Sept. 11, 2013, marked the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four U.S. diplomatic employees — including Ambassador Chris Stevens — dead. The anniversary saw a new attack in the eastern Libyan city, this one against a Libyan Foreign Ministry building (and this morning’s awful attack in Afghanistan). The anniversary and recent attack prompt a look at how the security situation in Benghazi has evolved over the past year, and at how the United States has tackled security issues worldwide since the consulate attack.
Continued Instability in Libya
The security situation in Libya in general and in Benghazi in particular remains unstable. In Benghazi, bombings and shootings targeting security officials are not uncommon as various militias continue to compete for power and relevance. The Libyan government has not managed to consolidate its position. Local officials and tribal groups continue to challenge it, creating instability that militant organizations can exploit to facilitate their operations. In addition to the United States, the turbulence in Libya has impacted other countries’ diplomatic presence: French, Emirati, British and Italian diplomatic staff or facilities have all come under attack.
The attack Wednesday was far less significant than the devastating assault by armed militants on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi last year. While it did involve a relatively powerful vehicle-borne improvised explosive device that destroyed the Foreign Ministry building, the device detonated early in the morning before employees had arrived, limiting the casualties. No deaths were reported, and most injuries were civilians in the street. Although the attack did not cause fatalities, it evoked last year’s events, since the targeted building housed the U.S. Consulate during the rule of King Idris, whom Gadhafi overthrew in 1969.
Washington has not made much headway in its attempts to track down and apprehend the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack. While several key persons involved in the attack have been identified, none of them has been captured. That the State Department has not offered a bounty for the capture of suspects as part of its “Rewards for Justice” program in part explains this. (Efforts to post a reward have been stalled within the department.) On Aug. 9, U.S. President Barack Obama did announce that a grand jury has indicted militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala, however.
Much information on the attack and other persons involved in it could be gleaned from interrogating suspects. U.S. officials reportedly interrogated one of the wanted militants, Ali Ani al-Harzi, for about three hours, but all traces of him were lost after Tunisia freed him for lack of evidence. While the United States is aware of the involvement of certain militant groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia and Abu Ubaidah Ibn al-Jarrah, in the consulate attack, the lack of physical access to those involved limits the ability to build a solid case or to dismantle those groups involved.
Boosting Diplomatic Security
While Washington has not been able to bring those behind last year’s attack to justice, it has initiated the process of improving security at high-risk diplomatic posts worldwide. The Sept. 11, 2012, attack illustrated the brilliance and simplicity of using a readily available tactic like fire, something directly addressed by expanded training of diplomatic personnel regarding fire suppression. This training will address potentially lifesaving procedures that were not followed in Benghazi. The use of smoke hoods, for example, could have saved lives, including that of Ambassador Chris Stevens, but although these are normally present in diplomatic posts, they were not deployed in Benghazi. A special office has been created inside the Diplomatic Security Service that will directly and solely oversee more than 20 designated high-threat diplomatic posts. And better measures to allow oversight of warnings and indicators leading up to a possible attack have been put in place.
On a tactical level, security will be boosted at high-threat posts by the deployment of an extra 113 Diplomatic Security Service tactical agents. Other measures are still in the works. These included the recommendations of the Accountability Review Board, the independent panel probing last year’s attack, which are still being implemented. A separate outside panel of experts has also recommended that the Department of State create an Undersecretary for Diplomatic Security. For years, Diplomatic Security has languished under the Administration and Management bureaus of the Department of State.
The United States has also decided to err on the side of caution when dealing with potential threats to diplomatic posts, as evidenced in the Aug. 4 announcement that several U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Africa would be closed due to a terror threat. The resources available for quick responses to attacks have also been improved by forward deploying United States Marine Corps FAST teams to Europe. Five hundred troops have been stationed in Spain for some time, and 225 of those were deployed even further forward to Italy for the anniversary of last year’s attack. This forward deployment of FAST teams and aviation elements allows for responses to attacks in trouble spots within six hours.
The attack has also brought up the issue of reassessing the need for embassies or consulates in potential hotspots worldwide. Ultimately, Washington continues to use its diplomatic presence across the world, even in volatile regions, as an important tool of its foreign policy. This priority even overrode security concerns in Somalia, where the United States recently announced it would be reopening an embassy in Mogadishu, a step planned before the Benghazi attack but put on hold until obvious security concerns could be dealt with. (Attacks by al Shabaab still occur there frequently.) Even so, the 2012 Benghazi attack has shined an even brighter spotlight on the logistical costs that allow such a presence worldwide.