Earlier this week, Roger L. Simon of PJ Media broke a story with shocking revelations, contending that slain U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens was in Benghazi on September 11 to buy back Stinger missiles from al-Qaeda groups that had been originally provided to them by the U.S. State Department.
Simon cited two former U.S. diplomats:
Stevens’ mission in Benghazi, they will say, was to buy back Stinger missiles from al-Qaeda groups issued to them by the State Department, not by the CIA. Such a mission would usually be a CIA effort, but the intelligence agency had opposed the idea because of the high risk involved in arming “insurgents” with powerful weapons that endanger civilian aircraft.
Hillary Clinton still wanted to proceed because, in part, as one of the diplomats said, she wanted “to overthrow [Qaddafi] on the cheap.”
This left Stevens in the position of having to clean up the scandalous enterprise when it became clear that the “insurgents” actually were al-Qaeda — indeed, in the view of one of the diplomats, the same group that attacked the consulate and ended up killing Stevens.
A careful review of reports from Libya over the past few years corroborates some parts of that account, but contradicts others:
Some Libyan rebel leaders, including at least one who had spent time in a training camp in Afghanistan and who was in that country in September 2001, specifically asked Western countries to send Stinger missiles.
Qaddafi’s intelligence services believed that the rebels were having the missiles smuggled in over the country’s southern border — but they believed the French were supplying the missiles.
There is no evidence that the U.S. supplied the weapons, but it appears they gave their blessing to a secret Qatari effort to ship arms across Libya’s southern border in violation of a United Nations arms embargo.
Anti-Qaddafi forces also obtained a significant number of anti-aircraft missiles from the regime’s bunkers early in the conflict.
Enough Stinger missiles disappeared from regime stockpiles during the civil war to become a high priority and serious worry for the administration.
(Note that in much of the coverage of Libya, “Stinger” has turned into a catch-all term for any shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missile.)
To save Eric Holder and the Department of Justice the trouble of reading my e-mail or collecting my phone records, all of the information in this report is gathered from public and open sources, both in the U.S. and overseas, and none of it can be considered classified or sensitive.
Before the war, Qaddafi’s regime in Libya possessed more of these kinds of missiles than did any other country except where they’re produced. On April 7, 2011, General Carter Ham, then recently promoted to head of U.S. Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we do estimate that there were as many as 20,000 of these types of weapons in Libya before the conflict began.”
In March 2011, Ambassador Chris Stevens became the official U.S. liaison to the Libyan opposition. He first entered Benghazi on April 5, 2011, joined by a USAID team, while the war was still raging, to meet with rebel leaders.
On March 2, 2011, Mike Elkin of Wired reported as rebel forces cleaned out the Salmani weapons-maintenance depot in Benghazi, and mentioned “30-year-old rockets” and “anti-aircraft weapons.”
Ben Knight, a foreign correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Company, said on a program a few days later (March 7, 2011) that the rebels had shown him Stinger missiles:
TONY EASTLEY: And I guess on top of that, Ben, the rebels really are not as well armed as the government forces?
BEN KNIGHT: Well, clearly not. . . . What they do have we saw some Stinger missiles today, which are missiles that are capable of locking onto a jet fighter and shooting it down. In fact, they are claiming to have shot down another jet fighter today as well as another helicopter.
By July 2011, C. J. Chivers of the New York Times reported on more anti-aircraft missiles’ being removed from storage bunkers in Ga’a, Libya:
On a recent day, 43 emptied wooden crates — long, thin and painted in dark green — had been left behind on the sand inside the entrance. The boxes had not been there during a visit to the same spot a few days before, and the weapons were gone.
The stenciled markings showed each crate had contained a pair of lightweight missiles called SA-7s — early Soviet versions of the same class of weapon as the better known American-made Stingers, which were used by Afghan fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It was not clear who had taken them. The rebel guards variously blamed Qaddafi forces and misinformed opposition fighters.
Interviews with anti-Qaddafi leaders at the time indicated that one of their top priorities was obtaining anti-aircraft missiles. In light of the PJ Media report’s claims, one of the most intriguing reports from this time period is a March 11, 2011, Canadian Globe and Mail article that interviewed insurgent leader Abdul Hakim Al-Hasadi:
“We need Stingers,” he said, referring to shoulder-mounted missiles. “We don’t need your stupid words.” . . .
