Was the Benghazi attack “terrorism”?

The Benghazi attack was irregular warfare not terrorism.


One of the silliest criticisms of the US government in the wake of the assault on the Benghazi diplomatic mission was that it was reluctant to describe it as “terrorism”. Initially it did not, because it didn’t know; a little later Obama did use the word. It’s now CW that it was a “terrorist” attack (a) because it was carried out by Islamist extremists, Ansar al-Sharia, (b) because two of the dead (Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith) were US diplomats.

The Benghazi mission was basically a CIA operation, initially to support the revolution against Gaddafi and later to influence it and to pursue Islamist groups. It was a secret paramilitary operation.

How can you describe the attack on it as terrorism rather than irregular warfare? This would only fit if the attack were essentially designed as an assassination of the US Ambassador, a protected civilian, which does not seem to be the case. The militants didn’t know where he was when they set fire to the mission building, the cause of his and Smith’s deaths.

Would you call the Taliban’s 2009 attack on the CIA compound at Khost terrorism?

It was the USA that decided to define its conflict with al-Qaeda as war not law enforcement. Military operations by al-Qaeda and its associates against US soldiers and spies are therefore just that, unless they target civilians, the definition for terrorism. Collateral damage to civilians isn’t enough, as with US drone strikes. The ex-SEAL security men Doherty and Woods died bravely in battle, not as terrorist victims. (For the record, I’d better repeat that however you define it, it’s a conflict the US has to win.)

Of course you can always twist the word to mean “killing while Muslim”.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

37 thoughts on “Was the Benghazi attack “terrorism”?”

  1. It’s a lost cause now.

    Bomb attacks on uniformed US soldiers on the battle field is called terrorism now.

    1. The word terrorism has always been meaningless. But people won’t accept this, so they keep on arguing about it. They really love the word (and applying it to ideological enemies).

  2. This line of argument seems to depend pretty heavily on defining the al-Qaeda conflict as a war.

    I’ve never agreed with this definition (I always thought it was mostly a legal fiction created by the US government out of convenience so that they could dispatch with the legal niceties of normal criminal investigation and procedure), so I don’t think that the consulate serving double duty as a front for intelligence operations (which has historically been the case for a lot of US diplomatic missions, including the embassy in Beirut in 1983) has any effect on classifying the attack as terrorism or not.

    I do think the rather selective parsing of Susan Rice’s original statement (which pretty clearly implied terrorist or at least extremist involvement) is silly beyond belief, though.

    1. The CIA has never been a pure intelligence outfit like the British MI6. Benghazi was not a very sensible base for intelligence-gathering, but a good one for covert ops against and for various militias and armed gangs. The Wikipedia article reports detailed allegations of the mission’s role in the GWOT.

      1. That’s not the distinction I’m trying to make (I have to admit that I could have elaborated more and been a bit less terse 🙂 ). But briefly, while there are lots of different definitions of terrorism, most seem to have at least the following elements in common:

        (1) A serious criminal act, involving violence, property damage, threats to public health, etc.
        (2) The act is intended to create fear.
        (3) The goal of the attack is ideological in nature (as opposed to being military or strategic, such as bombing infrastructure to hamper troop movements).

        It is perfectly possible to have acts of terror that target the military; the European marxist terrorist organization of the 1970s/1980s (such as the Red Brigades or the Red Army Faction) committed several. A military target can create a presumption of the goal being military or strategic in nature; a mixed civilian/intelligence target — no matter whether this does or does not include covert ops — does not, and I have seen no evidence that the attack was conducted with a military or strategic end in mind.

        Also, my larger point (of which the above is a part) is that the al-Qaeda conflict is not a war (aside from guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan etc. with purely localized effects) and that labeling it as such has been more to facilitate both the Bush and Obama administration’s establishment of a “martial law lite” than for actual exigencies necessary to aid military operations in a time of (non-existent) war.

