Ten years after the anti-US attack in Benghazi, Libya is still in chaos
Ten years after the US ambassador to Libya was killed in an attack in Benghazi, Washington is trying to influence a political settlement in the country still in chaos after a setback.
On September 11, 2012, in the midst of Libya’s civil war, about twenty gunmen broke into the diplomatic complex in Benghazi (east) before setting fire to the mansion where American Ambassador Chris Stevens and an employee, Sean Smith, were staying. Both die of asphyxiation.
The attackers then fired mortars at a building used by the CIA in another district of Benghazi, killing two former members of the Navy SEALs, an elite force.
The attack, eleven years to the day after the September 11 attacks, shocked the United States: No American ambassador had been killed since 1979. Several branches of the American government have been accused of error and negligence, most notably the state department then headed by Hillary Clinton.
Two years after the attack and amid violent clashes in Tripoli, the United States, like many other countries, closed its embassy in Libya in 2014 and has not reopened it since.
This diplomatic loophole and a withdrawal from the Libyan file under the administration of Donald Trump (2017-2021) gave free rein to other actors, notably Russia, Egypt and the Emirates, supporters of the IS camp, and Turkey, an ally of the government of Tripoli.
– “Influence” –
But that didn’t stop Washington from “repeatedly having a decisive influence on the Libyan file after 2012,” decodes for AFP researcher and analyst Jalel Harchaoui, a specialist on Libya.
“There were more positive moments like the agreement (on a unity government in Libya) concluded under the aegis of the UN in Skhirat (Morocco) in 2015, on which the Americans had worked a lot,” he says.
But there were also “darker moments” when Donald Trump backed East Libyan strongman Marshal Khalifa Haftar when he launched an offensive to seize Tripoli in 2019, the pundit adds.
Two Libyans captured by US forces in Libya and tried in the United States, Moustafa al-Imam and Abu Khattala, were sentenced to 19 and 22 years in prison, respectively, in connection with the Benghazi attack.
The attack came almost a year after the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, which was swept away by a revolt backed by a controversial international intervention under the aegis of NATO, plunging the country into political and security chaos that with rival enduring powers in the east and west.
While many law firms have returned to Tripoli over the past year thanks to a noticeable improvement in the local situation, the American Embassy still operates from Tunis and Ambassador Richard Norland rarely visits the Libyan capital anymore.
– oil –
Since March, two governments have been vying for power in Libya: one based in Tripoli and led by Abdelhamid Dbeibah since 2021, and another led by Fathi Bachagha and backed by Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s camp.
According to a report by the Ministry of Health, fighting against rival militias broke out in Tripoli at the end of August, killing 32 and wounding 159.
A European diplomatic source in Tripoli says that keeping Libyan oil production free from political unrest appears to be the top US concern right now, although Norland is also constantly calling for elections in the country as the postponement of elections scheduled for December 2021 exacerbates the situation has crisis between rival camps.
Mr Norland in June warned rival actors in Libya against using oil “as a weapon” in their political disputes.
Oil production in Libya reached 1.2 million barrels per day in late July, its daily average before an oil blockade imposed by groups near the eastern camp between mid-April and mid-July.
“It is incumbent on all external and internal actors to move towards presidential and general elections as quickly as possible,” Norland said on Wednesday, quoted by the American embassy.
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