Abdul Hakim Al-Hasadi, 45, [was] recently appointed chief of security in the rebel-controlled town of Darnah. Al-Hasadi says he taught history and geography at a local high school until 1995, when he escaped Libya and spent a few years travelling. He finally settled in Afghanistan in 1999. He acknowledged that he lived in a camp and received training in guerrilla warfare, but would not say who controlled the facility.
The rebel commander said he witnessed the awe-inspiring power of U.S. air strikes when bombs hit Taliban and al-Qaeda positions in 2001. “We felt extreme rage,” he said. “They were killing women and children. It made us hate the United States.”
Hasadi was detained as a hostile combatant by U.S. forces in 2002, according to an interview he gave with an Italian newspaper: “I’ve never been in Guantanamo. I was captured in 2002 in Peshawar, Pakistan, while returning from Afghanistan where I fought against foreign invasion. I was handed over to the Americans, held a few months in Islamabad, delivered to Libya, and released in 2008.”
Hasadi was not the only rebel leader imploring the West for Stinger missiles. A March 23, 2011, Reuters report quoted Fawzi Buktif, described as “an oil project engineer” then running “a training base outside Benghazi,” as saying, “We need Kalashnikovs, stingers, anti-tanks, all types of anti-tanks.”
Despite all the focus on anti-aircraft missiles, the Libyan Air Force ceased to be a significant factor in the war in March 2011. The United Kingdom’s Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell declared March 23 that the Libyan Air Force “no longer exists as a fighting force” and that NATO forces now flew over Libyan airspace “with impunity.”
Despite Libya being awash in anti-aircraft missiles, not many were fired at NATO aircraft:
A senior U.S. military officer who follows Libya closely said it was puzzling that there had been so few documented instances in which Libyan loyalist troops launched shoulder-fired missiles at NATO aircraft.
“I’m not sure what that means,” the officer said. “Fewer systems than we thought? Systems are inoperable? Few in Libya know how to operate them?”
Throughout the war, Qaddafi’s regime believed some outside force was supplying the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons. On September 2, 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s Charles Levinson and Margaret Coker managed to obtain the regime’s intelligence files about the rebellion, recovered from the office of Libya’s spy chief and two other security agencies.
By April, the war was expanding and so was the sense of panic inside Tripoli. Mr. Senussi’s [the Libyan spy chief] office did get apparently credible information, but the news was ominous. The reports suggested that the rebels were exploiting the country’s porous southern borders to receive arms and aid.
One memo contained intercepted phone calls between military commanders in Chad who reported Qatari weapons convoys approaching Libya’s southern border with Sudan, apparently intended for anti-[Qaddafi] forces. Another intelligence memo, dated April 4, warned that French weapons, including Stinger antiaircraft missiles and Milan antitank rockets, were making their way to Libyan rebels via Sudan.
French officials declined to comment on the document’s claims. Qatari officials didn’t return email requests for comment.
These Qatari weapons convoys were, in fact approved by the Obama administration, according to the New York Times:
The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants, according to United States officials and foreign diplomats. . . .
The United States, which had only small numbers of C.I.A. officers in Libya during the tumult of the rebellion, provided little oversight of the arms shipments. Within weeks of endorsing Qatar’s plan to send weapons there in spring 2011, the White House began receiving reports that they were going to Islamic militant groups. They were “more antidemocratic, more hard-line, closer to an extreme version of Islam” than the main rebel alliance in Libya, said a former Defense Department official.
The Times article stated that “no evidence has emerged linking the weapons provided by the Qataris to the Benghazi attack,” although it’s not clear how anyone could determine that for certain without precise, accurate accounts of the Qatari weapons and the weapons used in the Benghazi attack.
The Obama administration’s approval of these arms shipments almost certainly violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970, adopted February 26, 2011, which required all member states to “prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of weapons to any party in Libya.
Qaddafi’s forces sought to restock their supply of these missiles during the conflict. In mid July 2011, his regime met with Chinese officials, seeking to purchase $200 million worth of sophisticated weapons, including portable surface-to-air missiles.
