Extremists don’t speak for Libya

Story highlights

U.S. consulate in Libya was attacked; some thought it was because of a video

Noman Benotman: The attack was most likely a pre-planned terrorist operation

He says attack does not represent views of most Libyans, who are grateful to U.S.

Benotman: The international community must not give up on Libya's reconstruction

Editor’s Note: Noman Benotman is president of Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism group in London. He is a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a jihadist organization that fought against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in the 1990s. After resigning from L.I.F.G. in 2002, he became a prominent critic of jihadist and Islamist violence.

CNN  — 

The Obama administration may very well be right that the attack in Benghazi which claimed the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials was part of a pre-planned terrorist operation. It would have happened sooner or later regardless of any protests against an obscure anti-Islam film made in America.

The attack apparently occurred because in recent days, the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri posted a video online calling on Libyans to avenge the killing of al-Qaeda’s second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi.

According to our own sources at Quilliam Foundation, the attack was the work of roughly 20 militants prepared for a military assault. It is rare, for example, that an RPG7 – an anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade launcher – would be present at a civilian protest. The attack against the consulate had two waves. The first attack led to U.S. officials being evacuated from the consulate by Libyan security forces, only for the second wave to be launched against U.S. officials after they were kept at a secure location.

News: How the Benghazi attack unfolded

Noman Benotman

Jihadists will want the world to believe that the attack is just a part of the protests against an amateur film produced in the U.S., which includes crude insults regarding the Prophet Mohammed. They will want the world to think that their actions represent a popular Libyan and wider Muslim reaction; thus, reversing the perception of jihadists being outcasts from their own societies. Since there were similar protests in Egypt against the film, it is possible that more protests may erupt in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The jihadists may also feel that by killing U.S. citizens, they will win the support of local populations. They are wrong.

This attack was committed by a small group of extremists who do not represent the Libyan population. They seek to destroy any reconstruction attempts in my mother country. As often is the case, extremists try to take advantage of the absence of security in a country that has just gotten out of a civil war. They try so hard to destabilize the peace that the majority of the population have fought so hard to establish.

Ambassador Stevens himself was well known for advocating peace and stability in Libya. The recent election results in the country are testament to his conviction that Libya can achieve progress. That Libyans did not vote the radicals into office in the elections proves that Libya is not a nation of extremists. The extremists’ response to their electoral defeat comes in a language they relish: Violence.

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The attack on the U.S. consulate is a truly tragic event. Libya has lost one of the few foreign figures that really sought to invest time and energy into our country and believed in its future. Ambassador Stevens was one of a select number of international public figures based in Libya, who had refused to give up on Libya and its deteriorating security situation in recent months. He was an extremely successful envoy, who traveled the country to meet with all groups of Libyan society, and did not confine himself to international circles in the capital. No village or town was too far, and he was always keen to understand local customs. His death is a loss not just for Americans, but for many Libyans.

I hope that the Libyan government will take this time to reflect on the security vacuum in the country, in particular around Benghazi, and rebuild the defense and security sectors in an accountable, professional and responsible manner. I also hope that Libyan authorities will look to revise their policy of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) so that the situation on the ground can be improved.

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We have welcomed the international community into our country, and I know that we want to continue our collaboration with the NATO community and member states, including, and especially, with the United States. These countries helped free us from the tyrannical rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who was in power for 42 years. Many Libyans are forever grateful to America for its support in freeing our country from dictatorship.

This attack does not reflect the attitude of the Libyan population. For the international community, withdrawal of support from Libya will only play directly into the hands of jihadists, and that is the opposite of what we should do.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Noman Benotman.