Why Did U.S. Security Fail in Benghazi?
by Stephen Schwartz
The failure of American officials to protect adequately these martyrs to the ideals of freedom has attracted considerable comment. At first, controversy over the Benghazi affair focused on whether the death of the four Americans should be blamed on a lowest-of-the-low-budget video feature lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, contrived in the U.S. and advertised on YouTube. The so-called cinema product, allegedly titled "Innocence of Muslims," was never viewed, apparently, by a theatre audience exceeding a dozen or so people, and then only once. Yet its online trailer led to demonstrations in many countries, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and numerous deaths. In this version of the events, America was faulted implicitly for allowing one of its citizens or residents to provoke Muslim sensitivities. The Obama administration seemed to accept such an interpretation by denouncing the video ardently, regardless of American constitutional protection of free expression.
A counter-narrative emerged quickly, in which the video appeared as a pretext for an anti-American raid that had been planned by fundamentalist Wahhabi incendiaries in Libya long before the video was publicized. The onus for the deaths of Stevens and his colleagues shifted from allegations of bias against Islam among Americans to charges of American government cluelessness about terrorism. Official memoranda and other evidence indicated that warnings of radical Islamist activities and likely threats to Americans in Benghazi were ignored or played down. The Obama administration was accused of preventing American personnel from acting consequentially to defend the consulate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was compelled to assume public responsibility for the deaths of Stevens and his colleagues.
As the common saying has it, "the devil is in the details." In this instance, one might argue that the details of the bigger Libyan picture were more important than those of the immediate situation in Benghazi. While high American personnel may have learned of indications of impending trouble and chosen to minimize their importance, that alone, although worthy of condemnation, may take second place to myopia about the general situation in Libya.
In July, Libya held its first free election since removal of dictator Mu'ammar Al-Qadhdhafi, and the radical Muslim Brotherhood (MB), acting through its local political front, the Justice and Construction party, was soundly repudiated. This outcome differed significantly from the victories of MB parties in Egypt (the Freedom and Justice party or FJP) and Tunisia (the Rebirth party), as well as the success of the MB's Moroccan counterpart, the Justice and Development party.
The Egyptian MB's FJP gained an electoral majority (51.7 percent) needed to form a government under the country's new president, Mohamed Morsi. In Tunisia its slate won a plurality of votes (37 percent), and its "external" leader, Hamadi Jabali, became prime minister. (The new Tunisian government is directed from behind the scenes by the secretary-general of the Rebirth party, Rashid Al-Ghannoushi.) Morocco's MB political entity attained the largest legislative delegation at that country's polls, with 107 of 395 seats, although falling short of the 198 seats required to constitute a majority, and its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, was appointed prime minister. Nonetheless, the political standing of the MB in Morocco, which has a strong and popular monarchy under King Muhammad VI, is restricted when compared with that in Egypt and Tunisia.
The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya had two effects, good and bad. The benign aspect was that Libya appeared to be the only country among those marked by the recent Arab upheaval to repudiate the rise of Islamist leadership. The problematical element was that the frustration of the MB and its party contributed to continuing instability in the country. This and other outcomes should have been anticipated.
Libya was arguably the most promising among the Arab countries in its potential for democratic rule without Islamist shadings, and the role of the NATO alliance in the overthrow of Al-Qadhdhafi influenced its people favorably toward the West. In addition, Libya has a small population of only 6.4 million, compared with 84 million Egyptians, 35 million Moroccans, and 10 million Tunisians. Libya is rich in energy assets, with, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, at 47 billion barrels. The main customer for its oil exports has been Italy, which buys 27 percent of its product.
Further on the negative side, gratitude among the Libyan people for NATO help in expelling Al-Qadhdhafi from power and the rejection by Libyans of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis at the ballot box may have distorted the Obama administration's necessary mission of monitoring Islamist intrigues in the newly-freed country. The lack of enthusiasm for radical Islam among Libyans might have diminished perceptions of a threat and therefore made operations by terrorists easier. U.S. and other foreign observers failed to take into account the rage of Libyan Wahhabis, which was directed almost immediately after the July elections against a pillar of Libyan Muslim culture, the spiritual Sufi orders.
Libya is an important land in the history of Islamic metaphysics; its pre-Qadhdhafi King Idris, who lived from 1889 to 1983 and was monarch from 1951 until his overthrow by Al-Qadhdhafi in 1969, was head of the Senussi Sufis, and known as "the Sufi king." The Senussi Sufis are a branch of the Idrisi Sufis, founded by the Moroccan Ahmad Ibn Idris (1760-1837). One of the most significant figures in recent Islamic thought, Ahmad Ibn Idris was an outspoken opponent of the Wahhabi movement, who travelled to Arabia to dispute with the Wahhabi preachers, though he was driven away by the fundamentalists. The Senussi Sufis who founded the Libyan monarchy exemplify moderation and modernization of Islamic thought, and reject domination by narrow-minded clerics.
