The 'Couscous Line' and the attack upon the US Consulate in Benghazi
In the aftermath of the premeditated attack upon the US Consulate in Benghazi that ended with the brutal assassination of US Ambassador to Libya and three other members of his staff on September 11th 2012, the main question remains: Why did this attack occur now, in Benghazi, Libya, of all possible places in the Muslim world?
In the aftermath, now that the damage is done, the Ambassador and his staff brutally murdered, and the Consulate burned to the ground, hindsight shows there were any number of indicators that Benghazi likely was soon to be a target for Islamic fundamentalists…if anyone was willing to listen, and most importantly, pay attention not only to current indications and warnings, but also to history.
First, there was the “tragic” lack of security at the Consulate, which made it too tempting of a target to pass up.
Secondly, for as of yet unclear or unknown reasons, demonstrative indications and warnings of imminent danger were ignored:
Thirdly, at least four previous incidents confirming the deadly intent of radical Islamists/Salafiyyah elements/Al-Qaeda affiliates in the region were either ignored, or overlooked.
Fourth: Al-Qaeda sympathizers blatantly advertised their presence in the Benghazi area, as early as October of last year, a fact that was again willfully ignored or overlooked:
Fifth: there were multiple indications and reports that Al-Qaeda and Salafiyyah elements had infiltrated the Libyan rebels and opposition to Mu’ammar Gadhafi, as early as spring of 2011.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the past history: immediate past, intermediate past, and distant past, of the region that Benghazi is part of, a region within Libya known as Cyrenaica, that even a cursory knowledge of by anyone on the US Embassy/Consulate/State Department staffs, would’ve given them pause to consider if the long term security situation in the area was ever viable to begin with.
It appears that the US Intelligence community at large, albeit too late for Ambassador Stevens and his staff, is finally catching on to the fact that this area of Libya has been a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism in the recent past (since 9/11).
Sadly, it appears that this information was available to the highest levels of the United States Government and the US State Department, and for well over a year and half at least, before the attacks upon the US Consulate in Benghazi:
Thus, while the US Intelligence community now understands, by looking at post-9/11 history, that the Dernah/Benghazi area of Libya is a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, they still do not understand why it is so. History matters.
A local Jihadi hero has left a legacy beloved by the local populace. Omar al-Mukhtar, 1862-1931, was a local Bedouin, a teacher of the Quran, and the inspiration for the Anthony Quinn character in “Lion of the Desert.” Al-Mukhtar was a follower of the Libyan Sanusi Sufi sect, inspired by his travels among the Wahhabiyah of Saudi Arabia, and became a leader of the Jihad against the Italian occupation of Libya from 1911 until his eventual defeat and execution in 1931. He can be considered the Dernah Jihadis’ hero.
In other words, Dernah, Libya, 180 miles east of Benghazi, has been a hotbed of Salafiyyah/Wahhabiyyah influenced Jihadi Anti-Colonial/Anti-Western/Anti-Imperial activity for over ninety years; with its own home-grown Jihadi “hero”, Omar al-Mukhtar, who led the Jihad against the Italian armies invading Libya at the beginning of the last century.
In addition, Cyrenaica (the major cities are Benghazi, Dernah and Tobruk) was the actual “birthplace” of the 2011 Libyan Civil War and uprising against Gadhafi, which in and of itself was not a new development. In 1980, a Libyan military uprising in Tobruk, also located in eastern Libya/Cyrenaica, was brutally suppressed by Gadhafi. Anytime Gadhafi’s rule was threatened by homegrown Islamists, such as the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, during his long years in power, it was generally from the Cyrenaica region that such threats took place.
The reasons Cyrenaica specifically has been this font of rebellion against Gadhafi for the past 40 years, and against the Western and Colonial powers dating back almost one hundred years, has everything to do with cultural and historical differences between eastern Libya, and the western portions of Libya known as “Fezzan” and Tripolitania” literally stretching back into time, thousands of years.
The imaginary “Couscous Line” culturally divides Libya into east and west; the Maghreb on the western side; the “Middle East” on the other:
As far back as Pharaonic times, eastern Libya was oriented towards Egypt, and sometimes in its orbit of influence; western Libya was home to “savages” and “barbarian” tribes…outsiders. Eastern Libya was settled by the Greeks, western Libya by the Phoenicians, then the Carthaginians. The two halves were united under the Roman Empire, but only along the coastline, as the interior and southern regions successfully resisted Roman rule and were home to the Garamantes civilization. Split apart again when the Roman Empire fractured; western Libya stayed under Rome’s control; while eastern Libya went with Byzantium.
In Islamic times, eastern Libya became “Arabicized,” looking eastwards towards Cairo, Mecca, Damascus, and Baghdad. Western Libya was home to the non-Arab and even more importantly, non-Arabic speaking Berbers in the north-west, and the non-Arab non-Arabic speaking Tauregs in the south-west. Cyrenaica later became a semi-autonomous Barbary pirate statelet under the nominal suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire.
Gadhafi himself was from an Arabicized Berber tribe in northwestern Libya, near Sirte, and Cyrenaica’s recalcitrance and rebellion earned them 40+ years of economic and political isolation as resultant punishment. This historical cultural divide is still so great, that “Cyrenaica” even wanted to go it alone after the overthrow of Gadhafi in 2011.
That such cultural schisms, with many centuries of history, could still fracture a “modern” state should come as no surprise to anyone who knows and studies history.
Hence, the importance of understanding the fractious cultural divisiveness of “The Couscous Line” that divides Libya into two disparate and unequal halves, bequeathing eastern Libya…”Cyrenaica” a historical legacy of rebellion, insurrection and ultimately, Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism that culminated in the deadly attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012, and the savage murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens, and three members of his staff.
All of the indicators that probable violence directed towards American property and personnel was possible, if not probable, were present: from the immediate past, intermediate past, and more specifically, the distant past. To our everlasting shame, and national embarrassment, they were willfully ignored or overlooked.
Dale T. Armstrong is a Former United States Marine Corps Major Intelligence Officer. He has spent the greater portion of the past thirty-five years studying and writing about the intricacies of Islamic fundamentalism and its many sects, movements, and Sufi Tariqa. He attended the American University in Cairo, studied Arabic, was in Northern Iraq for Operation Provide Comfort, and was awarded the Legion of Merit Medal as a Marine Corps Captain, for a successful Counter-Intelligence Operation against the Iraqis during the Gulf War that has yet to be declassified.