        1. So you’d be happy to call WW2 mass bombing terrorism? It meets all your criteria.

          James’ point is that when you use words incorrectly, you start to think incorrectly. When terrorism becomes a synonym for “doing anything against the US” (and, believe me, we’re headed that way. Soon enough an international lawsuit against the US will be “legal terrorism”, charging the US higher prices than it wants to pay will be “economic terrorism”) then you lose all ability to reason clearly about WHY these things are happening, and to distinguish between different types of and degrees of disagreement.

          And this matters. Unwillingness to distinguish important differences between the USSR and China led to the US’ pointless involvement in Vietnam. SImilar unwillingness to distinguish between various Islamic nations and their motives then led to the even more pointless (who in 1970 would have thought that was even possible?) US involvement in Iraq.

          1. The WW2 mass bombings are generally not considered terrorism, because they were not criminal acts; state actors are not subject to criminal law, and they were not war crimes, either (even today, several countries, including the United States, have not ratified Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions). Also, there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, as I noted, I just listed common elements. There are some people who do indeed think that the bombings of London, Dresden, and Hiroshima qualified as acts of terror.

            More importantly, I’m mystified why you’d rather have the attack called warfare than terrorism. Terrorism is a crime; it is supposed to and has traditionally been dealt with by the criminal justice system. It is the expansive definition of warfare that you should be worried about, because that is what has been at the source of the erosion of civil liberties and due process that we have been seeing since 9/11. I can understand and agree with not expanding the definition of terrorism to arbitrarily include acts that are not criminal or at best misdemeanors; but narrowing the definition of terrorism only in order to expand the definition of warfare is driving out the devil with Beelzebub.

            Finally, there is no objectively “correct” or “incorrect” definition of terrorism; as I noted above, everybody disagrees on what the word means (there are mutually incompatible definitions in the United States Code, even). My point is that terms that give governments power need to be construed narrowly, not expansively, and I’m worried about the increasingly expansive definition of “war” that the US government has been using. I would also be worried about an expansive definition of “terrorism” that includes acts that are neither terror nor warfare if that was what was going on here. But it isn’t, and where we are in the gray zone between terror and warfare, definitions should come down on the side that gives the government less power.

  3. Ah, so things are starting to clear up a bit. The revisions to the talking points were being driven by the CIA, which was anxious to deflect the blame for failure of _its operation_ onto the State Department.

    I’ll be rolling on the ground laughing if Benghazi! does turn out to hold impeachable charges – of David Petraeus! The right wing nuts execute a blue-on-blue of /their own best hope for a Spartan President/. Better tell the hard Radical Right to “stand down!” before its too late.


    Emptywheel has the details, as usual.

  4. The 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon was designated by the United States as an act of terrorism, even though the barracks were a military target and the US (regardless of what the official position was) were taking sides in the dispute.

  5. I’m guessing there might be more than a few soldiers and marines out there thinking, “Thousands of us get killed in thousands of attacks, and it’s treated like business as usual. But let a couple diplomats get killed alongside, and it’s a full on D.C. scandal, with Congressional hearings and the whole shot.”

  6. “It was the USA that decided to define its conflict with al-Qaeda as war not law enforcement.”

    The U.S. chose a definition, in-between: both and neither, as may be most convenient in justifying careless expedience. I do not think one can be too cynical in appreciating the absence of any principle, binding U.S. conduct — this is a matter of design.

  7. Maybe we should stop using the word “terrorism” altogether. There’s regular warfare, irregular warfare, and violent crime. All are terrifying.

  8. I think it’s nicely ironic that, months ago, that the embassy was being used as a conduit for weapons by the administration, and allowed to go down to hide this, was a right wing conspiracy theory, and now it’s a left wing administration defense.

    I think you’ll always be able to come up with an excuse to declare some act isn’t terrorism, short of the perpetrator going out screaming, “Writhe it terror of my otherwise unmotivated act, worms!” But “It was irregular warfare, not terrorism!” seems a strange point to make: Terrorism is a tactic in irregular warfare.

    Andrew has a point: Why focus on the word, instead of the act? Because there’s no scandal about ignoring an embassy’s requests for heightened security, and then refusing to send help when they’re attacked, if it wasn’t a terrorist attack? Merely an act of war?

