Libya’s Lessons on Syria

By: Bethany Stotts
Accuracy in Media


The Obama administration appears to have brokered a deal with the Russians to catalogue Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian chemical weapons store, and the United Nations has recently confirmed the existence of a sarin gas attack.

However, the administration has continued its saber-rattling, threatening the use of force if Syria does not comply with the agreement. “The threat of force is real and the Assad regime and all those taking part need to understand that President Obama and the United States are committed to achieve this goal,” said Secretary of State John Kerry on September 15, as reported by CBS News.

And again, on September 17, the Los Angeles Times reports that “At his meeting in Paris with French and British counterparts, Kerry urged the U.S. allies to keep the threat of airstrikes against Assad on the table to ensure he doesn’t backtrack from his pledge to give up his illegal weapons.”

A U.S. intervention in Syria could be disastrous, in terms of controlling a budding al Qaeda and jihadist movement among the rebels. In a recent report issued by the Bipartisan Policy Center, the authors argue that “It is in Syria then that al-Qaeda’s future…turns.”

“Syria is also a particularly agreeable environment for al-Qaeda,” they write. In 2003 to 2009 in Iraq, “it was a key base for training and supporting foreign fighters, many of whom were Syrian jihadists themselves.” They continue: “Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the late Zarqawi, the founder and then-leader of [Al Qaeda in Iraq], established operations in Syria that contributed enormously to the escalation of violence in Iraq.”

Jabhat al Nusra, which has in some cases spearheaded the military actions of the Free Syrian Army, is an al-Qaeda splinter group affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). “Al-Nusra’s emerging role as the spearhead of the most bloody and spectacular opposition attacks is demonstrated by the nearly tenfold escalation of its operations between March and June 2012,” write the authors. Al-Nusra has garnered support among the population not only by not imposing Islamist rule, but by providing social services such as “such as food, hospitals, and sharia courts to the embattled population.”

“I think we’re, like I said, we’re skeptical of military involvement in Syria because of how the Obama Administration handled Libya, especially in the aftermath of the conflict there,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes at a recent Heritage panel on the Benghazi attacks.

Remember how the Libyan populace reacted strongly to push out Ansar al-Sharia from Benghazi following the September 11, 2012 attacks which claimed four American lives: Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods? This same Ansar al-Sharia was welcomed back by some to protect the hospital, to man checkpoints, and “as protectors due to the lack of security provided by the new government in Tripoli,” according to the report.

“In September 2012, a leader of Ansar al-Sharia…said that while his brigade was not linked to al-Qaeda, he ‘approves’ of its strategy,” states the report.

But the American failure in Libya really started in pre-Qaddafi Libya, when the U.S. chose to intervene, along with NATO, for “humanitarian reasons” back in 2011. John Rosenthal, author of the The Jihadist Plot, paints a frightening picture of the black-flag-waving troops whom we assisted in Sirte and other key locations throughout the country. These forces, he argues, had jihadist and al-Qaeda connections, yet we assisted them in “liberating” Libya. As Rosenthal wrotes “The streets of Benghazi were in fact awash with al-Qaeda flags in the days following Libya’s ‘liberation.’”

It gets worse. The head of the Tripoli Military Council, and Tripoli’s military governor, Abdelhakim Belhadj, has had significant influence on Libyan politics. Belhadj is a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which shared training facilities with al Qaeda and can be connected to the Madrid bombings of 2004.

Rosenthal also points to the Sinjar Records, which catalogued the origins of foreign recruits joining al Qaeda in Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. Two cities in Libya sent large numbers of jihadis to AQI: Benghazi and nearby Derna. “In per capita terms, however, the most important supplier of al Qaeda recruits turned out to be none other than Libya,” wrote Rosenthal.

Today Libya, and Benghazi, are rife with conflict as the weak central government fails to take control of growing violence. Al Qaeda—and jihadists—love a security vacuum. The same goes for Syria.

“But [it is] the regime change in Libya, and the lack of follow-up by the Obama Administration, that led to the lawlessness, the rise of Islamist and terrorist groups and such as al Qaeda. This led, in my opinion, to the attack on our facilities in Benghazi on another tragic September 11th,” argues Brookes. “Not only did our facilities come under attack with the tragic death of four Americans, but al Qaeda began to run amok in North Africa, where they seized a large swath of territory in places like Mali.”

In Mali, members of the al-Qaeda branch there, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), instituted a vicious form of sharia law alongside local Islamist leaders. Hands and feet were cut off and adulterous women were stoned. Religious shrines were destroyed because they represented heretical views.

In fact, the leader of AQIM became so frustrated that he penned a letter to his fellow fighters stating, “One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Shariah, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion.”

“Our previous experience proved that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender hatred toward the mujahedeen, and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment.”

This popular hatred also occurred under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s harsh Sharia experiment in Iraq. Could it be that al Nusra has learned the lesson espoused by this AQIM leader, and has focused instead on humanitarian aid to win souls and minds ahead of the institution of sharia law? They already have begun practicing with sharia courts.

The goal of al Qaeda is to establish an Islamic Caliphate similar to the one that existed in Afghanistan. That is why the leaders of al Qaeda have sworn allegiance to Mohammed Omar, spiritual leader of the Taliban. Syria provides an excellent opportunity for al Qaeda to grasp control of a failing state, should the wrong rebels gain power, post-Assad.

As recently as August 7, President Obama declared that “core” al Qaeda is on a path to defeat. “Because of you, the 9/11 generation, we are accomplishing what we set out to do,” said the President, according to The Washington Times. “The core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the way to defeat. We are going to make sure that Afghanistan is never again a source of attacks against our country.” What about al Qaeda in other regions, such as Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), AQIM, or AQI? What about the look-alike organizations that share al Qaeda’s values, such as Jabhat al Nusra, who are affiliated with but do not necessarily share al Qaeda’s name?

“The President can declare that the war is over, but nobody bothered to query the guys on the other side, and they’re still fighting,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Steven Bucci. Regarding Benghazi, he said: “So al Qaeda learned that they could keep doing this stuff and there’s isn’t much that this administration’s going to do about it.”

This assumption has been further enhanced by the fact that the United States government has held no one accountable for the death of four Americans, be it those who perpetrated the attacks or those responsible for the security failures.

In Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi, by Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz, the authors note that those who attacked the CIA Annex “moved fluidly and proficiently from cover to cover in their assault.” And, they write, “The [mortar] crew members must have been Libyan military veterans or veterans of the jihadist campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Derna.” That’s because “Mortar crews required weeks of training and endless hours on the range in order to hone their skills.” Clearly, those who perpetrated the attacks were well-trained jihadis.

The FBI suspected al Qaeda’s involvement in the attacks within days.

Accuracy in Media recently held a conference on September 16 which explored the truth behind the September 11, 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. You can learn more about AIM’s work on Benghazi by visiting Video of the conference will be posted on the AIM website later this week.

Bethany Stotts is a freelance writer, and former staff writer for Accuracy in Academia. She blogs at


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