John Brennan’s successful appointment as CIA director suggests that the Benghazi incident’s hold on US domestic politics may finally ease up, but its impact inside Libya, and on US-Libya relations, remains as strong as ever. On the eve of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan’s visit to the United States, there is a strong possibility that the issue will reemerge, and will add to growing concern among Libyans that the United States is set to take proactive measures on Libyan soil to apprehend those responsible for the attack.
If the United States pursues greater intervention, as it has warned Libyan leadership it might, it could spell disaster for Libya’s already tenuous democratic transition. Since the Libyan government is militarily too weak to pursue the arrest of the culprits, it should instead support a mediation effort by leading Libyan religious figures to end the crisis. Only a Libyan-led resolution can assure that justice is carried out and that Libyan sovereignty, dignity, and its transition to democracy are kept intact, and Zidan must use his meetings in Washington to articulate this point.
Tension between the United States and Libya has grown markedly in the past few months after the US administration strongly demanded that the Libyans act and arrest the culprits. Through broad utilization of reconnaissance drones and intelligence operations on the ground, US authorities learned the names and locations of those suspected of carrying out the attack. However, a direct operation by the Libyan government against suspected terrorists is unlikely to succeed, and might make matters worse. It is a fact that the Libyan state’s presence in the Eastern province is minimal at best and the current government will take little, if any, action. In addition to Libyan jihadists, many Islamist fighters from outside Libya have settled in the area, establishing training camps, and forging international connections with al-Qaeda-like organizations and criminal networks.
A US attack on Libya would be disastrous. Libyans across the political and socioeconomic spectrum express grave concern at the prospect of a US intervention of any kind. Whether by drone or special operations, a US attack would quickly rally Islamist groups around the flag of anti-Americanism, and depict the attack as one against Islam. Moreover, a US attack and its repercussions would immediately compromise the state’s already fragile political stability. The implications of a US attack would be enormously negative and threaten to compromise counterterrorism cooperation and economic opportunities in the region.
Fully understanding these implications, since early January the Libyan government has been pleading with their US partners for patience, but American officials countered that their patience is waning. The US administration feels the pressure of an American polity demanding answers and is thus increasingly compelled to act.
Given that the Libyan government has limited power, military or investigative, to pursue terrorists in the Eastern province, and that a US-led mission would be catastrophic, another way out is needed. Within high-level Libyan circles a viable solution being circulated is having Zidan appoint a highly respected and well-known figure in the Islamist community to lead negotiations between the government and Islamists in the East. The mediation would see the reintegration of Libyan Islamist groups into the national political realm who were previously marginalized for their complicity with radical elements in exchange for delivering the culprits (Libyan and foreign) of the attack in Benghazi, and their acceptance of Libyan state authority over the Eastern region.
Understanding Islamists’ past is essential to understanding why mediation through a carefully chosen interlocutor is a potentially powerful tool in the current context. Islamists in Libya share a common past of repression, exile, marginalization, torture, and years of imprisonment. Yet, thanks to the revolution, most of those who suffered under the Qaddafi regime have risen to power (some in militia organizations, others in the religious establishment) and have maintained strong connections.
Moreover, Libyan Islamists in the East sent particularly strong signals to the government in Tripoli that they are ready to talk with authorities in order to begin their full reintegration into Libyan political society. These signals largely suggest a sense of uneasiness toward foreign jihadists and criminal organizations which have infiltrated the East. In other words, the Libyan government potentially has a number of willing partners they can and should engage to resolve the Benghazi affair.
Fortunately, there is a well-positioned figure to lead negotiations with such partners in the well-respected sheikh Ali Sallabi. His intellectual status and spiritual stature, combined with years of imprisonment during which he forged personal relationships with a number of radical Islamist leaders, make him the ideal candidate for such an effort.
Given the acute political pressure on the United States, there is little time to waste. Since Libyan authorities cannot and should not approach Islamist groups through violent means, Zidan should appoint Sallabi to lead negotiations, and perhaps just as important, use his current trip to the United States to articulate to US authorities the efficacy of doing so. Although it may not be as immediate as a US drone strike, the potential of a negotiated solution to keep political and societal stability intact would outweigh all other concerns. To act otherwise would risk US-Libya relations, Libyan stability, and the security of the entire region.