Now that the election is behind us, perhaps we can put politics aside and acknowledge a hard fact: On September 11, 2012, America was defeated by al-Qaeda in the Battle of Benghazi.
About this battle many questions remain. The media and Congress have a responsibility to get answers — not only because we should know the truth, not only to assign blame, but, more important, to learn from failure. At the least, we should try to understand what lessons our enemies have learned — because they will apply those lessons in the future.
It is possible to lose many battles and still win a war. It is possible to win many battles and still lose a war. What is perilous is to misunderstand your enemies and underestimate the threats they pose. This was the case prior to September 11, 2001, as Condoleezza Rice candidly admitted to the 9/11 Commission in 2004. “The terrorists were at war with us,” she said, “but we were not yet at war with them.”
On September 11, 2012, the situation was similar. Peter Bergen, a director of the New America Foundation and CNN’s national-security analyst, had been saying for months that al-Qaeda was “defeated,” a thesis endorsed by, among others, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lynch III (retired), a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University. President Obama made this claim a central theme of his reelection campaign. Post-Benghazi, in his final stump speech in Des Moines, he reassured voters that “the war in Iraq has ended, the war in Afghanistan is ending. Osama bin Laden is dead!”
But, in Afghanistan, we have not broken the Taliban; in Iraq, al-Qaeda has been increasing the tempo of its suicide attacks; in Syria, al-Qaeda is playing an increasingly significant role in the civil war; in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is far from beaten; in Mali, al-Qaeda has taken control of vast territories; in Iran, a regime whose ideology is no less anti-American than al-Qaeda’s continues to develop nuclear weapons despite tightening sanctions.
According to the New York Times, in the months leading up to the “attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the Obama administration received intelligence reports that Islamic extremist groups were operating training camps in the mountains near Benghazi and that some of the fighters were ‘Al-Qaeda leaning.’”
That’s an oddly tentative way to refer to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an al-Qaeda affiliate; Ansar al-Sharia, recently described by U.S government researchers as a group that “has increasingly embodied al-Qaeda’s presence in Libya”; and the Muhammad Jamal network, which openly defends al-Qaeda and, to quote Jamal himself, “all jihad movements in the world.” These three groups were primary participants in the Benghazi attacks, American officials have said.
AFRICOM, the American regional combatant command for Africa, established in 2007, had drones monitoring the terrorist training camps. But those drones were unarmed, as were the drones at the Sigonella naval air station in Sicily, a short flight from Benghazi. Had there been armed drones to deploy, would it have made a difference? Perhaps: According to Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin, who has done some of the best reporting on this story, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty had laser rangefinders on the roof of the building where they were attempting to hold out against the terrorists. Using those rangefinders, they had pinpointed the coordinates of the mortars firing at them and requested air support. That support never arrived, and, eventually, mortars struck the roof, killing both men.
Benghazi has been a battlefield at least since June, when the British closed their mission in the city after their ambassador’s convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. About the same time — following two additional attacks — the Red Cross shut down its Benghazi operations.
What’s to stop “al-Qaeda leaning” groups from replicating the Benghazi model elsewhere? What can be done to prevent jihadist training camps from springing up like weeds across North Africa and the broader Middle East and training wave after wave of bomb makers, suicide-bombers, and guerrillas? Are these threats being taken seriously?
I’m not confident. In last Sunday’s Washington Post, Greg Jaffe, a longtime military-affairs correspondent, contends that “the United States — and the world — have never been safer.” He points out that since 9/11/01 more Americans have been crushed “by falling furniture or televisions” than killed by terrorists, and that there are “fewer wars now than at any time in decades.”
Jaffe quotes Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who suggests that those who do not see it that way are deluded. Pinker tells Jaffe: “A historical peculiarity of the U.S., compared to Europe, is a ‘culture of honor,’ in which a man has to defend himself against threats and insults.”
Oh, right — you see that macho culture all over such places as Cambridge and Berkeley, and what a stark contrast it is with those live-and-let-live, turn-the-other-cheek types one encounters in Egypt, Turkey, Prussia, and Sicily!
I’m reminded of the New York Times op-ed by Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA and State Department counterterrorism official, asserting — two months before 9/11/01 — that terrorism was not “becoming more widespread and lethal.” Also wrong, he said, was the “impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.” Around the same time, former Illinois congressman Paul Findley called Osama bin Laden “one of the preeminent heroes of Afghans, occupying a role similar to the Marquis de Lafayette” during the American Revolution.
The controversy over Benghazi initially focused on the mischaracterization of the September 11, 2012, attacks as a protest against “Islamophobia” that spun out of control. Next, it became a debate over who should be blamed for what was clearly an inadequate response. Increasingly, however, it appears that insufficient preparation made impotence inevitable. And the cause of that may be this simple: Too many otherwise smart and powerful people can’t come to terms with the reality that a serious, if unconventional, war is being waged — a war that has not ended and will not end any time soon.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.