    By the way, I note the “nobody higher up knew about it” defense in the IRS abuse scandal disintegrated in record time. Maybe they’ve reached scandal overload, and can’t stonewall effectively on this many fronts?

    1. “But “It was irregular warfare, not terrorism!” seems a strange point to make.” It’s a minor one, but there’s irony in Rice being criticised for not saying it was terrorism, and Obama not rushing to say so, when the initial hesitations were quite correct.
      As a general rule, it helps to think clearly about what one’e adversaries are up to. This lot are opportunistic in their planning, unlike Bin Laden’s original al-Qaeda; and paramilitary in style (Mali, In Amenas). That suggests they cannot launch serious operations inside the USA.

    2. i’m just curious about one thing, mr. bellmore: if obama and biden were both to resign, leaving the presidency in the hands of john boehner and then he were to immediately declare the democratic party a terrorist organization and drive all democrats from the hous and senate, would you then be satisfied that justice had been done?

      1. No, on the contrary, while the first couple of steps would be fine with me, (Though excessive, I wouldn’t actually object to the P & VP resigning.) I would take serious exception to Boehner attempting to do any such thing; Why, that would actually manage to be worse than the abusive IRS audits under Obama!

        1. Brett, when the higher-level administrators at the IRS discovered that lower level administrators weren’t operating according to proper procedure, they both stopped this practice and ordered an investigation. Which is exactly what should have happened. This is not an ongoing issue–except in right wing fever swamps.

          Neither is Benghazi. You are acting in bad faith if you argue that it was either worse than, or equivalent to, the failures of the Bush administration. It was a tragedy that has been frankly discussed by the administration. But Republicans are inflating it ONLY in the weak hope that it will somehow upset Hillary’s outrageously good polling numbers for 2016. Which it won’t. No one outside of the beltway and Alex Jones’ listenership cares.

          1. According to what I’m reading now, no, they didn’t stop it, they “broadened the criteria”. You know, to include organizations whose “issues include government spending, government debt or taxes; education of the public by advocacy/lobbying to ‘make America a better place to live’; statements in the case file criticize how the country is being run.”

            This does not strike me as much of an improvement, rather the original problem metastasizing as it was realized that not all conservative groups use the terms “patriot” or “tea party”.

            Evidently the policy was reformed after the 2012 election, kudos to them for realizing they couldn’t make it permanent, that they could only get away with it for a single election cycle. Even abuse can be prudently limited, apparently.

            I honestly don’t think you’re going to be able to make THIS scandal go away, the revelations are growing almost hourly.

          2. i think the best way to handle the avalanche of 501(c)4 groups would be to investigate every single one of them to make sure they legitimately fit the criteria. it’ll require hiring a lot more agents but i think that work is as important as it is necessary. to the extent that mr. bellmore’s complaint is derived from the selective nature of the investigations, i agree with him. in his imputations of deliberate wrongdoing by the highest levels of the obama administration i cannot concur.

          3. The GOP has been trying to find an impeachment-level scandal for Obama since before he stepped into the White House. This is their only recourse when, for the foreseeable future (and especially if Hillary runs in 2016) the White House will be commanded by a Democrat. When your only way of gaining the White House is through some sort of impeachment, everything begins to look like an impeachable offense.

            But 1) Obama has run a surprisingly clean and scandal-free administration; 2) the low-level, relatively minor scandals that the GOP has tried to drum up have been duds, such as Solyndra, Benghazi, etc; 3) even if the IRS took too long to respond at the upper levels to what appears to be a lower-level breach of conduct, how exactly does this attach to the White House? Answer: it doesn’t really. 4) “The revelations are growing almost hourly” only in the orgiastic conservative news-binge wet dream of Drudge et al. To the rest of us, this seems to be a disappointing, fairly grave lapse that was corrected quickly; and 5) as Ezra Klein mentioned, it’s about time the IRS scrutinized 501(c)4’s more closely, no matter what their political affiliation, because the status seems to be heavily abused.

          4. Remember when Brett Bellmore was all up in arms over the W Bush Administration’s IRS investigating and initiating enforcement action against churches that were preaching opposition to the Iraq War? Why, I remember Mr. Bellmore actually polishing up his arsenal and counting his stacks of ammunition, convinced it was time to wage war on tyranny.

