Two months after the American ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in assaults on U.S. facilities here, there have been no arrests of suspected attackers, and Libyan officials say it is unlikely any will be made anytime soon.
Libyan officials here and in the country’s capital, Tripoli, said the nation’s police and court systems are so disorganized and powerless that there is virtually no investigation into the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate here that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and State Department computer expert Sean Stevens dead. Two CIA security contractors, ex-Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died in a separate attack hours later at the CIA station in this city.
Officials in Benghazi said that the first problem with pursuing those responsible for the attacks is that police officers here are afraid to move against the Islamist extremist suspects, who, like many in this country, are members of militias that are better armed than state security forces.
And that is just the beginning. Officials say it’s uncertain who is in charge of investigating the case and who has the authority to issue arrest warrants, should it come to that. Even if charges were to be brought, there is no proper court system for prosecuting anyone.
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In Benghazi, the deputy interior minister said the prosecutor is in charge. The head of the Supreme Security Council, which has responsibility for organizing an army, believes the police are in charge. The prosecutor said he has no idea who is in charge. Some brigades created during last year’s uprising and used to filling the security void here don’t recognize the Tripoli authorities as in charge of matters in Benghazi.
Last week, Libyan officials had to name a new prosecutor and judge and moved the case from Benghazi to Tripoli, reportedly because the judge in Benghazi had no means to investigate the case.
The official described as the Libyan liaison to the FBI for the case said the investigation essentially is just beginning.
“We are not at the point of arresting, we are correcting procedures,” said Col. Abdel Salem Ashour of the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigations department.
Ashour said that the Libyans are looking for roughly 70 people who were involved in the attack, but that images of the potential suspects captured by consulate security cameras and delivered to the Libyan government last week by the United States are blurry.
The description of the investigation given by Libyan officials is far different from the promise President Barack Obama made during an Oct. 16 presidential debate to “hunt down” the attackers.
Security officials said they fear arrests in this case could lead to more violence. The few people who’ve been detained in connection with the case were either witnesses or looters, Ashour said. Security officials here call those kinds of arrests easier, as they are people who likely don’t have an armed group behind them.
“It’s no secret that most institutions here are in a weak position. There are many competing factors of security. It makes it difficult,” said Ahmed Langhi, who represents Benghazi in Libya’s national legislature, the General National Congress. The case “will not be solved until this security problem is solved. The legal system needs power to implement orders.”
Indeed, the crime scene itself remains unsecured. While the compound owner has spray-painted his name all over the front gate to let looters know it is not American property, Libyans can walk through the charred buildings unimpeded. Stevens’ clothes still hang in the closet, and American documents are strewn on the floor.
Because Libya is a sovereign state, American officials must depend on Libyans to make arrests in accordance with local law. But how such a case can be handled when there is no structured legal system and no law enforcement agency is unclear.
Perhaps the most infamous suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, remains at large even after witnesses put him at the consulate during the attack, directing fighters. A commander in Benghazi’s largest revolutionary brigade, the Libyan Shield, acknowledged that everyone is frustrated that Khattala is still allowed to openly operate in Benghazi, boasting about his freedom of movement even as he has denied participating in the attack.
“Who is going to arrest him? Who is going to question him? It’s the consequences that we fear,” the commander said. “If we arrest someone, a member of his forces will get him out.”
The commander did not want to be named after being publicly identified with helping the Americans recruit members for a counterterrorism unit. Within hours of his name surfacing, he said, extremist groups operating in Benghazi threatened to kill him.
Among the factors limiting an investigation, said Omar al Khadrawry, Libya’s deputy interior minister, is that local officials do not recognize the authority of the central government in Tripoli. He said officials who’ve been fired simply refuse to leave their jobs and cited as examples the city’s police chief and the deputy interior minister for Benghazi, who refuse to step down despite having been fired and replaced by the country’s new prime minister.
Saleh Daghman, the newly named deputy interior minister for Benghazi, said he cannot even get to his office because his predecessor is still there. In addition, some of Daghman’s officers have charged that he is a member of Ansar al Shariah, the group suspected in the consulate attack. Daghman denies the charge.
The ultimate result, Khadrawry said, “is a security problem. It is weak in Benghazi.”
In addition, many of those in charge of security have no previous experience. The commander of the Libyan Shield, essentially an army made of up remnants of anti-Gadhafi fighters, was a driving instructor before the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year. The head of Benghazi Supreme Security Council, Fawzi Waniss, was an engineer.
It is unclear how many of the suspected 70 consulate attackers were Libyan. A 31-year-security guard at the consulate that night said he saw Algerians, Tunisians, Egyptians and Turks among the attackers. Many wore turbans and spoke classic Arabic, not Libya’s vernacular, he said.
Top security officials in Benghazi said they have not seen any list of suspects.
Meanwhile, what investigation has been undertaken seems to taking place in Tripoli, nearly 500 miles away but where the security situation is relatively better. The consulate security guard said he was flown to Tripoli three weeks after the attack and interviewed by the Interior Ministry and the FBI separately.
Libyan officials are quick to stress that they want to do more but that there simply is no structure for undertaking such a delicate investigation.
“We are starting from zero. We are building from scratch,” said Langhi of the General National Congress. “The Americans know the situation very well, and they will not let the killer of the ambassador go. But they know they have to move slowly and carefully. The Libyan people want to help.”
McClatchy special correspondent Ayman al Kekly contributed from Tripoli.