The Libyan militia group that the State Department hired to defend its embattled diplomatic mission in Benghazi had clear al-Qaida sympathies, and had prominently displayed the al-Qaida flag on a Facebook page some months before the deadly attack.
That organization, the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, was paid by the U.S. government to provide security at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. But there is no indication the Martyrs Brigade fulfilled its commitment to defend the mission on Sept. 11, when it came under attack.
The assault claimed the lives of four Americans: Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, information officer Sean Smith, and former Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979.
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Several entries on the militia’s Facebook page openly profess sympathy for Ansar al-Sharia, the hardline Islamist extremist group widely blamed for the deadly attack on the mission. The State Department did not respond to a Newsmax request for an explanation as to why the February 17th Martyrs Brigade was hired to protect the mission.
On April 23, House Republicans released an interim progress report on their investigation into the Benghazi killings. It cited “numerous reports” that “the Brigade had extremist connections, and it had been implicated in the kidnapping of American citizens as well as in the threats against U.S. military assets.”
The report also stated that just a few days before Stevens arrived in Benghazi, the Martyrs Brigade informed State Department officials they no longer would provide security as members of the mission, including Stevens, traveled through the city.
From June 2011 to July 2012, Eric Nordstrom, the regional security officer for Libya at the time, documented more than 200 security threats and violent incidents threatening to U.S. personnel in Libya. Some 50 of those incidents occurred in Benghazi.
Yet despite those threats, repeated requests for additional security from the mission went unheeded by the State Department, for reasons that remain unclear.
Perhaps the biggest question is why the State Department would hire a group that openly displayed its admiration for al-Qaida, and ask it to participate in the defense of its diplomatic mission.
The banner, or “cover photo” of one of the group’s Facebook pages, shows an Islamic fighter, or mujahid, with a portable rocket launcher resting on his shoulder.
The distinctive black flag of al-Qaida can be seen fluttering to the man’s right, attached to the vehicle in which he is riding. The mujahid wears a headband based on the design of the al-Qaida flag. The flag in question features the shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, and a white circle that is sometimes described as the “seal of Mohammed.”
The flag was made famous by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Iraqi al-Qaida affiliate, commonly known as “al-Qaida in Iraq.” The flag originally used by al-Qaida was a plain black flag with the shahada written on it in white. Both flags are widely used by contemporary jihadist groups.
|The original cover photo on Facebook page of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, displaying the al-Qaida banner.
An Arabic inscription written over the photo reads: “Allah, his prophet and Libya and that’s it.” The cover photo was posted by the site administrator on June 10, 2012., and was the first activity on the Facebook page.
The photo was presumably taken at a massive rally in support of the sharia, or Islamic law, held in Benghazi three days earlier, on June 7. The rally included a military parade featuring units from a large cross-section of the Eastern Libyan militias that spearheaded the 2011 rebellion against Moammar Gadhafi.
Video of the event posted by local sources shows several al-Qaida flags flying at the event. Al-Qaida-inspired accessories, such as headbands and decals, were widely displayed as well. One of the sponsoring organizations of the rally was Ansar al-Sharia. The term Ansar al-Sharia means “supporters of the sharia.” Sharia is Islamic law and regulations.
On June 15, five days after the photo was posted, the February 17th Martyrs Brigade updated the cover photo on the Facebook page, replacing the image with a photo montage featuring its own logo and a masked commando sporting the colors of the new Libyan national flag on a shoulder patch.
The cover photo has been updated several times since then. It is clear, however, that the group has repudiated neither al-Qaida nor its violent ideology.
On June 28, for example, the brigade posted a second graphic bearing a headline title that translates to: “The bearded [man] is suspect until he proves he is not a Muslim!!!”
The graphic features two rows of pictures. The top row consists of bearded Muslim men. The images include some of the leading figures of modern-day jihadism, including al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The Arabic text on the graphic states the Muslims are accused of various faults, including “terrorism” and “extremism.”
The second row shows bearded non-Muslims (including Tolstoy, Che Guevara and George Bernard Shaw). The caption suggests the Western world sees the bearded non-Muslims as intelligent, and holds them in high esteem.
To drive home the point, the graphic includes a quotation from the Quran: “Then will we treat Muslims like criminals? What is the matter with you? How do you judge?”
The implication is that the Muslims in the top row, including Osama bin Laden, have been unfairly labeled.
|Graphic from Facebook page of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade
Several entries on the Facebook page make clear the brigade’s sympathies for the Ansar al-Sharia militia, which allegedly has al-Qaida ties. In the Western media, Ansar al-Sharia has been widely accused of having perpetrated the Sept. 11 Benghazi attacks.
