The U.S. should prepare for future terrorist attacks in North Africa that would be even more difficult to police than last year’s assault that left four Americans dead in the Eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, counter-terrorism specialists said Wednesday.
“Future attacks, particularly those in North Africa, are likely to involve a Benghazi-style mix of jihadists of different nationalities, making it difficult to determine exactly who is responsible,” Daniel Byman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, testified to a joint subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
What’s potentially worse, Mr. Byman told lawmakers, is that the acquiescent manner in which U.S. authorities responded to the deadly attacks on a U.S. diplomatic post and CIA house in Benghazi is “likely to leave us less prepared for future terrorism” in the region.
“Jihadists may point to any U.S. retreat after Benghazi as proof of U.S. cowardice,” he said in prepared remarks.
With diplomats and spies now destined to be “more confined to well-guarded parts of capital cities,” Mr. Byman noted, U.S. intelligence “is likely to decline” and, “in the long-run, diminishing U.S. capabilities could pose a grave danger to U.S. security, increasing the risk of a surprise attack or regional development that catches the U.S. unawares.”
The sober assessment followed a barrage of opening statements by Republican lawmakers, who were eager to use Wednesday’s hearing to ladle fresh criticism onto the Obama administration for so far failing to deliver justice to — or even identify — the culprits behind the Benghazi attacks.
“That four Americans can die … and almost a year later no one has been held accountable is contrary to what we stand for in this nation,” said Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade.
“The United States is the most powerful nation in the world,” he said. “Are we afraid to arrest those who take out — who commit terrorist acts against the United States?”
State Department officials “who were responsible for the security failures in Benghazi continue to operate in different capacities without any real consequences,” added Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, who joined Mr. Poe in hosting the hearing as chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.
Separately, she stressed that Washington’s “strategy in the region needs to be aimed at disrupting extremists networks and denying safe havens to these groups.”
Assessments offered by other analysts who testified Wednesday suggested that such a strategy has been, at best, slow to take root — particularly in Libya, where armed militant groups have presided over a general state of lawlessness in cities like Benghazi and Misrata during the two years since former dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster.
Such circumstances apparently have fostered Libya’s emergence as a strategic point in the region’s wider Islamist militancy, according to Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who told lawmakers in prepared remarks that “one of the worst-kept secrets locally, but only reported on within the past month, is the large amount of weapons that Libyans have sent to Syria via Benghazi and Misrata through Lebanon and Turkey.”
Mr. Zelin said Libya has “become a transfer point for fighters in the Maghreb headed to Syria.”
Mr. Zelin, who specializes in combing Islamist websites for terrorist-related chatter, said another looming problem is “what happens with the Libyan foreign fighters when they come home after fighting in Syria.”
He pointed to a situation that unfolded after Libyan jihadists who — like the then-rising al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — had joined the fight against the Soviet army in Afghanistan during the 1980s. They “came home to overthrow the Gadhafi regime and install an Islamic state,” Mr. Zelin said. “They of course failed, but we could see a repeat of this phenomenon, and unlike in the 1990s, Libya is a weak state where much of its territory is not truly controlled by the central government.”