NEW YORK – The U.S. facility in Benghazi was unique in almost every aspect as far as security was concerned, according to the State Department’s Libya desk officer, Brian Papanu.
“Well, Benghazi was definitely unique in almost every – I can’t think of a mission similar to this ever, and definitely in recent history,” Papanu stated.
The diplomat’s quotes were contained in a newly released 100-page report on the Benghazi attack by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Informed Middle Eastern security officials, meanwhile, have told WND on multiple occasions that the Benghazi mission was a planning headquarters for coordinating aid, including weapons distribution, to jihadist-led rebels.
Regarding the unusual nature of the U.S. facility in Benghazi, the House report stated: “Documents and testimony obtained by the Committee during the course of its investigation show that the ad hoc facility in Benghazi, rather than being an example of expeditionary diplomacy, was instead an expedient way to maintain a diplomatic presence in a dangerous place.
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“The State Department was operating a temporary residential facility in a violent and unstable environment without adequate U.S. and host nation security support.”
Lee Lohman, the executive director of the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, further testified: [R]emember that Benghazi, I’m not sure that we – I’m trying to think back. I mean, we’ve evacuated from any number of places, but I’m not sure we’ve ever gone into something in such an expeditionary way as this by ourselves without having military along with us.”
The unusual lack of adequate security presents further evidence that secret activities took place inside the U.S. facility. Any large security presence would have drawn more attention to the shabby residential facility.
Perhaps even more perplexing than the lack of a significant U.S. security team in such a threat environment was the presence of the February 17 Brigade, which provided external security to the attacked Benghazi U.S. compound, including the villa where murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens lived when he was in Benghazi.
The February 17 Brigade is part of the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Al-Sharia, a militia that advocates the strict implementation of Islamic law in Libya and elsewhere and that took credit for previous attacks against other diplomatic posts in Benghazi.
Ansar al-Sharia initially used Internet forums and social media to claim responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack. Later, a spokesman for the group denied it was behind the attack.
Witnesses told reporters they saw vehicles with the group’s logo at the scene and that gunmen fighting at the compound had stated they were part of Ansar al-Sharia.
Some witnesses said they saw Ahmed Abu Khattala, a commander of Ansar al-Sharia, leading the attack. Contacted by news media, Khattala denied that he was at the scene.
More evidence of ambassador’s secret activities
According to the Middle Eastern security sources who have spoken to WND, arming efforts at the U.S. facility shifted focus to aiding the insurgency targeting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria after the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi.
Two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack, WND broke the story that murdered U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens himself played a central role in arming rebels and recruiting jihadists to fight Assad, according to Egyptian security officials.
In November 2012, Middle Eastern security sources further described both the U.S. mission and nearby CIA annex in Benghazi as the main intelligence and planning center for U.S. aid to the rebels, which was being coordinated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Many rebel fighters are openly members of terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida.
The information may help determine what motivated the deadly attacks in Benghazi.
In June, a Libyan weapons dealer from the February 17 Brigade – the group hired to provide security to the U.S. mission in Benghazi – told Reuters he has helped ship weapons from Benghazi to the rebels fighting in Syria.
The detailed account may provide more circumstantial evidence the U.S. Benghazi mission was secretly involved in procuring and shipping weapons to the Syrian opposition before the deadly attack last September that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
In the interview with Reuters, Libyan warlord Abdul Basit Haroun declared he was behind some of the biggest shipments of weapons from Libya to Syria. Most of the weapons were sent to Turkey, where they were then smuggled into neighboring Syria, he said.
Haroun explained he sent a massive weapons shipment from the port in Benghazi in August 2012, days before the attack on the U.S. compound. The weapons were smuggled into Syria aboard a Libyan ship that landed in Turkey purportedly to deliver humanitarian aid.
Ismail Salabi, a commander of the February 17 Brigade, told Reuters that Haroun was a member of the Brigade until he quit to form his own brigade.
Coordinating with rebels
Haroun told Reuters he runs the weapons smuggling operation with an associate, who helps him coordinate about a dozen people in Libyan cities collecting weapons for Syria.
In May, WND reported the U.S. Benghazi compound was involved in weapons collection efforts.
In a largely unnoticed speech to a think tank seven months before the Benghazi attack, a top State Department official described an unprecedented multi-million-dollar U.S. effort to secure anti-aircraft weapons in Libya after the fall of Gadhafi’s regime.
The official, Andrew J. Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said U.S. experts were fully coordinating the collection efforts with the Libyan opposition.
He said the efforts were taking place in Benghazi, where a leading U.S. expert was deployed.
In January, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed the efforts when she told Congress the CIA was leading a “concerted effort to try to track down and find and recover … MANPADS” looted from Gadhafi’s stockpiles.
Haroun did not mention any U.S. involvement in his weapons dealings.
Last year, Business Insider alleged a connection between Stevens and a reported September shipment of SA-7 MANPADS and rocket-propelled grenades from Benghazi to Syria through Turkey.
Syrian rebels then reportedly began shooting down Syrian military helicopters with SA-7s.
Stevens’ last meeting on the night of the Benghazi attack was with Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin.
One source told Fox News that Stevens was in Benghazi “to negotiate a weapons transfer in an effort to get SA-7 missiles out of the hands of Libya-based extremists.”
‘Largest weapons shipment’
Fox News may find another one of its exclusive reports vindicated.
In October 2012, Fox News reported the Libyan-flagged vessel Al Entisar, which means “The Victory,” was received in the Turkish port of Iskenderun, 35 miles from the Syrian border, just five days before Stevens was killed.
The shipment, disguised as humanitarian aid, was described as the largest consignment of weapons headed for Syria’s rebels.
Fox News reported the shipment “may have some link to the Sept. 11 terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.”
That shipment seems to be the one described by Haroun in his Reuters article.
Both Haroun and his associate described an August 2012 shipment with weapons hidden among about 460 metric tons of aid destined for Syrian refugees.
A recent U.N. report appears to confirm that weapons were hidden in the Al Entisar.
A U.N. Panel found that the loading port for the shipment was Benghazi, that the exporter was “a relief organization based in Benghazi” and the consignee was the same Islamic foundation based in Turkey that Haroun told Reuters had helped with documentation.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.