By Tim Lister
Much of the focus of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appearance on Capitol Hill Wednesday was on whether her department failed to appreciate and respond to the risks that led to the Benghazi attack - and whether it had the resources to confront such risks.
And, of course, on whether in the immediate aftermath, the administration characterized the attack candidly and accurately.
But the hearings also illustrated how the United States is scrambling to catch up with new realities in North Africa – and how it faces a long struggle in a new arena of instability.
Clinton acknowledged that “the Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region.”
Looking back to her confirmation as secretary of state four years ago, Clinton said, “I don’t think anybody thought [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak would be gone, [Libya’s Moammar] Gadhafi would be gone, [Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali would be gone.”
The Arab uprisings had coincided with the decimation of “core al Qaeda” – with the result that jihadists who had spent years in Pakistan’s tribal territories were returning home.
“We have driven a lot of the [al Qaeda] operatives out of the FATA [Pakistan’s tribal territories], out of Afghanistan, Pakistan….but we have to recognize this is a global movement,” she said.
“We now face a spreading jihadist threat,” Clinton said. “We do have to contend with the wannabes and affiliates going forward.”
On that at least, Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, agreed.
He said the United States faces a new and fractured threat environment.
“The Arab Spring has ushered in a time when al Qaeda is on the rise. The world in many ways is even more dangerous because we lack a central command [in al Qaeda] and have instead these nodes that are scattered throughout North Africa and other places.”
And Corker added that the United States was “woefully unprepared” for what had happened in the region.
Pandora’s Box of Arms
Clinton laid out both Washington’s short-term response after the Benghazi attack on September 11, 2012, and how it should deal with the longer-term risks.
“After Benghazi, we accelerated a diplomatic campaign to increase pressure on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist groups across the region,” she said in her opening remarks.
“In near-constant contacts at every level, we have focused on targeting al Qaeda’s syndicate of terror – closing safe havens, cutting off finances, countering extremist ideology and slowing the flow of new recruits,” she said.
But there was a mountain to climb.
Clinton expressed particular concern at events in Mali. Well-armed Tuareg militia who had been working for Gadhafi had come home just as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had also gravitated toward the area.
And only Algeria among Mali’s neighbors had the capacity to aid security in Mali, she said. The rest were simply not strong enough.
The size and topography of northern Mali, with its endless desert and caves, made for a long struggle, she said.
"But it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven.”
Clinton said the availability of weapons was a major problem, describing it as a Pandora’s Box that was the “source of one of our biggest threats.”
She asserted there was “no doubt that the Algerian terrorists [who attacked the gas facility in In Amenas last week] had weapons from Libya. There’s no doubt that the Malian remnants of AQIM have weapons from Libya.”
She also singled out the threat from Islamist militants of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, which according to some counterterrorism officials has begun to establish informal links with AQIM.
Who did Benghazi?
Four months after the Benghazi attack, the official refrain on the search for those responsible was the same.
“We continue to hunt the terrorists responsible for the attacks in Benghazi and are determined to bring them to justice,” Clinton said.
Clinton was also cautious in the way she described the attack, citing the unclassified version of the administrative review board she appointed to investigate the attack.
“There’s evidence that the attacks were deliberate, opportunistic and pre-coordinated but not necessarily indicative of extensive planning,” she said.
Clinton was also asked about a New York Times report Wednesday quoting an Algerian official that some of the attackers on the gas plant last week had also been involved in the Benghazi attack, according to interrogations of the surviving attackers.
Clinton was noncommittal, saying “that would be a new thread.” There was no way to confirm the information, and the administration would do everything possible to find out more, she pledged.
Clinton stressed repeatedly that the United States has to lead the way in providing security assistance in vulnerable nations.
“It’s not going to be easy,” she said, “because these new countries have no experience with democracy, they don’t have any real experience among the leaders in running countries, in doing security.”
In Libya, for example, there was willingness to improve security, but no capacity.
“We sent teams out – both civilian and military – experts to try to help them. Until recently, while they were going through their transition it was a very difficult conversation, because they didn’t have the authority.”
She pointed to the example of Colombia, where U.S. assistance over a 10-year period had reduced the threat of terrorist and paramilitary groups.
She also pointed to progress in Somalia, where U.S. funding and training for African troops in the capital and support for the intervention by Kenyan forces had helped push back al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab.
But “it took time. There were no short cuts,” she said.
“We are in for a long-term struggle here and that means we’ve got to pay attention to places that historically we have chosen not to or had to.”
One important platform for delivering security assistance would be the US Africa Command (AFRICOM). Ten years ago, Clinton said, people had wondered why the U.S. needed a new military command. Now there should be more attention on how and where it was resourced.
“We don’t have assets of any significance right now on the African continent. We’re only building that up,” Clinton said.