The violent attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the tragic deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American embassy staff should provoke a thorough reassessment of priorities by the Libyan and the US governments.

The Libyan government initially alleged that Qaddafi loyalists were responsible for the attacks, but later recalled the statement and switched blame to Islamic extremists. Ostensibly, the attack was a response to a controversial film on Islam and the prophet Muhammad that was produced by an American citizen.  However, sources on the ground assert that Salafi groups actively exploited the film to incite anger among the population to foment demonstrations and unrest, which ultimately led to the attack on the Americans.

This event is a grave tragedy, but not an unexpected one.  For the past several months, international media and public opinion have ignored the increase of extremists’ violent activities in Libya, notably a continuous string of assassinations of military officials as well as the destruction of Sufi shrines and other Islamic symbols despised by the Salafis.  When these incidents occurred, political leaders President of the General Assembly Muhammad Magarief, Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur, and other high-level officials openly denounced them, but at the same time there is reason to believe that new security forces were complicit. In the case of the US consulate attack, a thorough investigation, which will no doubt be supported by FBI personnel, will evaluate whether it was a spontaneous attack or planned with the active involvement or passive acquiescence of state security forces.  

In either case, it represents a major failure on the part of the local security services and the danger of the situation cannot be overstated.  Libya’s political transition—and the stability of the broader region—depends on a security environment in which the newly-elected government holds a monopoly on the use of force.  A few steps have been made in the right direction, but movement always seems to occur along the border of a cliff and not away from the edge.

The United States played a vital role in the NATO campaign to liberate the country, but then abandoned Tripoli to an unknown destiny immediately after the killing of Muammar Gaddafi. President Obama has given orders to increase resources and support to diplomatic personnel in Libya, but beyond sending marines to strengthen the security of the embassy, decision-makers in Washington should renew their engagement in Libya.  The instinct among Americans may be to retreat, but what is needed is even more robust investment to reconfigure and strengthen the country’s security apparatus.  While there is reason for optimism regarding the vivacity of Libyan civil society, the success of peaceful and fair elections, and the multi-stakeholder dialogue about a new constitution, all of these developments are easily trumped by the security deficit and ensuing instability.  This is where international support is most desperately needed.

President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton made a good start by condemning the violent attacks in the strongest terms while clearly affirming their ongoing commitment to the Libyan government and to strengthening the fledgling democracy. In the midst of this devastating loss, the president stressed that the attack should not undermine the foundation that has been laid in Libya, nor should it break the bonds between the people of the United States and Libya.  It is commendable that even in a moment of mourning, the administration holds firm to its desire to see a democratic and prosperous Libya, which is the aspiration of the vast majority of the Libyan people as well.  In response, the Libyan government and elected General National Council must demonstrate its own willingness and commitment to seek justice for this crime and not turn a blind eye to extremists in its midst that deal in the currency of hate and intolerance. 

Now is the time for the Libyan government to put its house in order and work with the United States and the broader international community to undertake the reconstruction of Libyan security forces and the reestablishment of public order. Anything less would dishonor the memory and the legacy of Ambassador Stevens and the others who lost their lives. 

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Hariri Center.

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