The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are perhaps the most-filmed event to ever happen. Even before the attacks happened, there are at least three videos that capture the moment that first plane hit the towers, when everything changed and all hope was lost for peace in the 21st Century. Yet, despite the countless hours of footage from that day, conspiracy theories about what “really” happened still arose with a remarkable quickness.
Knowing this, it is no surprise that another terrorist attack—eleven years later to the day and thousands of miles away in Benghazi, Libya—would be surrounded by confusion and conspiracy. The New York Times, in its most recent report on the subject, called it “the most significant attack on United States property,” since that seemingly normal Tuesday morning so many years ago.
Not shockingly, America is a much different country than it was twelve years ago and finds itself more politically divided than ever, despite the outpouring of good faith and community that immediately followed the first 9/11 attack. With four Americans dead, the media focus on the “why” of Benghazi all quickly turned into a debate over petty politics, with accusations flying that US support was told to “stand down” and simply let it happen. Unlike the conspiracy theories about the other 9/11 attacks, these accusations were not coming from dark corners of the internet but from “respected” political pundits and Republicans in the government.
The extensive NYT report about Benghazi, published last Friday, cites as sources Libyan militants who were either present that day or had knowledge of the attacks. The “central figure” in the attack was Abu Khattala, who denies ties to al Qaeda—the story’s central focus—but has respect for their goals.
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On Fox News Sunday, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) members of the House of Representatives, said that intelligence assessments after-the-fact concluded that “militias and fighters with known ties to al Qaeda” were involved in the eventual attack. Along with Khattala, members of the Jamal Network and Ansar al-Sharia have tenuous ties to al Qaeda and were definitely involved on the embassy attack. Schiff told Fox News that they had been eavesdropping on operatives who weren’t aware they were under surveillance. He acknowledges that while the NYT sources might have had an agenda in distancing al Qaeda from the attack, these clandestine sources may also have simply been boasting about things with which they were not involved.
The problem it seems is not “what we know” about what happened that day, but instead how exactly we define connections to al Qaeda. An August report from The Guardian discusses how that despite the declining membership and damaged leadership, the group was still dangerous. Unlike the other historical villains of America’s past wars—none more perfectly villainous than the Nazis—there is no central figure pulling the strings from a diabolically primitive cave-base deep in the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan. The U.S. has been remarkably effective in keeping this particular chicken’s head—and communications and finances—cut off, but this does not stop the body from running around.
Both the NYT investigation and The Daily Beast story provide clearer pictures of the make-up of the crowd that took down an embassy. And many of the central questions are impossible to figure out, at least in the short-term. For example, there is no denying that spontaneous protests around the globe in response to a poorly produced video featuring Mohammed (a terrible sin in itself) doing blasphemous things. So was the protest in Benghazi a cover for the attack or an opportunity a rag-tag group of militants were able to exploit beyond their wildest dreams? Was the attack itself a masterful plot executed by a singular terrorist group and covered up or was it an instance of various groups taking what they could get and succeeding? It seems as if the answer to this latter question might lie somewhere in the middle.