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It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests. In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala , according to numerous Libyans present at the time.

American officials briefed on the American criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the person C.

Abu Khattala, who denies participating in the attack, was firmly embedded in the network of Benghazi militias before and afterward. Many other Islamist leaders consider him an erratic extremist. But he was never more than a step removed from the most influential commanders who dominated Benghazi and who befriended the Americans. They were his neighbors, his fellow inmates and his comrades on the front lines in the fight against Colonel Qaddafi. To this day, some militia leaders offer alibis for Mr.

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Abu Khattala. All resist quiet American pressure to turn him over to face prosecution. Fifteen months after Mr. One has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests.

Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs. Abu Khattala had become well known in Benghazi for his role in the killing of a rebel general, and then for declaring that his fellow Islamists were insufficiently committed to theocracy.

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He made no secret of his readiness to use violence against Western interests. Surveillance of the American compound appears to have been underway at least 12 hours before the assault started. The violence, though, also had spontaneous elements. Anger at the video motivated the initial attack. Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters.

Looters and arsonists, without any sign of a plan, were the ones who ravaged the compound after the initial attack, according to more than a dozen Libyan witnesses as well as many American officials who have viewed the footage from security cameras. A person team from the Central Intelligence Agency is in the compound known as the Annex, about a half-mile from the mission, where the security officers Tyrone S.

Woods and Glen A. Doherty are later killed.

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The Benghazi-based C. McFarland and Mr. Stevens as recently as the day before the attack. But the American intelligence efforts in Libya concentrated on the agendas of the biggest militia leaders and the handful of Libyans with suspected ties to Al Qaeda, several officials who received the briefings said.

Like virtually all briefings over that period, the one that day made no mention of Mr. Abu Khattala , Ansar al-Shariah or the video ridiculing Islam, even though Egyptian satellite television networks popular in Benghazi were already spewing outrage against it. Members of the local militia groups that the Americans called on for help proved unreliable, even hostile.

The fixation on Al Qaeda might have distracted experts from more imminent threats. Those now look like intelligence failures. More broadly, Mr.

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Stevens, like his bosses in Washington, believed that the United States could turn a critical mass of the fighters it helped oust Colonel Qaddafi into reliable friends. He died trying. T all and paunchy with a gaptoothed smile and a graying beard that forked at his chest, Mr. Abu Khattala grew up in el-Leithi, the Benghazi neighborhood named for the River of Oblivion in Greek mythology and known for a high concentration of militant Islamists.

He spent most of his adult life in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, jailed for his Islamist extremism. At 42, he has never completed high school or married. He earns a modest living as a construction contractor in blue Dickies coveralls, and lives with his mother in a house decorated with a vase of plastic roses in its living room. In several hours of interviews, including ones conducted in the days before he became a prime suspect in the assault, Mr. Abu Khattala said he had no connections to Al Qaeda.

But he never hid his admiration for its vision. Muslims and Christians, he later argued, were fighting an inexorable war. Unlike other Libyans, Mr. Abu Khattala was a loner and a contrarian, even among fellow Islamists. A self-described jihadi commander who spent years in prison with Mr. Abu Khattala called him unstable. I always ask myself, how did he become a leader? But when the revolt against Colonel Qaddafi broke out in Benghazi, Mr.

Young men raced to find tough-talking sheikhs they could follow into battle. Did you know Osama bin Laden? How do we fight? Shihaibi recalled their asking.

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Abu Khattala formed his own militia of perhaps two dozen fighters, naming it Obeida Ibn Al Jarra for an early Islamic general. And he stood out for his fearlessness in the early days of the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi in the spring of , helping to defend the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya just as the United States, Britain, France and other NATO countries were weighing steps to support the rebels. But Mr. But he had also led crackdowns against Islamists, and they suspected him of a double-cross.

After Islamists sent a team to take the general to an impromptu judicial inquiry in July , his captors held him overnight in the headquarters of Mr. The bodies of General Younes and two of his aides were found on a roadside the next day, riddled with bullets. There is no evidence that Mr. Abu Khattala himself pulled the trigger. Gharabi , the leader of the Rafallah al-Sehati Brigade. Abu Khattala appeared to enjoy his infamy, doing little to dispel the rumors about him.

When the Islamist-dominated militias reorganized into a centralized coalition, he rejected it because it supported the secular, Western-backed provisional government instead of demanding a theocracy. He pulled back from the front. Abu Khattala was not alone in his hard-line views. On a June afternoon, Mr. Abu Khattala joined a column of as many as pickup trucks mounted with artillery as they drove through downtown Benghazi under the black flags of militant Islam.

Some trucks came from outside Benghazi. Participants described the parade as a demonstration of their opposition to democracy, calling it a violation of their vision of Islamic law. The event was also the public debut of Ansar al-Shariah, a group of as many as militants who, like Mr. Abu Khattala, had broken away from the other militias in protest of their support for elections.

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They were already there. A mbassador Stevens always saw the best in Libya. He had gladly accepted the role of American liaison to the rebels at the start of the uprising. And in April he chose to sail into Benghazi on a Greek cargo ship instead of taking the easier land route from Egypt, just to savor the romance of his arrival in a free Libya. Christopher Stevens talking to journalists in Benghazi in April Stevens, then 52, was among the most influential voices in American policy toward Libya.

The rebels, including the Islamists, were eager to befriend the American envoy. Stevens and several Islamist brigade leaders to a meeting in his spacious salon to dispel those fears. All attested to their support for building a modern, democratic Libya. The more hard-line Islamist rebels declined to attend. Still, Mr.

Stevens and other Americans also knew that Benghazi had a history of violence against Western diplomats. In , a United States Consulate there was ransacked and burned by a mob angry about American support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli war. In , a mob burned down the Italian Consulate because a cabinet minister in Rome had worn a T-shirt mocking the Prophet Muhammad. By the summer of , a new pattern of hit-and-run attacks against Western interests was emerging.

There were three separate attacks in Benghazi involving small explosives that locals used for fishing, two on the American compound and a third near a United Nations convoy. Consulate, we would have flattened it.

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But the Americans remained optimistic. Taking stock of the deteriorating security situation on Aug.