An entry posted Sept. 19, eight days after the Benghazi attacks, laments the death of an Ansar al-Sharia member. It asks God to “receive him amongst the martyrs” and to receive him “into his wide paradise.” The entry points out that the deceased, Adham al-Falastini, previously was a member of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade.
Another revealing earlier post, on June 25, shows a graphic from a now-defunct Ansar al-Sharia Facebook page. It carries a warning from Ansar al-Sharia about the distribution of pens bearing an image of the Virgin Mary. The graphic cautions against propagating beliefs that Muslims should scorn.
|A warning from Ansar al-Sharia about “Virgin Mary pens.” Graphic reproduced on a Facebook page of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade.
At least two recent entries on the February 17th Martyrs Brigade site feature the Ansar al-Sharia logo. One of these, dated Jan. 29, suggests that Ansar al-Sharia is the target of a “treacherous” plot to get the brigade blamed for various attacks and assassination attempts.
The other, dated Jan. 20, announces that Ansar al-Sharia has begun guarding the western gate of Benghazi “in the service of our religion and…of the Libyan people.”
This news, which is corroborated by other sources, is notable in light of Western news reports claiming Ansar al-Sharia was driven out of the city following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission.
|Ansar al-Sharia logo on Facebook page of February 17th Martyrs Brigade
A more recent entry, March 2, features a graphic celebrating Jabhat al-Nusra, the offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq that has played a leading role in the Syrian insurrection against the rule of Bashar al-Assad.
Late last year, Jabhat al-Nusra was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
In defiance of the U.S. designation, the Arabic on the graphic declares, “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra.”
The accompanying Facebook entry repeats this sentiment, and recites the exploits of the al-Qaida-linked brigade in the Syrian civil war, including “more than 40 martyrdom operations.” Jihadist groups use “martyrdom operations” to refer to suicide bombings.
|“We are all Jabhat al-Nusra.” Graphic from a Facebook page of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade
The State Department had hired the February 17th Martyrs Brigade to provide security at the U.S. mission in Benghazi. A document recovered from the mission two days after the attack indicated the State Department had arranged for the Martyrs Brigade to act as a “Quick Reaction Force” to protect the mission.
The Memorandum of Agreement states that “in the event of an attack on the U.S. mission, QRF will request additional support from the 17th February Martyrs Brigade.”
Throughout the summer leading up to the attack, embassy officials repeatedly asked the State Department for additional security. But the State Department actually reduced security, pulling out a military detachment responsible for defending diplomats in Libya.
One reason the requests for additional security may have been denied: They did not fit into the administration narrative that al-Qaida elements no longer posed a threat to U.S. interests.
One diplomatic cable to the mission indicated that the U.S.-based deputy assistant secretary for diplomatic security was “reluctant to ask for [additional security] apparently out of concern that it would be embarrassing to the [State Department] to continue to have to rely on [Defense Department] assets to protect our mission.”
When the mission’s regional safety officer expressed an interest in July 2012 asking State Department official to permit the military security team to continue to protect the mission, Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary in charge of diplomatic security, sent an e-mail that responded: “NO, I do not [I repeat] not want them to ask for the [military security] team to stay!”
Republicans have complained in recent weeks that the Obama administration has been stonewalling their investigation. According to Fox News, four career officials at the State Department and the CIA have retained counsel as they prepare to provide Congress with inside information on the attacks.
"Victoria Toensing, an attorney representing one of the whistleblowers, said they have been threatened by CIA and State Department officials with repercussions if they talk to Congress about what happened in Benghazi. But President Obama said earlier this week he was “unaware” of anyone being discouraged from coming forward to tell Congress their side of the story.
" House Republican Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, issued a statement on Tuesday: “Over the past two weeks, I have sent four letters requesting that this administration make information available about how lawyers — who already have security clearances and are representing Benghazi whistleblowers — can be cleared to fully hear their clients’ stories. I have yet to receive any responses from the Obama administration.”
The House Republicans’ Interim Progress Report concludes with an ominous warning: “This singular event will be repeated unless the United States recognizes and responds to the threats we face around the world, and properly postures resources and security assets to counter and respond to those threats.
“Until that time, the United States will remain in a reactionary mode and should expect more catastrophes like Benghazi, in which U.S. personnel on the ground perform bravely, but are not provided with the resources for an effective response,” the report stated.
Newsmax Senior Editor David A. Patten contributed to this report.
John Rosenthal is a European-based journalist who writes on EU politics and transatlantic security issues. His new book is The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion. Translations from Arabic provided by Maureen Millington-Brodie.
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