United States invaded - made sure that the weapons became freely available. It knew that chaos would ensue, and that's exactly what has happened.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to - I'm just having difficulties here. Let's go to Amy(ph), and Amy's with us from Springfield, Massachusetts.

AMY: Thank you for taking my call. So I ask this question in the name of fallen journalist and family friends Marie Colvin, whose mother Rosemary(ph) asked on CNN (unintelligible) choose to stop the killing. Do we see any way of being able to seek, to seek being able to communicate about things before we go first to killing. You know, was this video appropriate? Of course not. Has it been clear who even made it? Of course not. Has it been represented? Absolutely. Has it caused chaos and drama, which is probably what the people who made it intended? Absolutely.

How can we seek to find solutions before trying to kill people because we're angry? That is my question, sir.

CONAN: And I assume by who, you mean who on both sides or all sides of this.

AMY: All of us. How can we - you know, is there a way to shift the consciousness of the people involved to look and say wait a second, is this real because there was killing that was happening and incitement to riot before we even knew who did it, why they did it. Anyone can post anything on the Internet.

CONAN: George Joffe, let's - there's very broad questions there. We can focus perhaps on that last one, and that is we in the West find it difficult to understand why an amateurish movie trailer, 14 minutes long, that very, very few people had ever heard of suddenly becomes such a cause celebre.

JOFFE: Well, don't forget it went viral on the Internet, and that was the real problem. And also one has to remember that for Muslims the idea of mocking their religion in the terms that are used is profoundly insulting. So I'm not really surprised that there have been demonstrations against it. And don't forget, if you go back over the years, there was the case of Salman Rushdie way back in the 1980s. There was the Danish cartoons crisis, the Norwegian crisis.

This has been a repeated phenomenon that there's a lot of resentment in the Muslim world at ways in which people have tried to lampoon or misrepresent Islam inside the developed world itself.

But I think there's something else here that one needs to bear in mind. We're assuming that the killing of the American ambassador and his colleagues in Benghazi was in fact the consequence of this film, and that's by no means clear. Let me just remind you that President Obama's administration today announced that it was investigating other possibilities because it wasn't convinced that in fact that was the real cause in the context of Libya at least.

And I think that's quite important to bear in mind because there are some very complicated stories inside Benghazi and inside eastern Libya that might have a quite different explanation.

CONAN: Libyan officials have told U.S. officials that they have four men in custody. U.S. officials have not seen them as yet or verified whether these suspects were involved in the incident in Benghazi. But at least some arrests have been reported from Libya in this investigation. Again, we're hearing that FBI experts are on their way to Benghazi. U.S. Marines showed up today in Tripoli to bolster security there. U.S. warships are over the horizon to provide whether assets they may be able to contribute, including drones to overlook and collect intelligence.

But George Joffe, there's another element here, and that is that people who have lived under systems where there is only state media for so many decades find it difficult to understand a situation where a report, even this kind of film, is not authorized by the government.

JOFFE: Well, it's a very good point. And in fact yesterday inside Benghazi, a woman who was stopped in the street and asked why she thought this had occurred said you have to understand we have no experience of dealing with criticism, and I'm afraid we react with violence. We need to learn. We need time to learn.

And I think there's a lot of truth in that. But I don't think today in Libya people only assume that things come from the government. There is an extraordinarily vital media scene in Libya that's developed very quickly, as indeed it did in Iraq, as well.

The real problem, I think, is different. It is the assumption that there is a fundamental hostility towards Islam that emerges from Europe, from the United States, and the people inside the Muslim world have become convinced of that. And that coupled with the increasing extremism that's voiced there, and the Salafi movement has become a very significant movement over the whole of the region, even as far as Pakistan, gives us an explanation, I think, as to why these violent reactions occur.

It's worth bearing in mind that in the case of Tunisia, where there were demonstrations yesterday, the number of people actually involved was only about 50 or 60. In the case of the demonstrations in Cairo, the crowd involved there was certainly numbered in the hundreds, but that's out of a population in the city of 10 million or so.

It's only in Benghazi where the violence was so extreme, and for that, I think there are very good local reasons.

CONAN: Joining us now is Trudy Rubin, the foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In her column today, she lays out a number of steps the U.S. should take and joins us by phone from Philadelphia. Nice to have you with us today.

TRUDY RUBIN: Very good to be here.

CONAN: And one of the questions you ask in your column is about how the U.S. should be approaching the governments of Libya and the government of Egypt, which are obligated under international law to protect diplomatic facilities. In Libya, the consulate in Benghazi and the relative chaos seems to be a different situation.

RUBIN: Yes, I think Libya has more prospects for cooperation. After all, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, Libya's new leaders apologized for Tuesday's violence. And moreover, Libya's voters rejected Islamist parties in their first elections.

But their institutions are painfully weak, and so obviously there's room there for us to try to work with their security forces, train them, use intelligence and go after the people who did this and try to help them to deal with the many militias that still roam around in the aftermath of the collapse of the regime and state that Gadhafi had put in place for so many years.

CONAN: But in Egypt, you find the explanation rather, well, more awkward because the same kind of condemnation has not come from the Egyptian government nor did Egyptian forces try to protect the American Embassy in Cairo the way the Libyans did in Benghazi.

