The State Department’s decision to hire a Libyan militia group with known ties to Islamic extremists reflects a broader “strategic national security failure” for the Obama administration, Mideast expert Walid Phares told Newsmax.
His stark critique of the administration’s foreign policy follows an exclusive Newsmax report Thursday that the State Department hired a militia group to help protect the Benghazi mission that was clearly sympathetic with Islamic extremists.
The February 17th Martyrs Brigade that the State Department relied on to help defend the mission had posted several controversial images -- a black al-Qaida flag -- on one of its Facebook pages.
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The site also bore images of jihadists waving rocket-propelled grenades, and carried laudatory remarks about Osama bin Laden.
Initially, the administration blamed a controversial video for triggering the September 2012 assault that claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The attack marked the first time since 1979 that a U.S. ambassador was killed in the line of duty.
The administration has since acknowledged the deadly attack was a well-planned assault on the anniversary of 9/11, rather than a spontaneous demonstration. House Republicans say the administration has been stonewalling an effort to illuminate State Department decisions made before, during, and after the attack.
Phares, an expert on terrorism and the Middle East, pointed to the symbols posted on the Facebook page three months before the attack as a clear indication the Martyrs Brigade had extremist sympathies.
“If you have these elements, and it’s clearly Islamic jihadi or linked to al-Qaida and you don’t make that determination -- and, worse, you hire one of these militias, the 17th, to protect you -- then this is not an error in judgment,” Phares tells Newsmax. “This is a strategic mistake.”
The nature and conduct of the Martyrs Brigade has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks. On April 23, the members of the House Republican Conference released an interim progress report on Benghazi.
Among the report’s findings: “Numerous reports have indicated 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.”
On Sept. 8, 2012, just days before Ambassador Stevens arrived in Benghazi, the February 17th Martyrs Brigade announced it would no longer provide security for U.S. diplomats moving through the area. This included the ambassador’s high-profile visit on the sensitive anniversary of 9/11.
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GOP Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., is among those leading the charge to bring out the full story of what happened in Benghazi. Wolf introduced a resolution earlier this year calling for a bipartisan special committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks. More than 134 Republican House members have signed onto the resolution as co-sponsors.
Asked by Newsmax to comment, Wolf reacted strongly to the news that the Martyrs Brigade had publicized its extremist sympathies long before the deadly Sept. 11 attacks.
“The true loyalties of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade -- including the question of why it abandoned the consulate immediately prior to the attack -- and the group’s possible connections to al-Qaida-affiliated groups is just one of the many unanswered questions that was not addressed in the Benghazi ‘interim progress report’ released this week,” Wolf told Newsmax in a statement.
Wolf called again for establishing the Select Committee to investigate Benghazi “so that we can provide the families of the victims and the American people the answer to this, and the many other questions.”
One element of special interest to investigators: The ties of February 17 to Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist group that many experts believe orchestrated the terrorist attack.
Vehicles bearing the organization’s emblem were reportedly visible during the assault, and several fighters stated they were members of Ansar al-Sharia.
The State Department described the brigade as “armed but poorly skilled” in its December report on the Benghazi attacks produced by a special internal review board. The department contracted the brigade to provide security because Libya had no effective police or army presence in the region.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a Newsmax request for an explanation of the decision to hire the February 17th Martyrs Brigade to protect the diplomatic mission.
This coming week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold hearings to try to learn more about the attack on Benghazi -- including the State Department’s decision in the months leading up to the attack to reduce security there, as well as why urgent pleas for help from those fighting to repel the attackers apparently were ignored.
Several Republicans have suggested the Obama administration has tried to intimidate whistleblowers who wish to come forward on the matter and share their stories with Congress. It is believed that some of those whistleblowers will testify next week.
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Former federal prosecutor Victoria Toensing told Newsmax this week that she had a client who wanted to share classified information with investigators, but was being blocked from doing so by the State Department.
“In order to tell the whole story, my client has to provide classified information,” Toensing said. The State Department “hasn’t acknowledged a process for doing that.”
At least four career State Department and CIA officials are seeking legal representation, and are complaining that administration officials are trying to intimidate them as they prepare to cooperate with congressional investigators, according to news reports.
President Barack Obama earlier this week said he was unaware of any complaints that Benghazi survivors were being blocked from appearing before Congress, and he promised to look into it.
The Accountability Review Board, the internal State Department panel convened to investigate the attacks, noted in its Dec. 18 report that February 17’s protection in Libya deteriorated just before Stevens’ ill-fated visit to the Benghazi compound.
“There were some troubling indicators of its reliability in the months and weeks preceding the September attacks,” the report said, noting that February 17 had “responded effectively” to blasts at the Benghazi compound in April and June of last year.
“At the time of Ambassador Stevens’ visit, February 17 militia members had stopped accompanying [consulate] vehicle movements in protest over salary and working hours,” the board’s report said.
In light of these revelations, Phares told Newsmax he was not surprised that by some accounts the February 17th militia apparently abandoned the mission complex during the Sept. 11 assaults.
“These militias had and have the capacity of entering the realm of deception,” he said, adding that one jihadi doctrine — “Taqiyya” — “says that they will use all that they can to deceive the enemy, to let us think that, basically, they are on our side against [deposed Libyan strongman Moammar] Gadhafi, and when they become strong enough, they will direct their violence against us.”
These militia groups are able to deceive untrained observers because “some of the jihadi enlisters were very disciplined,” Phares told Newsmax. “They are camouflaged. They were not distinguishable from the actual rebels of Libya. They were very systematic.”
He added that top State Department officials may have lacked the expertise in Arabic to determine that the symbols and phrases on February 17’s Facebook pages and in YouTube videos pointed to al-Qaida.
“Not everybody at the higher level of the State Department decision-making process knows Arabic,” Phares said. “You’ve got to know Arabic, but you also have to be knowledgeable in jihadi ideology, chanting and culture.”
Phares contended that these gaffes have led Obama officials to try to block any thorough review of Benghazi because “they are afraid that the American public would realize that the mistake was way beyond the issue of Benghazi.”
The administration’s larger problem, he said, is the collapse of its national-security policy on a strategic level.
“The administration is claiming that al-Qaida is going down, al-Qaida is weak,” Phares said. “At the same time, we’re withdrawing from the region.
“… When we withdraw, when we pull back, when we show signs of weakness, al-Qaida doubles the attacks,” he adds. “You can cover up for one, two or three [assaults], but you can’t stop al-Qaida from attacking.”
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