Back in Tripoli, American diplomats watched the carnage in Benghazi with dismay and horror. The attacks were killing their Libyan interlocutors — including those who were helping investigate the 2012 attack.
The violence also paved the way for a would-be savior in Benghazi: a septuagenarian general named Khalifa Haftar, who had defected from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s army in the 1980s and fled to the United States, before returning to Libya in 2011 during the revolution. Shunned by Libya’s rebel leadership, General Haftar took center stage in May 2014 when he launched an assault on Benghazi’s Islamist militias with a coalition of disaffected military units and tribal supporters. Operation Dignity, as it was called, marked the start of Libya’s civil war, inviting intervention by competing regional powers and spawning fissures that have yet to close.
Though Washington kept him at a distance, some welcomed his campaign. After all, he’d pitched it as a war on terrorists who killed Americans. That was true to an extent. When American special operations forces grabbed Ahmed Abu Khatala, the principal suspect in the attack, outside of Benghazi in June 2014, he was fleeing General Haftar’s forces. But the battle lines were not as clear as they seemed. His operation forced more moderate Islamists who’d supported the Libyan state to close ranks with radicals — a process that was already underway. He targeted some of the very militiamen who’d helped the Americans the night of the attack.
One of them was Mr. Obeidi. His militia, Libya Shield, was among those attacked by General Haftar, and it ended up on the front lines with more extreme groups. As weapons and funds from outside the country tilted the war in General Haftar’s favor, Mr. Obeidi fled Benghazi.
When he met me for coffee one evening last summer he was dressed in a white prayer gown and wearing tinted wire glasses. He seemed to me then an emissary of Libya’s morass and an emblem of the tangled loyalties that had confounded America’s policy. Critics have accused the Americans of misplacing their trust in militiamen the night of the attack. But given the absence of any real police or army that night, militiamen like Mr. Obeidi were the only option. There was no black and white; only shades of gray.
American policy in Libya today is again confronted by shades of gray and a counterterrorism narrative that tends to flatten and obscure complexities. That narrative continues to be pushed by the aspiring strongman General Haftar, in his dealings with the Trump administration. It suffered a blow when General Haftar was hospitalized in France last week. In truth, his value as a counterterrorism partner was always limited: His military coalition has been weakened by tribal and factional fissures and his political ambitions made him a deeply polarizing. His disappearance from the scene would herald a new chapter of uncertainty in Libya — but also opportunities for renewed American diplomacy.
The diminished American engagement is felt across Libya, but especially in Benghazi, where people lament the tarring of their city’s image with negative portrayals of violence and terrorism. They long for the return of the Americans and for the outreach that was the hallmark of Chris Stevens, the American ambassador killed that night.
Elsewhere across the country, Libyans who fled Benghazi have similar views. When I saw Mr. Obeidi, he pleaded with me for help. “We helped you and now you’ve abandoned us,” he said. And then, to underscore his point, he showed me a scan of a certificate that the Americans had given him shortly after the 2012 attack, signed by American diplomats:
“Fathi went above and beyond in order to provide security and facilitate movement for the American Rescue forces sent to evacuate all U.S. personnel in Benghazi. Fathi was committed and professional in every way, he continually risked his life and the life of his men. …”