Benghazi killings: What’s happening in Libya and beyond?

A film mocking the prophet Mohammad is said to have led to the tragic attack on the US consulate in Libya, and attacks on other western embassies in the Middle East.

But what else lies behind the shocking explosion of anger that was sparked so violently in post-Gadaffi Libya with the killing of the American ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US citizens?

Libya had been pushed out of the headlines by new developments in the so-called Arab Spring in Syria and Egypt, but meantime a struggle for power between the east and west regions, Islamist factions and the pro-West central authorities continues to undermine any hopes for Libya’s  national stability.

Here, Dr Kamran Matin gives a brief overview of the complexities that underpin the attack on the US and considers what this might mean for the US and the Middle East.

Q Who stormed the US consulate in Bengazi – and why?

A No group has claimed responsibility but local media have reported that the attackers were members of extreme Salafi group The immediate cause was an American film entitled The Innocence of Muslims, which the protesters deemed blasphemous to the prophet Mohammad. The film is said to have been made by members of the Coptic Christian community living in the United States.

Q Is anti-US feeling really the result of the notorious YouTube video, or is there more playing out here as countries such as Egypt and Libya struggle to find their feet post-revolution?

A The film is the immediate cause of the attack and the subsequent protests in many other Muslim countries. But there are also wider contextual reasons that generally have to do with the role of the US in the Middle East ranging from invading two Muslim countries to its support for Israel and authoritarian regimes in the region. In the case of Libya, another important cause is, ironically, the NATO intervention in Libya that strengthened radical jihadi and Salafi groups. The classic example of this kind of 'blowback' was the rise of the Afghan Taliban, whose jihadi predecessors received massive amounts of arms and money from the US, Saudi Arabia and many other western countries in their war against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Q Recent events in Syria knocked Libya out of the news – what’s been happening in the country post-Gaddafi, and is there cause for concern?

A There has been an intense but under-reported struggle for power among various opposition groups. The authority of the pro-western central state does not reach many parts of the country. The eastern parts of Libya have traditionally been the stronghold of radical Islamist groups, hence the occurrence of the attack in Benghazi. Local militias or Islamist groups with close ties to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states rule in many areas. Given the nature of modern state formation in Libya the disintegration of the country is not a remote possibility.

Q How will the consulate killings affect US-Libyan relations, do you think?

A Given the upcoming US presidential elections, Obama might be forced into some sort of military reaction in the form of 'surgical' or 'targeted' operations against the perpetrators. However, the main reaction will probably take the form of further financial and military aid to the pro-western Libyan government to help assert control over the country and disarm the militia groups – by no means an easy task.

The incident might also affect US and West European policy towards Syria. It is likely to pressure the US and its allies to ensure that their military and financial aid to the Syrian opposition does not end up in the hands of the radical Islamic factions who have been increasingly active in many parts of Syria.

Turkey has already started tightening its control over its borders with Syria imposing various restrictions on the movement of Syrian refuges and members of Free Syrian Army. Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish political parties close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey now control much of Kurdish regions of Syria. PKK has been fighting Turkey, a NATO member state, for many years. The growing presence and power of the PKK in Syria poses a serious problem for Turkey’s Syria strategy and by implication the US.


Q What should be happening now to avert an escalation in violence and possible further external interference in Libya, do you think?

A In the short term, the US government should dissociate itself from the film and its makers – which might satisfy some of the protestors. But if the US responds militarily, the situation in Libya and elsewhere will escalate.


Notes for Editors

Kamran Matin is a Lecturer in International Relations whose research interests include international historical sociology, non-western experiences of modernity, Middle East politics, political Islam, Iranian modernity, and Kurdish politics. He is currently working on a book entitled Recasting Iran: International Relations, Modernity, Revolution , which will be published by Routledge in 2013.

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email: press@sussex.ac.uk

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Last updated: Friday, 14 September 2012

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