Foreign Policy Investigative Report Long Form

How Our Middle East Policy Brought Trump To Power

When Pew Research Center set out to answer what the “top voting issue” was in the 2016 election, the first was the economy. The second was terrorism.

Gallup found that “terrorism and national security” topped the chart when it came to issues that both Democrats and Republicans cared most about. In the wake of ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Paris, 53 percent of Americans said that the United States should stop accepting refugees altogether (69 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats).

Unsurprisingly, a majority of these people voted for Trump and a lot similar minded people in the U.K. voted to leave the European Union.

In the last month there have been a number of explanations for how Trump stunned the world (including himself) and won the election. Most analyses have focused on the voting power of white working class voters, the anti-establishment fervor predominant in the nation, or Russia and the the FBI’s interference throughout election.

But very little has gone to understand the underlying fear that both Trump and the leaders of Brexit managed to tap into – the fear of terrorism, refugees and the religion of Islam. A fear that continues to this day as more ISIS-inspired attacks occur around the world.

People gather to protest against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees at the Washington State capitol in Olympia
November 2015 protest against the United States’ acceptance of Syrian refugees at the Washington State capitol in Olympia. Trump and the leaders of Brexit successfully seized upon populist fears of immigration and terrorism from foreigners.

The hard truth is that this nationalist fear-mongering of refugees and immigration is a direct consequence of Western nations turning Middle East nations into failed states over the last 10-15 years across Democratic and Republican administrations. Donald Trump and Brexit are merely nativist reactions to the decisions that created the global refugee crisis and the spread of ISIS. 

We are well aware of the role of Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 to launch the expensive and on-going military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But 8 years has passed us by and the instability in the Middle East has gotten worse, not better. As we come to the end of Obama’s 8 year tenure, it is a good time to step back, reflect, and ask a more fundamental question.

What happened during Obama’s presidency where even more refugees are fleeing out of the Middle East and religious terrorist groups seem more powerful and dangerous than ever?

Unidentified man stands outside the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya following the infamous terror attack that killed 4 Americans in September 2012

The terror attack in Benghazi, Libya happened over 4 years ago, but its legacy has played a much larger role in this most recent election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump than most have realized.

Not because the infamous e-mail server scandal emerged from the Benghazi investigation. Nor for the repeated testimonies and largely partisan media scrutiny which hurt Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers going into the 2016 election.

When we look back on the Obama era, Benghazi should be remembered for its far more important reminder that one of the lasting legacies of the administration is the complete collapse of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. And in their wake the rise of ISIS, whose presence and organizational leadership is the largest in these four countries. This is the reality which has produced today’s global refugee crisis and ultimately fostered the environment of fear which helped bring Trump to power.

If you are unfamiliar with the Benghazi controversy I will summarize it briefly.

During the Arab Spring revolution in 2011, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by a popular revolution with support from NATO, led by the United States. The country then descended into chaos with rival factions occupying different parts of the country.

Amidst the chaos, a terrorist attack against a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya killed 4 Americans in September 2012. Two were security contractors with the CIA and two were employees of the US State Department. One of whom was the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

The first controversy was whether the Obama administration tried to downplay or mislead the public a few months before his re-election by having top officials claim the event was a spontaneous protest to an American-made YouTube video mocking Islam, rather than a premeditated terror attack

As details of the events emerged, critics raised additional questions about whether the State Department had provided adequate security at the outposts in strife-torn Libya and whether high-level officials told back-up security forces to “stand down” rather than come to the rescue while U.S. personnel were still under fire.

The four nations which became failed states over the last 8 years and now have the largest ISIS presence in the world

There is one part of the controversy that this article will be focusing on: why were the 4 Americans who died in Benghazi even there to begin with? 

Last year, the Department of Defense declassified an intelligence briefing from October 2012, one month after the terror attack, which would explain quite clearly what the U.S. was doing in Benghazi after the fall of the Libyan government.

