LITTLETON — As a House committee once again gets ready to look at what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, Jeffrey B. Cozzens, an internationally-known analyst on militant Islam who calls the North Country home, urged lawmakers to look past the obvious and deep into the culture of terrorism.With his partner, Rudy Atallah, who is its CEO, Cozzens is president of Littleton-based White Mountain Research LLC, which has clients in both the private and public sectors.
Born and raised in Michigan, Cozzens is a senior fellow at George Mason University’s Center for Infrastructure Protection and Homeland Security and a board member at Daniel Webster College’s Homeland Security Studies Program. He has served as religious extremism adviser at the Army’s Directed Studies Office, which advises the chief of staff and vice-chief of staff.
Cozzens has researched militant Islamism and other forms of violent extremism since 1995 and has appeared on CNN to speak about Libyan jihadism.
Cozzens spoke about Benghazi at the request of the Union Leader.
Cozzens and Atallah —who have no connection to the Benghazi House Select Committee — addressed much of what the committee is expected to cover in an October 2012 White Mountain Research newsletter.
In brief, yes, the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, was, indeed an act of coordinated terrorism, and yes, a video that portrayed the Prophet Mohammed in a negative light — with Arabic subtitles added and the video widely circulated just days before the Benghazi attack — were factors, said Cozzens.
But he said that America should have known it was in a bad place in Libya from the beginning.
In 2011, the regime of Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and among the groups that helped bring about Libya’s “Arab Spring” were militant Islamists from Benghazi and Derna, which for decades had actively resisted Gadhafi.
In addition to being places where Gaddafi was fought, Benghazi and Derna had long-standing histories of supplying and being transit points for jihadist fighters who then ended up in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan Syria.
Following the fall of Gaddafi, Libya was “awash in weapons,” said Cozzens, and run by a weak, pro-U.S. government.
The mere existence of that government, Cozzens said, created a religious imperative for militant Islamists to try to destroy it and its allies.
Groups like Ansar al-Shari’a, which wants to bring about an emirate and an eventual Islamic caliphate, had a direct hand in the Benghazi attack, said Cozzens, and they are ever ready to prime the pump of hatred of America and even of fellow Muslims.
The accuracy of mortars lobbed into the American embassy compound belies any claim of spontaneity, said Cozzens.
The embassy was probably well-scouted before the attack, said Cozzens, and there’s also the likelihood that some of the Libyans who were supposed to protect the Americans were actually bad guys.
The above factors worked against the Americans at the embassy in Benghazi, creating what Cozzens called “a security officer’s nightmare.”
Cozzens hopes the members of the House select committee and Americans understand that militant Islamism is a threat to many people, including other Muslims.
Cozzens doesn’t think militant Islamism is “going to go away in my lifetime.” Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden and the first generation of the al-Qaida leadership, he said the “al-Qaida brand hasn’t lost much steam because the grievances that fuel it remain.”
Americans like to “move on” and our attention span is approximately four years long, said Cozzens, coinciding with the presidential elections. While the U.S. has become “very adept at intercepting plots,” he added that “we often fall flat” on seeing the metaphorical forest through the trees.”
Despite successes in making Afghanistan and Pakistan “inhospitable places” to train and house jihadist fighters, Cozzens fears a return of the extremists in Afghanistan and Iraq when the American military presence is entirely withdrawn. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq has a strong government, he said, and both have radical groups who are “very patient.”
That gloomy view may “not be really comforting to a lot of people,” said Cozzens, but it’s a common one in the field of militant Islamist studies.
The U.S. and its allies must continue to use the “hammer” of military action combined with a “hearts and minds program” of engaging Muslim peoples and ultimately, Cozzens said, “to win the war at the moral level.”