The Libyan Sufis (whose anti-Wahhabi influence extends to the Horn of Africa) were prominent in the national independence struggle against Italy, which occupied Libya from 1911 to 1943. Nevertheless, the Sufi legacy in Libya is hated by Wahhabis with a ferocity that exceeds their abhorrence of sympathy for the West. Wahhabis allege that by praising outstanding Sufis, praying at their graves and those of other distinguished Muslims, and erecting tombs and mosques honoring them, the mystical devotees have diluted Islamic worship of God alone, and must be considered apostates meriting death. Wahhabi and related fanatics have assaulted Sufi shrines across South Asia and in Iraq repeatedly in the past decade. Since the overturn of successive Arab governments, this frenzy has swept North Africa, reaching southward to Mali and west to Morocco.
In this, the North African Wahhabis imitate their inspirers and financial backers in Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the state sect and the architectural legacy of early Islam has been systematically devastated. The pretext for Saudi demolition of Islamic heritage is consistent both inside their Arabian dominion and among foreign Wahhabi adherents: preservation of tombs and historic mosques, and praise of those buried in them, allegedly encourages polytheism.
That, I would emphasize, was the bigger part of the Libyan picture that American diplomatic and intelligence officials overlooked. The Sufis are more than representatives, for the most part, of pluralism within Islam and respect for other religions, the characteristics for which they are best known. It must be admitted that some Sufis are authoritarian, shariah-centric, and jihadist. Other Sufis, and especially the Bektashi Sufis, whose traditions are shared from the Balkans to Iranian Kurdistan, are notable for their commitment to secular governance, rejection of shariah-based public law, emphasis on mass literacy and modern education, and advancement of gender equality.
Crucially, the Sufis serve as the bellwether of internal conditions within the Muslim communities. Where the Sufis are forced to defend themselves, violent fundamentalism has taken the initiative, and worse crimes are destined to follow. In Sunni Muslim territories, when the Sufis come under fire, they will soon be followed as victims by Shia Muslims, members of heterodox minorities like the Turkish and Kurdish Alevi Muslims, conventional Muslims deemed insufficiently pious for failing to follow Wahhabi strictures, liberals, and non-Muslims. Non-conformist Sufis are similarly repressed under the Iranian theocratic regime, notwithstanding the prominence of Sufism in Iranian culture and history.
Wahhabi aggression against the Sufis in Libya continued through the 12 months after the first acts of vandalism at the Al-Masry site in Tripoli. In November 2011, the Sidi Nasr shrine and mosque in Tripoli was damaged similarly, again with disinterment of the remains of distinguished Muslim scholars. In January 2012 Wahhabis wrecked the cemetery of Sidi Ubaid in Benghazi, stealing 31 corpses. Three months later, the shrine of the 15th-16th century C.E. Sufi Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri, at Zliten in western Libya, was targeted by a hundred carloads of armed Wahhabis, who, according to the Libya Herald, a post-revolutionary media source, said they were guided by Muhammad Al-Luhaidan, a notorious Saudi Wahhabi bigot. The Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri memorial was protected on that occasion by local inhabitants and armed militia.
On August 24, 2012, two weeks before the homicidal incursion at the American consulate in Benghazi, Wahhabis attempted to complete their campaign against the Sidi Al-Asmar Al-Fituri shrine in Zliten, firing on it with mortars. They damaged the building's façade and the mosque associated with it, and the library of an Islamic school named for him, the University of Al-Asmari. Thousands of books were burned in the university library. The next day, August 25, Wahhabis destroyed another distinguished Libyan Sufi site, the Abdallah Al-Shaab mausoleum in Tripoli, using two bulldozers. On August 25, Wahhabis also completed razing of the shrine of Sidi Al-Masry in Tripoli, and wrecked the mausoleum of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Zarruq in Misrata.
In Libya, the Wahhabis had carried out a rampage against the Sufis, a prominent component of the national patrimony, with the probable complicity of factions in the new Libyan transitional government. In an orgy of triumphalism after this wave of annihilation, the Wahhabis could hardly be expected to draw back from an onslaught against American diplomats, particularly on the anniversary of the Al-Qaida atrocities of September 11, 2001. If the terrorists heard about the anti-Islam video concocted in the U.S., it was as a minor footnote.
That was the key factor American representatives in Libya missed: that everywhere the Sufis are besieged, Wahhabis and other fundamentalists soon aim at others they hate, with Americans at the head of their roster of non-Muslim victims. A straight line could be and should be drawn, from the desecration of Sufi tombs in 2011 to the death of the American ambassador, John Christopher Stevens, a year later.
Western politicians, military commanders, and so-called experts have grown accustomed to disregarding the importance of the Sufis in Muslim countries – and especially in the war against radical Islam. That has been a major error. The Sufis cannot be treated as Western servants against Islamist extremism. They and their fate are, however, irreplaceably essential in the strategic protection of Muslim communities facing subversion by extremists, from Morocco to India.