“2. During the immediate aftermath, of, and following the uncertainty caused by, the downfall of the ((Qaddafi)) regime in October 2011 and up until early September of 2012, weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria. The Syrian ports were chosen due to the small amount of cargo traffic transiting these two ports. The ships used to transport the weapons were medium-sized and able to hold 10 or less shipping containers of cargo. 3. The weapons shipped from Libya to Syria during late-August 2012 were Sniper rifles, RPG’s, and 125mm and 15mm howitzers missiles. The numbers for each weapon were estimated to be: 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG launchers with 300 total rounds, and approximately 400 howitzers missiles [200 ea – 125mm and 200ea -155mm]”

Why were weapons being shipped out of Libya and into Syria between 2011-2012?

Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, smiles at his home in Tripoli
Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens – first sitting ambassador to be killed since 1979

It was during this time that the peaceful demonstrations against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were devolving into an armed resistance.

The Red Cross officially declared the turmoil in Syria a civil war in July 2012. The attack at Benghazi occurred in September 2012. This was the beginning of the destructive Syrian civil war which has played out in front of our eyes for the last 5 years.

It had been no secret that the U.S. wanted Assad to go. But the much better kept secret was what role we played in the unrest in Syria turning into a civil war to begin with.

That secret began unraveling after the Benghazi attack exposed the presence of an undisclosed CIA annex that came under attack after the U.S. diplomatic outpost.

During the initial Benghazi hearings Congressman Devin Nunes asked CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper point blank whether the CIA was there to send weapons from Libya into Syria.

Nunes: Are we aware of any arms that are leaving that area and going into Syria?
Morell: Yes, sir.
Clapper: Yes.
Nunes: And who is coordinating that?
Morell: I believe largely the [REDACTED] are coordinating that.
Nunes: They are leaving Benghazi ports are going to Syria?
Morell: I don’t know how they are getting the weapons from Libya to Syria. But there are weapons going from Libya to Syria. And there are probably a number of actors involved in that. One of the biggest are the [REDACTED]

Nunes: And, were the the CIA folks that were there, were they helping coordinate that, or were they watching it, were they gathering information about it?

Morrell: Sir, the focus of my officers in Benghazi was [REDACTED]

While the redactions make it difficult to clarify who exactly was coordinating the operation and what role the CIA played in it, the highest levels of the US intelligence community were no doubt aware it was happening. 

But if it was not just the U.S. overseeing the arms transfer, then who else was involved? Famed investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an explosive article in the London Review of Books in April 2014 uncovering the much larger story behind Benghazi.

“The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.

The “rat line” to transfer weapons from Libya, to Turkey, into Syria

By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities.

Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer.

Retired Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were the two CIA contractors killed in Benghazi

One does not need to take Seymour Hersh’s word for exposing the international gun-running operation taking place.

Anyone who has done a preliminary amount of research into the Syrian war would easily discover that for the past 5 years the United States has worked in tandem with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad.

This partnership has its roots in Benghazi.

On September 6th, 2012, a Libyan-flagged vessel called Al Entisar was received in the Turkish port of Iskenderun, 35 miles from the Syrian border. The ship carried heavy weaponry including surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs which found their way into the hands of Syrian rebels. These sophisticated weapons were used to shoot down Syrian and Russian helicopters and aircraft.

On the night of the attack on September 11th, 2012 in what became his last public meeting, Ambassador Chris Stevens reportedly met with Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin to negotiate the weapons transfers out of Libya and into Syria.

Three days later, another Libyan ship docked in Turkey “carrying the largest consignment of weapons for Syria”. The shipment weighed over 400 tons and included SA-7  anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Libyan official Abdul Basit Haroun would later publicly admit that he was letting weapons leave the port of Benghazi to reach the Syrian rebels. “They know we are sending guns to Syria,” Haroun said. “Everyone knows.” The New York Times would innocuously headline an article “In turnabout, Syria rebels get Libyan weapons

Libyan ship “Al Ensitar” docking in Turkey with weapons bound for Syria

Lighter shipments of weapons were snuck directly into smaller Syrian ports, as the original DoD intelligence report said, but the much heavier, deadly weaponry was going through a secret command center near the Syrian border jointly run by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.