Some number of the missiles, perhaps a significant portion, left the country. At least one foreign-intelligence source stated that branches of al-Qaeda were obtaining surface-to-air missiles in Libya. In April 2011, Reuters quoted an Algerian security official who claimed that al-Qaeda was smuggling missiles out of Libya:
The official said a convoy of eight Toyota pick-up trucks left eastern Libya, crossed into Chad and then Niger, and from there into northern Mali where in the past few days it delivered a cargo of weapons . . . al Qaeda’s north African wing, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had acquired from Libya Russian-made shoulder-fired Strela surface-to-air missiles known by the NATO designation SAM-7.
In October 2011, a Turkish journalist reported that Egyptian security forces had impeded an effort to smuggle Libyan SA-7 missiles through tunnels leading to the Gaza Strip, and expressed fears that the Kurdish separatist group was attempting to obtain them.
Shoulder-mounted missiles were also leaving Libya and ending up in the hands of Somali pirates, according to an April 2012 report:
“We found that Libyan weapons are being sold in what is the world’s biggest black market for illegal gun smugglers, and Somali pirates are among those buying from sellers in Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries,” said Judith van der Merwe, of the Algiers-based African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism.
“We believe our information is credible and know that some of the pirates have acquired ship mines, as well as Stinger and other shoulder-held missile launchers,” Van der Merwe told Reuters on the sidelines of an Indian Ocean naval conference.
By early September 2011, experts on the ground were concluding that “hundreds, if not thousands of surface-to-air missiles were missing,” and Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, was telling foreign correspondents that “if these weapons fall into the wrong hands, all of North Africa will be a no-fly zone.”
By late September, the highest levels of the U.S. government began focusing on the disappearing missiles and the threat they presented. Brian Ross of ABC News:
The White House announced today it planned to expand a program to secure and destroy Libya’s huge stockpile of dangerous surface-to-air missiles, following an ABC News report that large numbers of them continue to be stolen from unguarded military warehouses.
Currently the U.S. State Department has one official on the ground in Libya, as well as five contractors who specialize in “explosive ordinance disposal”, all working with the rebel Transitional National Council to find the looted missiles, White House spokesperson Jay Carney told reporters.
On October 23, 2011, Con Coughlin of the Daily Telegraph reported that the Central Intelligence Agency was on the ground in Libya in the effort to recover the missiles:
Since [Qaddafi]’s regime fell in late August teams of CIA officers, supported by other intelligence services such as Britain’s MI6, have been scouring Libya in search of the missing missiles. Their main target is the thousands of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles [Qaddafi] bought from Moscow during the past decade which, were they to fall into the wrong hands, would pose a massive security risk.
We now know that a significant portion of the U.S. presence in Benghazi was CIA employees. Reuters quoted unidentified government officials who said the annex’s mission was “collecting information on the proliferation of weaponry looted from Libyan government arsenals, including surface-to-air missiles.”
In February 2012, Andrew Shapiro, then assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, declared in a speech that the U.S. and the new Libyan government had recovered and secured “approximately 5,000” anti-aircraft missiles. In May 2012, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius detailed the claims of two former CIA counterterrorism officers that about 800 of the missiles were in Niger, which borders Libya to the southwest, in the hands of an African jihadist group called Boko Haram that’s based in Nigeria.
There is significant reason to believe that both Stevens and the CIA personnel in Benghazi were focused on recovering the missiles in the days leading up to his death on September 11.
After the Benghazi attack, there were public reports of Libyan arms, including these types of anti-aircraft missiles, being smuggled to the Syrian resistance fighting Bashar Assad’s regime.
On September 14, 2012, three days after Stevens was killed, Sheera Frenkel, a correspondent for the Times of London, reported from Antakya, Turkey:
A Libyan ship carrying the largest consignment of weapons for Syria since the uprising began has docked in Turkey and most of its cargo is making its way to rebels on the front lines, The Times has learnt.
Among more than 400 tonnes of cargo the vessel was carrying were SAM-7 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which Syrian sources said could be a game-changer for the rebels.
