Clara Gutteridge is a human rights investigator who documents national security–related abuses in the East and Horn of Africa. She was formerly resident fellow at the Open Society Justice Initiative and Deputy Director of the Secret Prisons team at Reprieve.
When Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in Benghazi on September 11, he became the victim of a stray bullet from the past fired by an enemy the United States helped create. Today’s debate over what levels of security might have prevented the tragedy is a distraction from the real story of how American meddling in Libya set the stage for the assassination. This historical amnesia was on full display during the second presidential debate, in which the candidates clashed over a question even less relevant than the security issue: how many days it took Obama to label the attack an “act of terror.” Even by the low standards of America’s diminished political attention span, the controversy over the embassy attack playing out in the media is remarkable for its total lack of historical context.
To understand the roots of the crisis in Libya, after all, would mean examining how, for years, the United States helped Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and other Arab leaders hold on to power and terrorize their opponents anywhere in the world, in the name of the “war on terror.” It would mean exposing successive administrations’ rendition and torture policies, and their collusion with despotic Arab regimes to carry them out. Though many Arabs targeted by the United States remained focused exclusively on challenging the regimes in their home countries—and refused to harm civilians to achieve their aims—some came to regard the United States, its assets and civilians as legitimate targets in some circumstances.
Among these appear to be some members of the Benghazi-based group Ansar al-Sharia. A leading member, Ahmed Abu Khattala, was identified on October 17 as the prime suspect behind the killing of Ambassador Stevens. Khattala was imprisoned under Qaddafi at the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, where a piece of the history linking the United States and Libya is visible as an observation scrawled on the wall of a ruined cell: “Life [imprisonment] in Guantánamo is not even a day in Abu Salim.” The comparison is apt. These two facilities—one run by the US military, the other by Qaddafi’s men—essentially became a part of the same network of secret prisons. The US rendition program that used these prisons grew out of long-term collaborations between the United States and its partners in ousted Arab regimes. It began under President Clinton as an arrangement with Egypt, whereby the CIA would capture exiled opponents of the Mubarak regime and render them back to Egypt for detention, torture and often death. After 9/11, the program was dramatically expanded by George W. Bush to include a network of extraterritorial US-run prisons and proxy detention sites around the world...