            Oh wait, no, I don’t remember that either.

            = = =
            In an October letter to the IRS, Marcus Owens, the church’s tax attorney and a former head of the IRS tax-exempt section, said, “It seems ludicrous to suggest that a pastor cannot preach about the value of promoting peace simply because the nation happens to be at war during an election season.”

            Owens said that an IRS audit team had recently offered the church a settlement during a face-to-face meeting.

            “They said if there was a confession of wrongdoing, they would not proceed to the exam stage. They would be willing not to revoke tax-exempt status if the church admitted intervening in an election.”

            The church declined the offer.

            Long said Bacon “is fond of saying it’s a sin not to vote, but has never told anyone how to vote. We don’t do that. We preach to people how to vote their values, the biblical principles.”

            Regas, who was rector of All Saints from 1967 to 1995, said in an interview that he was surprised by the IRS action “and then I became suspicious, suspicious that they were going after a progressive church person.”

          5. = = =
            Though constrained by privacy laws from commenting directly on All Saints or naming other churches under investigation, IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson denied that tax authorities are now using audits to go after the religious left.

            He cited a report in February by the Treasury Department’s inspector general that said IRS examinations of tax-exempt organizations are marred by tardiness, a lack of clear guidance and inadequate resources — but not political bias.

            “The report was quite clear that the complaints that came in, and the exams that were launched, hit both sides of the aisle. They did not skew one way or the other in the political spectrum,” Everson said. “There is absolutely no place for any politics in our consideration of these things.”

          6. = = =
            The Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr. told the congregants at All Saints Episcopal Church on Sunday that the IRS has closed a lengthy investigation into a speech by the church’s former rector, Rev. George F. Regas.

            In the sermon, Regas did not urge parishioners to support President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., but was critical of the Iraq war and Bush’s tax cuts.

            Federal tax codes prohibit churches and other tax-exempt institutions from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

            In a letter dated Sept. 10, the IRS said the church continues to qualify for tax-exempt status but that Regas’ sermon amounted to a one-time intervention in the presidential race. The letter offered no specifics or explanation for either conclusion, but noted that the church did have appropriate policies in place to ensure that it complied with prohibitions on political activity.

            Bacon said the letter’s unclear conclusion could mean future investigation of the church and leaves a “chilling effect” on the freedom of clerics from all faiths to preach about core moral values and such issues as war and poverty.

            The church has “no more guidance about the IRS rules now than when we started this process over two long years ago,” Bacon said.

            He demanded an apology and a clarification from the agency.

            A message left with the IRS Sunday afternoon was not immediately returned. IRS spokesman Jesse Weller told the Los Angeles Times late Saturday that he could not comment on the case. = = =

            I’ll be eagerly awaiting Mr. Bellmore’s explanation of why there was no call from any of the usual “libertarian” suspects, including himself, for an impeachment of George W. Bush over this incident.


          7. Matt, what I have come to understand is that “There are no Obama scandals” isn’t a conclusion, it’s a premise:

            1. X happens under Obama.
            2. There are no Obama scandals.
            3. X is not a scandal!

            Cranky, I have remarked, haven’t I, that Bush is why I abandoned voting for the lesser of two evils starting back in 2008, and resumed the futility of voting Libertarian? Because when evil runs against evil, you may not be able to win, but you can at least attempt to not be complicit.

            Enjoy being in denial about what you’re complicit in.

          8. Brett,

            No. You want the logic to be that way because you are seeking a scandal. But the only scandals this administration has had are small and procedural. Benghazi? Solyndra? Fast and Furious? The IRS? These are all scandals that occurred at a level far far below the White House in a government comprised of hundreds of thousands of employees. It is a mathematical impossibility that the Administration could have complete knowledge of every single action by every single employee.

            A true, large scandal occurs systematically at a high level. See Watergate, see the Iran-Contra Affair, see Weapons of Mass Destruction. These are scandals in which Presidents and their administrations participated directly.