Last week, Reuters reported that, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey had established a secret base near the Syrian border to help direct vital military and communications support to Assad’s opponents.

This “nerve center” is in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 60 miles from the Syrian border, which is also home to Incirlik, a U.S. air base where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence.

NBC said the shoulder-fired missiles, also known as MANPADs, had been delivered to the rebels via Turkey.

If it were not already bad enough that the U.S. was smuggling weapons out of Libya, a country whose government we had just toppled with NATO’s help, who exactly were the Syrian rebels receiving these weapons? 

An internal Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) briefing from August 2012 offered a sobering analysis of what the Syrian opposition we were arming looked like.

The General Situation

A. Internally, events are taking a clear sectarian direction.

B. The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.

C. The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China and Iran support the regime

Syrian rebel holding surface-to-air missile, known as a MANPAD

It wasn’t just the DIA reporting that extremist militant groups were leading the opposition to Assad. The defense consultancy IHS Jane reported at the time that more than half the rebel fighters in Syria had some hardline Islamist affiliation.

“The insurgency is now dominated by groups which have at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict. The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out.” – Charles Lister, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute

It’s hard to imagine that at the same time U.S. intelligence was reporting that literal jihadists were leading the opposition to Assad…that we decided to covertly ship weapons to them. 

But that is exactly what happened.

With the help of Turkey, the Saudis and the Qataris, the United States helped funnel weapons to a range of jihadi extremist groups to overthrow the Syrian government.

Of course the larger story in the background is the not-so-secret oil and gas pipeline war that has pit the U.S. and its Gulf allies against Russia, Iran and Syria (I have written about that extensively here). But teaming up with extremists to reach geopolitical objectives rarely works out.

As the Syrian civil war entered its second year, a resurgent Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) banded together with a range of other salafist militia groups to declare a “caliphate” in eastern Syria and parts of Iraq.

Thus, ISIS was born.

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir during 2015 Syria peace talks

The origin of ISIS as an “anti-Assad” fighting force is never really reckoned with when we talk about the conflict in Syria today. Nor the fact that the Defense Intelligence Agency predicted a “Salafist principality” could be formed between Iraq and Syria as a way to “isolate the Syrian regime” almost 2 years in advance.

In an e-mail to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton rather plainly pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia and Qatar for providing “financial and logistic support to ISIL”. But the U.S. has played perhaps equally as important a role in its rise.

Not only did ISIS ultimately acquire millions of dollars worth of weapons that the U.S. helped funnel into Syria (and that we left behind in Iraq), but ISIS’s senior most military commander himself was in fact a CIA-trained soldier from the eastern European country of Georgia.

Abu Omar al Shishani, previously known as Tarkhan Batirashvili, was extensively trained by the CIA back in 2006 as part of the Georgian special forces sent to fight in Afghanistan.

“He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star,” an unnamed former comrade who is still active in the Georgian military told McClatchy DC. “We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil.”

Former ISIS military commander Tarkhan Batirashvili, known as “Omar the Chechen”

Batirashvili disappeared for a number of years but then reappeared in Syria in 2013 commanding the jihadist Syrian rebel group Jaysh al Muhajireen. The group merged with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to form ISIS and he became its commander of military operations.His military skills were so successful in capturing huge swaths of Iraq and Syria that Michael Cecire, an analyst of extremism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute commented that “Batirashvili’s ability to demonstrate ISIS’ tactical prowess attracted fighters in droves from other factions and tipped the scales in foreign fighter flow and recruitment.”

Though Batirashvili was killed in a drone strike just 5 months ago in July, he is but a part of one of the most destructive chapters in American foreign policy history.

For all the death and destruction that ISIS is spreading now, let us not forget how it really began.

It is impossible to remember the legacy of Barack Obama without remembering that in the heart of his time in office, the United States played a central role in creating two new failed states in the Middle East – Libya and Syria.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and now deceased Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi

It’s worth mentioning that I completely omitted the story of how the United States toppled the Gaddafi regime in Libya under the false pretense that he was about to commit a genocide. (No really, there are audio tapes of how we lied to overthrow the Libyan government). Perhaps I will publish that saga if Libya becomes relevant again.

