Benghazi terrorist hiding in plain sight

I know readers prefer us to harsh on stories rather than praise them, but I don’t care. I have to just highlight a great story from David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times. Now, most of what makes the story interesting is outside this blog’s bailiwick. The piece is headlined “Suspect in Libya Attack, in Plain Sight, Scoffs at U.S.” At a time when the White House is being criticized for its handling of events in Libya, the story is probably going to be a bit politically challenging.

But I want to highlight how the reporter weaves religion into the story without seeming clumsy or heavy-handed. Up top we learn that Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the ringleaders of the attack, recently hung out in a crowded luxury hotel, sipping mango juice on the patio and mocking the American government and Libya’s fledgling army. We learn he hasn’t even been questioned about his involvement in the attack. The real story, the reporter suggests, involves all the self-formed militias that provide the only source of social order in the country:

A few, like the militia group Ansar al-Shariah that is linked to Mr. Abu Khattala and that officials in Washington and Tripoli agree was behind the attack, have embraced an extremist ideology hostile to the West and nursed ambitions to extend it over Libya. But also troubling to the United States is the evident tolerance shown by other militias allied with the government, which have so far declined to take any action against suspects in the Benghazi attack.

Although Mr. Abu Khattala said he was not a member of Al Qaeda, he declared he would be proud to be associated with Al Qaeda’s puritanical zeal for Islamic law. And he said that the United States had its own foreign policy to blame for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Why is the United States always trying to impose its ideology on everyone else?” he asked. “Why is it always trying to use force to implement its agendas?”

We get an interesting discussion of some of the political maneuvering in the United States. Then we learn of Abu Khattala’s “spin” — he says, “contradicting the accounts of many witnesses” that it really was just a peaceful protest against a video and that the guards inexplicably fired upon them, provoking them. He goes on to say that they found all the explosives and guns with silencers in the American compound after they took it. While witnesses say he led the fighters, he says he was just breaking up a traffic jam. He says he didn’t notice that the compound had been set ablaze.

But you can tell that even though the reporter doesn’t necessarily buy Abu Khattala’s story, he asks questions in response to it:

He pointedly declined to condemn the idea that the demolition of a diplomatic mission was an appropriate response to such a video. “From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad,” he said.

We get some more foreign policy discussion from Abu Khattala:

He also said he opposed democracy as contrary to Islamic law, and he called those who supported secular constitutions “apostates,” using the terminology Islamist radicals apply to fellow Muslims who are said to disqualify themselves from the faith by collaborating with corrupt governments.

He argued that Islamists like those in the Muslim Brotherhood who embraced elections committed a “mix up” of Western and Islamic systems. And he acknowledged that his opposition to elections had been a point of dispute between his followers and the other Libyan militia leaders, most of whom had protected and celebrated the vote…

Witnesses, Benghazi residents and Western news reports, including those in The New York Times, have described Mr. Abu Khattala as a leader of Ansar al-Shariah, whose trucks and fighters were seen attacking the mission. Mr. Abu Khattala praised the group’s members as “good people with good goals, which are trying to implement Islamic law,” and he insisted their network of popular support was vastly underestimated by other brigade leaders who said the group had fewer than 200 fighters.

“It is bigger than a brigade,” he said. “It is a movement.” …

During the revolt, the brigade was accused of killing a top general who had defected to the rebels, Abdul Fattah Younes. Mr. Abu Khatalla acknowledged that the general had died in the brigade headquarters, but declined to discuss it further.

Almost all Libyans are Muslims, alcohol is banned, polygamy is legal, almost every woman wears an Islamic head-covering. But all of that still fell short, he said, of true Islamic law.

It’s obviously not the most important point of the story — indeed these last graphs are the very end — but they are helpful at understanding some of the distinctions in Libya. Sure, everyone’s Muslim, but their conception of Islamic law differs significantly. Showing us some of those distinctions is most helpful as we try to make sense of the muddle there.

Sometimes we’ll look at stories dealing with political Islam and say we wished there were more religious details there. Here we have a story that handled it with an economy of words and it’s worth noting. A great example to follow.

Libya map via Shutterstock.

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  • mollie

    The NYT article above shows that the terrorist isn’t just hiding in plain sight, but demanding corrections, too!
    “An earlier version of this article described incorrectly a beverage that Ahmed Abu Khattala was drinking at a hotel in Benghazi, Libya. It was a strawberry frappe, not mango juice, which is what he had ordered.”

  • FW Ken

    They corrected the drink, and noted the correction.

    I did enjoy the story, especially that the reporter noted some of the fellow’s inconsistencies without calling him a liar or braggart.

    Well-done stories often don’t get a comment, because there’s not a lot to add. But they are appreciated.

  • John M.

    When I read the article, I got stuck here: “he called those who supported secular constitutions “apostates,” using the terminology Islamist radicals apply to fellow Muslims who are said to disqualify themselves from the faith by collaborating with corrupt governments.”

    I wondered if the reporter shouldn’t have transliterated the Arabic word. My understanding is that there is a segment of Salafist/Al Qaeda-aligned folks called “takfiris”, and the word used was related to that. This is a controversial practice in Islam, and if it’s not unique to the Salafists, it’s characteristic of them.

    We’ve been at war with these fms for at least 11 years now, and it troubles me how little the American populace really knows about them.

    -John

  • John M.

    “Fms” = “folks” on my iPhone keyboard, I guess.

    And why is Patheos telling me my comment is too short? Brevity is genius, people.

    -John

    • mollie

      I wonder how short is “too short” for this commenting system.

  • John M.

    When I posted my first sentence and my signature in the comment above, the board rejected it. In fairness, it only suggested comment length as one possible reason for the rejection, out of an unknown set. But when I added my second two sentences, it took it. No, wait, maybe it didn’t take it and I had to add a whole mess of trailing spaces to the comment and then it took it.

    And while we’re talking about the Patheos comment system, I don’t miss the “like” buttons at all. I didn’t like the pride I felt when people “like”d my comments. I am, however, not crazy about the “Reply” functionality here, since the mobile view (my usual look) just sorts the comments by date posted, meaning that it can be hard to follow the thread sometimes.

    -John


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