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Benghazi Attack Conclusively Linked to Terrorism, But Who Shares Responsibility?

September 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
With the Benghazi attacks attributed to terrorism, concerns arise over the weakness of government and police in the region to prevent attacks like these to spread. Jeff Brown talks to the New York Times' Steven Lee Myers and Georgetown University's Dan Byman for more on who is responsible and the ties to al-Qaida.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on this, I’m joined by New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers, and Daniel Byman, professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

Steven Lee Myers, let me start with you.

So, two top administration officials say it was terrorism. One makes a direct link to an al-Qaida group. But how much and what exactly is known at this point about the attack in Benghazi?

STEVEN LEE MYERS, The New York Times: Well, I think administration is clearly trying to learn more.

And from the first day, they have been — they have launched an investigation headed by the FBI, of course. And then you have an internal review. And they have been very careful not to jump to conclusions, if you will. And that’s led them to sort of change — if not change, evolve their story a little bit.

Each day, you learn a little bit more. The question of whether or not it was a terrorist attack, initially, it seemed to be more of a mob or riot that was prompted by the video that’s been circulating and causing protests across the region.

That now seems not to have been the case. It seems to have been a much more organized attack that was perhaps sparked by the video, but not a spontaneous protest, as initially said.

Yesterday, of course, Secretary Clinton made a link between the al-Qaida in Maghreb group that’s normally based in Algeria and seems to be expanding through the region to this violence and the Benghazi attacks specifically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Daniel Byman, going this area, sort of when you look at who might have done it or might be involved, at that meeting at the U.N. yesterday, Ban Ki-Moon called the current situation in this area a — quote — “perfect storm of vulnerability.”

So, what does that mean and who would they be looking at as the possible people behind this?

DANIEL BYMAN, Georgetown University: The people they’re looking at first are those who have some tie to al-Qaida, whether it’s people who have been to Afghanistan or Pakistan in the past, people who had worked with the neighboring group in Algeria or people just who are radicalized and have an ideology like al-Qaida.

But the perfect storm refers not only the presence of radicals there, but also the incredible weakness of the government in Benghazi.

So you have perhaps a relatively small group of people. We still don’t know how many people were definitely involved in the violence, but they can wreak havoc simply because there isn’t an effective police and government to stop them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And beyond Libya, I mean, we’re talking about a large area of North Africa, a place like Mali that is increasingly unstable. How were these groups operating?

And when we say an al-Qaida group, do we know what that means, you know, how organized, what kind of ties it might have to al-Qaida central, to the extent there is such a thing now?

DANIEL BYMAN: There are a number of affiliate groups of al-Qaida, but the degree of their ties to al-Qaida central varies a lot.

So you have some, like the one in Yemen, that are quite close, and some like in Algeria where it is a more distant relationship. The one in Algeria, it attacks Western groups. It has rhetoric that is more like al-Qaida central, but it seems largely locally focused.

What makes this even more confusing, though, is it spread its activities out around the area. So you have Libya, you have Mali, and you have this whole regional area that it’s been active.

JEFFREY BROWN: STEVEN LEE MYERS, what’s your sense of what the State Department is looking at in terms of those kinds of groups and the investigation that’s under way?

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Well, first of all, Secretary Clinton wanted to make sure and her aides later that no one is pre-judging the outcome of the investigation.

They haven’t really named a top suspect, if you will. They’re working very closely with the Libyans to find out which groups were specifically involved. And I know that those interviews, that questioning was under way today in Libya.

But I think the point, the broader point that she was making is that now in North Africa you have these newly democratic or at least governments transitioning towards a form of democracy after years of authoritarian rule.

There are going to be weak states. That’s just inevitable. It is going to take time to build up democratic institutions, rule of law, even civilian control of the military, or, in the case of Libya, a bunch of militias that join together to overthrow Gadhafi, but don’t necessarily form yet a working security service.

So I think what she was emphasizing very strongly yesterday is that radical Islamic groups, whether it’s al-Qaida or other types of groups that you have seen in Libya and other places, are looking to create instability.

They’re challenging the transition towards a democratic government. And that’s the thing that she was really highlighting yesterday.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Daniel Byman, of course, the other thing at this meeting at the U.N. is there’s much talk now able possible international military intervention, U.N. sanction in parts of this area, not in Libya, but in other parts, in Mali specifically.

DANIEL BYMAN: There’s a real concern that we’re seeing a snowball affect, that limited instability in Libya and elsewhere is becoming a much bigger regional problem over time.

Mali has become awash in arms. Parts of it are taken over by true radicals. And there’s concern that it’s not going to stop in Mali, that it is going to spread even further to Nigeria and other countries. So I don’t think there’s much appetite for massive military intervention.

But working with locals, training up government forces, these are all possibilities.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a sense of what — I was going to ask you, what can be done in an area like that? So, what’s on the table?

DANIEL BYMAN: There are a couple things that can be done. One thing is improving regional cooperation.

You have a number of week governments. And it’s almost like the old Westerns, where cooperation sometimes stops at the borders. So part of it is getting these governments to work together. And the United States can facilitate it.

Part of it is making the governments more competent at what they do. And part of it is putting pressure on them to take action. But all that said, it’s very tough.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, STEVEN LEE MYERS, just to go back one more time to Hillary Clinton making the direct link to an al-Qaida group and this question of the sort of evolving — where you started, the evolving description of what has happened, is it your sense that she and the administration have been under some pressure to really — to get in front of this a little bit more?

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Well, what’s really striking is how members of Congress, specifically Republicans in both houses, have made an issue of what the administration knew, how it’s characterized the attack from the beginning, and I think partly because the administration has been very careful, very slow in explaining its — or not jumping to conclusion and explaining how — what they understand happened.

Others, particularly from the Republican Party, in the middle of a campaign season, have sought to criticize the administration, to make political points about perhaps the administration withholding information. Mitt Romney said something about — along these lines.

And I think, partly, they are looking at a president who has a strong record to run on when dealing with al-Qaida specifically and terrorism in general or foreign policy.

And this was, frankly, a disaster for the United States, I mean, a terrible tragedy. So they see this as a way to criticize some of the president’s policies in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Steven Lee Myers, Daniel Byman, thanks so much.

DANIEL BYMAN: Thank you.