            Yet with each tiny scandal, the Right begins foaming at the mouth and trying to force it up the chain of command from low-level functionary to Obama himself. But in each case, the logic fails. Give me a scandal that Obama or his White House were tied directly to–then you might have a substantive point. For now, however, you have none.

          9. Mr. Bellmore,
            In other words, after you voted for Bush/Cheney twice – including the utterly disastrous 2004 reelection – you decided he was No True Scotsman, I mean Conservative and suddenly remembered you were _really_ a libertarian. Very brave. In any case the referenced events occurred in 2004-2005, well before 2008.


          10. …to the extent that mr. bellmore’s complaint is derived from the selective nature of the investigations, i agree with him.

            I don’t. I am sure the right-wing absolutely believes you should profile Arabs as potential terrorists. So too I absolutely believe you should profile “right-wing anti-tax nuts” as most likely to commit tax fraud. As a right-winger will tell you: Arabs are most likely to blow up a plane so screen them intensely. Similarly a “sovereign citizen” is most likely to evade taxes. Follow the scent. Go where the stink of likely criminals is most intense. Regarding taxes, screening for “tea party” makes great sense.

          11. Brett,

            According to Matt Yglesias, the guy who was running the IRS at the time is named Douglas Shulman who “was appointed by George W. Bush in March of 2008 and resigned in November. It seems unlikely that this Republican appointee was engineering an inquiry in Tea Party groups’ tax status for partisan reasons and even if Shulman is to blame he can’t resign because he’s … already resigned.” http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/05/13/marco_rubio_irs_commissioner_resignation.html

    3. But “It was irregular warfare, not terrorism!” seems a strange point to make: Terrorism is a tactic in irregular warfare.

      This is so wrongheaded I’m having a hard time parsing it. If you declare irregular warfare to be terrorism then, yes, of course that would be a strange point to make. But in that case so would “Terrorism is a tactic in irregular warfare” since, duh, irregular warfare is terrorism. And anyway, no, one should not declare irregular warfare to be terrorism.

      But if you don’t declare irregular warfare to be terrorism then, no, it’s not a strange point to make because, of course, there would be acts of irregular warfare which are not terrorism. Which is precisely what James Wimberly was delineating in this post.

      So “duh, but no” or “you’re wrong for obvious reasons”, take your pick.

    4. By the way, I note the “nobody higher up knew about it” defense in the IRS abuse scandal disintegrated in record time. Maybe they’ve reached scandal overload, and can’t stonewall effectively on this many fronts?

      If this is the biggest scandal you can come up with, or even in the top five, you are gasping for air. Was it inappropriate? Yes. Was it worthy of complaints? Yes. Should some people lose their jobs? Yes.

      However, when a bunch of groups having their tax exempt status delayed, but none of them getting rejected, rises to the top, the tax goons are falling down on the job when it comes to harassment.

  9. There is no way to semantically unpack “terrorist”, “extremist” and “freedom fighter” without considering point of view….who is using the labels and for what purpose. If “terror” is semantically linked strongly to ” fear”, how can it be denied that organized acts of war focussing on civilian populations (like midnight house searches and the like) are not seriously fear inducing activities and should be labeled ” state terrorism.”

    1. Similarly, if Imperial Power A is intervening in a civil dispute in Minor Country Z, is it “terrorism” when a native faction of Z attacks the representatives of A? Didn’t we call that “fighting for freedom” in 1776?


      1. Not that it makes a difference to the point you are making but, technically, the imperial power intervening in 1776 was France because the “American Revolutionary War” was a war of secession by the American colonists against Britain, which was their mother country.

        1. That’s simply arguing definitions in order to be pedantic. Britain was certainly an imperial power, and following the Declaration of Independence the leading citizens of the 13 blob-like entities considered themselves independent and fighting against an occupier.


  10. Everything you ever wanted to know about the Benghazi nothingburger in one paragraph:

    American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-led super PAC, has released the first attack ad of the 2016 campaign, accusing Hillary Clinton of mishandling the Benghazi killings. It’s a pretty shameless spot, filled with innuendo and as many unflattering pictures of the former secretary of state as possible.

    Karl Rove Groups Releases Benghazi Cover-Up Ad – NYTimes.com

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