Frenkel’s report identified the ship’s captain as “Omar Mousaeeb, a Libyan from Benghazi and the head of an organisation called the Libyan National Council for Relief and Support, which is supporting the Syrian uprising.” This was not the first attempt to ship arms from Libya to the Syrian rebels, apparently:
In late April, Lebanese authorities seized a large consignment of Libyan weapons, including RPGs and heavy ammunition, from a ship intercepted in the Mediterranean. The ship was attempting to reach the Lebanese port city of Tripoli, a largely Sunni city seen as supportive of the Syrian rebellion against President Assad.
In October 17, 2012, about one month after the ship docked in Turkey, Reuters reported, “Amateur footage of rebels using shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles have emerged in recent days.” About a week later, Russia’s top military officer, accused the United States of providing American-made Stinger missiles to the Syrian rebels, a charge the Pentagon and State Department denied.
The American government may not have directed the smuggling of weapons from Libya to Syria through Turkey — but there is evidence to suggest they were aware of it. In June 2012, the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt reported that the CIA had personnel in Syria monitoring, and perhaps assisting, the Syrian rebels’ efforts to obtain weapons in Turkey:
A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.
The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said.
A March 2013 follow-up report by Schmitt and C. J. Chivers detailed the CIA’s assistance to Arab governments’ efforts to help Syria’s rebels: “The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year.” The vast majority of the cargo flights of arms and equipment went through Esenboga Airport near Ankara, Turkey.
Was Chris Stevens’s “mission in Benghazi” to buy back weapons? Stevens’s planned agenda for his scheduled five-day stay in Benghazi, according to GQ, included plans to “rechristen the U.S.-managed compound ‘an American Space,’ offering local Libyans English lessons and Internet access and show films and stock a library.”
But his final act as ambassador, on the early evening of September 11, 2012, was a meeting with Ali Sait Akin, the Turkish consul general in Benghazi.
For what it’s worth, the Turkish diplomat denies that he discussed arms transfers with Stevens. He told syndicated columnist Diana West that they didn’t talk about “weaponry from the [Qaddafi] stockpiles and where they might be going; the Libyan flagged vessel al-Entisaar which was received in the port of Iskenderun on September 6, 2012; the conflict in Syria and how the opposition to President Assad could be supported by the US and Turkey.”
During former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Rand Paul asked her if the U.S. was involved in any way in the transfer of weapons from Libya to Turkey.
“To Turkey? . . . Nobody’s ever raised that with me,” Clinton responded. When Paul asked whether the annex, the installation to which Americans fled on the night of the Benghazi attack, was involved, she said, “Senator, you’ll have to direct that question to the agency that ran the annex. I do not know.”
Since last autumn, Syria’s rebels have grown bolder in their use of anti-aircraft weapons in that country’s civil war. In late March, Syrian rebels claimed they shot down an Iranian plane landing at Damascus airport that was suspected of carrying weapons and ammunition for the Syrian government. In late April, Russia’s Interfax news agency claimed that two rockets were fired at a Russian charter plane as it flew over Syria. The plane flew from the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to Kazan in Tartarstan, Russia, with 200 passengers on board. On May 8, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the rebels had shot down a fighter jet.
These published reports indicate a sequence of events less incendiary than the one described by Simon’s sources, but still troubling:
During the Libyan civil war, the United States government at least tacitly supported the Qatari effort to arm the rebels, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. The Obama administration later learned that the weapons were going to Islamists, and acknowledged that the postwar situation of unguarded stockpiles presented an enormous security threat to the region. The CIA was the centerpiece of an effort to recover these weapons, and that was indeed a major component of what the agency was doing in Benghazi in September 2012, in part using the State Department’s facilities. During this time, a large number of weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, were leaving Libya and arriving in Turkey en route to Syrian rebels — and the CIA had personnel in both countries assigned to monitor and assist the arms shipments.
In his February 2012 speech discussing the effort to recover the anti-aircraft missiles in Libya, Assistant Secretary Shapiro made an unnerving concession: “How many are still missing? The frank answer is we don’t know and probably never will.”
That frank answer probably applies to the weapons flowing into Syria, too.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.