RUBIN: Yes. Egypt is clearly a much bigger problem. It's a more important country. It's pivotal in the region. They have a government headed by a man who comes from the Muslim Brotherhood and whose party is really just one step removed from the brotherhood. And many people say that he's pressed by Salafis, hard-lined Islamists on the right. But the problem is if he caves in to them or behaves like them, then the distinction that the U.S. government has tried to make between the Muslim Brotherhood candidate and the harder-lined Islamist Party fails to exist. So I think we have to be very direct in private conversations with President Morsi and tell him he can't have it both ways.

CONAN: And, George Joffe, that brings us back to the Salafists, an element in Libya and indeed an element in Egypt as well.

JOFFE: Oh, yes, indeed, they are. And I think it's true that President Morsi is very concerned about the effect of the Salafi parties on the way in which the Muslim Brotherhood's own party can actually operate inside the government in Egypt. But, again, actually, President Morsi did offer an apology for what had occurred, although he did qualify it by pointing out that the film itself should not have been allowed. The Egyptians are well-aware of the problem, and they're anxious not to offend the United States.

They've just received a $1 billion debt forgiveness package from the United States. They've received aid worth some $3 billion this year. There's another two billion lined up for next year. They know they depend on the relationship with the United States. But even the changes in the Egyptian government in August when the SCAF gave way to President Morsi indicated their desire to maintain good relations. And don't forget too that in Sinai, President Morsi, despite his Muslim Brotherhood connection, has gone out of his way to make sure that the security dimensions of the Israeli-Egypt treaty have been observed, and that's been at some cost to the Egyptian army.

CONAN: Trudy Rubin...

RUBIN: (Unintelligible)...

CONAN: Go ahead.

RUBIN: Well, I was going to say in actual effect, I think that President Morsi has been much more equivocal. After all, a spokesman from the Muslim Brotherhood, which really is not that far removed from the government at all, called for a one-million-men demonstration tomorrow which extremists will be sure to try to abuse. And he didn't apologize. He said that the violence was wrong, and, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman has called for a peaceful demonstration, but that doesn't really answer the question.

If Morsi feels a barrage from this pressure to play to the right, then all kinds of bad things could result, and it's very hard to ask for two billion in U.S. aid after investment from businessmen, after a delegation of U.S. businessmen was in Cairo right before this happened, asked the U.S. for help with IMF loans, if you really are in a way playing to the crowd and unwilling to take a very clear stand against this violence which he has not done. And also, it's clear that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership don't really understand the free speech issue.

They don't understand or they don't make clear to their own people is that the U.S. Constitution protects free speech in a different way and perhaps that's because free speech is under attack in Egypt. After all, on Wednesday, an Egyptian court cleared a famous Egyptian actor of charges that he defamed Islam by putting a terrorist in a movie, and many similar cases are pending.

CONAN: Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Also with us is George Joffe, research fellow and lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Mark(ph) on the line. Mark with us from Columbus.

MARK: Hello. I'm calling in because I have two - one quick point and one question. I just wanted to bring up that if - it seems to me the consensus that Muslims don't, quote and unquote, "understand" our concept of free speech. My parents are from - are Christians from the Middle East, from an Islamic country, and that may be the case. But if that is the case, my question for the panel is, is it possible for us to engage on the international level in some kind of dialogue of civilizations to emphasize why we have free speech, how it's important to our values? And second thing, a question, I guess, if you have time for that one, is, was this really worth it, the intervention in Libya, could we have avoided all these problems?

CONAN: Thanks very much, Mark. And I'm not sure the dialogue of civilizations, but, George Joffe, any way to answer the question about whether the intervention in Libya was worth it?

JOFFE: Well, that's a question of how you evaluate your relationships with the wider world. It seems to me that the Gadhafi regime was a regime which was potentially as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the situation that seems to have developed. And indeed, the change in Libya as a result of the removal of the Gadhafi regime must be (unintelligible) to the benefit of all of us because a major potential source of danger has been removed. The fact that there is chaos in Libya at the moment, the fact that security can't yet be guaranteed should be just a temporary situation, one that the new government will have to come to terms with and will have to dominate...

CONAN: And that's why - I just want to - I don't mean to cut you off, but I want to give Trudy Rubin a chance to answer the same question before we run out of time.

RUBIN: I think that - and I - there really was no avoiding getting involved in the Libyan issue just as inevitably we'll be involved in the Syrians. There's a sort of flow in history. Dictators that have been in place for 40 years, their regimes get brittle. The street has been activated in the Arab world, and I think there's a certain inevitability. The problem is that whether we do get involved or we don't get involved, these dictators are going to fall, and the situation that emerges after is going to be complex, diffuse and also troubling to us. The Islamists are better organized than liberals. So in the Libyan case, I think they probably did the right thing, and they need someone to help them. They do have money from oil, but helping doesn't guarantee we'll be thanked.

CONAN: Trudy Rubin, thank you very much for your time today. Our thanks as well to George Joffe who joins us, well, whenever you usually have questions about Libya. And consensus about Muslims don't value freedom of speech, that's a hard word to throw around. The Muslim world is very, very large. Stay with us. We'll be exploring another part of it when we talk about Jordan and Syria next. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.