In his Sept. 12 statement, Obama pledged to work with the Libyan government to find and punish those responsible for the consulate attack. However, the weak status of Libya's governing institutions poses a challenge in this regard.
Libyans in Benghazi have bristled at the centralization of authority in Tripoli, in part due to Benghazi's critical role in the ouster of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, as well as historical divisions between Libya's eastern and western regions. Still, Tripoli has several advantages. The international community has recognized the city as the seat of government since Libya's National Transitional Council relocated there from Benghazi after Gadhafi's fall, and Tripoli has historically been the administrative center of Libya's oil industry, the country's primary source of revenue. Though not yet formally established, Libya's security forces will also be organized by the central government in Tripoli.
Many factors contribute to Libya's general sense of insecurity, but the most prominent source of instability is the situation in Benghazi. Clusters of Salafists and former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members are still active in Benghazi and well equipped due to the wide availability of weapons in the wake of the country's civil war. Members of these groups or their ideological allies are likely responsible for the apparent assassination campaign against former Gadhafi officials as well as recent sporadic attacks against symbols of the West. The United States previously expressed concern over attacks in Benghazi in June against the U.S. Consulate and the British ambassador's motorcade, but the Sept. 11 killing of several staff members and the ambassador will add a renewed sense of urgency to the mission.
To combat Libyan militant groups, Tripoli will need assistance from the United States or other Western countries to gain the skills needed to infiltrate the jihadist groups operating in Benghazi, gather intelligence, interdict militant operations, and protect important facilities from similar attacks in the future. Already, the United States has dispatched the U.S. Marine Corps' Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team to reinforce diplomatic facilities in Libya, according to an AP report citing unnamed U.S. officials. Dialogue is also likely under way concerning potential operations to secure Libya's cities and track down the perpetrators of the attack on the ambassador.
Leadership and the U.S. Strategic Presence
Even before the Sept. 11 consulate attack, there were signs that Tripoli might pursue closer cooperation with the United States and the West on a range of issues not limited to security. Several former members of the Libyan opposition, many who are now prominent members of the new Libyan government, spent years in the United States under political asylum or received assistance from the U.S. government.
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Current General National Congress President Mohammed Magariaf founded the National Front for the Salvation of Libya in 1981, a body that was widely believed to have been backed by the United States as an alternative to the Gadhafi regime. Throughout Gadhafi's rule, that group was Libya's most organized opposition body even though most of its leaders resided in the West. Additionally, the National Transitional Council's ground forces commander during the rebellion, Lt. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, lived in exile in Vienna, Virginia, during the 1990s and is widely speculated to have a close relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies. Perhaps most notable is Libya's new prime minister. Abu Shagour is a U.S. citizen (he will be required to officially renounce his citizenship before becoming prime minister) who previously worked as an engineer for NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Spending significant amounts of time in the West has been a common pattern among Libya's new political leaders, due in no small part to the opposition roles played by many of them, as well as the ineligibility of Gadhafi-era politicians to hold office in the new government. Regardless, Libya's new president and prime minister were independent candidates with close ties to the West. The United States will try to use these connections to prevent the emergence of a hostile regime in Libya and check the rise of security threats from the country's jihadists and militant groups. And though U.S. companies currently do not have a significant presence in the Libyan oil industry, good relations with the Libyan government could facilitate such involvement in the future.
While Libya is not an essential strategic partner for the United States on the level of Egypt, Saudi Arabia or even Morocco, the fledgling Libyan government's heavy need for assistance in filling the country's power vacuum presents Washington with an opportunity to expand its presence in the country. The shared U.S.-Libyan objective of containing threats posed by jihadists in Benghazi will likely offer some of the first chances to do so.