But what came after Libya fell has been far more devastating than anyone could have imagined.

I doubt many of us were paying close attention to international politics back in September 2012, when most of us were in high school or starting college, but the attack at Benghazi was incredibly significant for what was happening at the time.

Not only did it occur 2 months before Obama’s re-election bid against Mitt Romney and disperse the myth that our Libya intervention had created a stable, successful democracy . It risked publicly exposing an ongoing covert operation to illegally arm rebel groups in Syria…who ended up becoming ISIS a year later.

Perhaps this is why the CIA went to extraordinary lengths to prevent agents from speaking to the media or Congress about their operations in Benghazi, going as far as polygraphing agents multiple times a month.

Perhaps this is why there was a huge clash between the CIA and the State Department in creating the talking points for how to tell the story of what was happening at Benghazi without exposing the operation.

Perhaps this is why the known falsehood of a YouTube video-inspired protest being responsible for the Benghazi attack was trotted out by the most senior levels of the Obama administration.

President Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Sure, one could remember Benghazi as the partisan witch hunt which ended up proving no evidence of wrong-doing and while creating a base of fanatical Trump supporters with “Killary”signs.

Or one could remember Benghazi as the centerpiece of some of the most dangerous and catastrophic decisions made by the United States to date.

The decision to ship weapons into the hands of extremist rebel fighters in Syria has undeniably helped create this reality:

Today, half a million Syrians lay dead as the Assad government continues to battle armed opposition groups dominated by foreign extremists.

Over 10 million Syrians are displaced or seeking refuge in another country.

Over 32 countries have been victims of ISIS-related terror attacks while ISIS now has fully functional operations in 18 different countries. Both numbers are expected to grow

Syrian refugees at the Turkish border

It’s not surprising to see how Donald Trump managed to exploit this reality to win over large sections of America.The world is a far more dangerous place now than it was 8 years ago and in no small part because of the decisions made by this administration while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

Hillary of course did her part to keep the gun-running operation her State Department was helping coordinate a secret. When questioned by Senator Rand Paul and Senator Mike Pompeo at the Benghazi hearings, she twice denied under oath that any weapons were leaving Benghazi and going to arm Syrian rebels.

But she didn’t need the operation to be exposed in order to lose the election.

The entire Middle East is in flames as millions of people in Iraq, Libya and Syria flee in every direction. With our help, jihadist groups are more powerful today than they have ever been.

So powerful that they even declared their own nation. And have developed a sophisticated propaganda network that is radicalizing thousands of individuals around the world.

Let’s not forget, our own Middle East policy of incubating ISIS to help overthrow Assad came home to roost in this election.

Photo I took outside of Pulse Nightclub in Orlando two weeks after an ISIS-inspired attack killed 49 people

After ISIS-inspired attacks killed 14 people in San Bernardino and 49 people in Orlando many people’s priorities for the next President changed. Their views on immigration, refugees, and religion hardened.

Donald Trump’s ridiculous plan to ban Muslims from coming into America didn’t seem so crazy anymore. In fact, almost half of Americans supported it. Nationalism, xenophobia and Islamophobia became mainstreamed and rationalized.

The blowback seems predictable now, but it does not make it any less unfortunate.

The millions of innocent people abroad who have been most hurt by our years of misguided interventions in the Middle East are also the ones who have the most to lose from a Trump administration.

This is why when we look back at Benghazi it should not be about a YouTube video or whether Hillary Clinton should have done more to protect the 4 Americans who died.

The real legacy of Benghazi is how the destruction that the Obama administration is leaving behind in the Middle East allowed Donald Trump to come to power.

Whatever is in store for us in this new year, my only hope is that the next administration has learned the lesson of Benghazi. A lesson that every American administration since the end of World War II has failed to learn.

Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to get out of the business of overthrowing foreign governments. 

About The Author

Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.

Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.

He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.

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