Anti-American Violence in the Middle East

Q1: What was the security situation in Libya leading up to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi?

A1: As international attention focused on the violence in Syria over the past year, many hoped that Libya was beginning to stabilize. Embassy personnel from many countries were returning, business delegations and consultants explored opportunities in the oil-rich nation, and successful elections were held in July. But these few signs of normality masked a deeply unstable, lethal environment. The young government confronted a still-unsteady nation abundant with weapons, Qaddafi loyalists, uncontrollable militias, and Salafi jihadi fighters. The new government has been unable to impose a monopoly on the use of force or secure the weapons that were pilfered from Qaddafi’s dispersed arsenal. Whereas the Egyptian Army largely controls that nation’s weapons, in Libya small groups still hold truck-mounted antiaircraft guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). This past summer included a spate of attacks on nongovernmental organizations, Sufi shrines, and Libyan government buildings. In June and July in Benghazi, Tunisia’s consulate and Britain’s ambassador to Libya were both assaulted in separate incidents, and an improvised explosive device (IED) was used against the U.S. mission.

Q2: Are we likely to see similar attempts on U.S. embassy personnel elsewhere in the region?

A2: Only hours following the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, the U.S. embassy in Yemen was assaulted. While no Americans were killed in the more heavily fortified compound in the capital of Sana, U.S. diplomatic staff are increasingly at risk across the region. But the well-armed, heavy assault in Libya was qualitatively different from what transpired in Egypt and Yemen. Those climbing the walls at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and smashing windows at the U.S. embassy in Sana were unequal to those in Benghazi, who used machine guns, mortars, and RPGs. Though these crowds lacked the armament of those in Libya, their numbers, improvised weapons, and motivation make them dangerous nonetheless. The threat in such a highly charged environment is that more heavily armed militants could use such riots as cover for deadly attacks.

Q3: How will the attacks affect U.S. policy in the Middle East?

A3: While horrific, the attacks will not likely lead to a fundamental shift in U.S. military deployments in the foreseeable future. Yet, they will likely trigger a rethink of how U.S. diplomats are allowed to do their jobs in the Middle East. President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to working as a partner with the new Libyan government, and that is not likely to change as long as the Libyan government welcomes U.S. support. How the United States goes about cooperating with Libya and other regional governments, however, is less clear. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was an active diplomat throughout Libya and had built a rapport with rebel groups in Benghazi during the most violent days of the uprising against Qaddafi. That made him an indispensable interlocutor with the new Libyan government and a range of political forces in Libya. His killing raises doubts about the procedures in place to secure U.S. diplomats, and it could lead to limiting the kinds of activities and contacts U.S. diplomats are allowed to pursue throughout the Middle East. Such a setback would further isolate U.S. diplomats at a time when U.S. interests are served by wider engagement.

Q4: Why is anti-American violence increasing in the Middle East?

A4: The overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt in 2011 unleashed violent anti-American forces that the previous governments had largely kept in check. Some of those forces have used the pretext of an offensive film produced in the United States to foment anti-American sentiment and actions. In the wake of political upheaval, governments are less capable and willing to rein in militant forces that pose a threat to U.S. interests and to their own societies. In many cases, the police are just a shadow of their former selves, domestic intelligence services are in disarray, and all manner of crimes are on the rise. This increase in violence poses a challenge not only to U.S. diplomats but threatens to undermine the fragile transitions underway throughout the region.