Democracy Lab

Who Shot A.A.?

Mauritanians are still wondering who fired a gun at their country’s president. What the latest whodunit tells us about the state of democracy in a strategic corner of West Africa.

On the night of October 13, a car carrying Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz approached a military checkpoint. In one version of the story, the driver of the car -- possibly the president himself -- disobeyed an order to stop, and soldiers opened fire. Abdel Aziz sustained a wound, reportedly to his arm. He was treated initially at a military hospital in the capital Nouakchott and then evacuated to Paris, where he remained for some forty days, convalescing. As Abdel Aziz's absence lengthened, Mauritania's opposition called for the implementation of a transitional political framework, and uneasiness grew in the streets. The president's return on November 24 put some doubts to rest and seemed to confirm that he remains in control of the country. Yet the shooting raised a central question in Mauritanian politics: To what extent has the country built credible institutions of civilian democracy, and to what extent does its politics remain dominated by the military, or by Abdel Aziz himself?

One way to understand civil-military relations in Mauritania is to examine Abdel Aziz's own biography, which has paralleled Mauritania's trajectory from civilian rule to military regimes and back. Born in 1956, four years before the country's independence from France, Abdel Aziz grew up under the one-party civilian state of President Moktar Ould Daddah. By 1977, when he enrolled at Morocco's Royal Military Academy in Meknes, Abdel Aziz had started his rise within the Mauritanian military, which at the time was fighting the Polisario Front in Western Sahara (the conflict that began when Spain handed Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975; the Polisario Front rebelled in a quest for national liberation). Mauritania's costly and unsuccessful involvement in Western Sahara, combined with suffering caused by drought, prompted the first military coup in the country's history. Under military rule, Mauritania continued to suffer from coups and coup attempts, especially as faith in the regime of President Maa'ouya Ould Taya crumbled in the early 2000s. After foiling coup attempts in 2003 and 2004, Taya fell in 2005.

Abdel Aziz, at the time a colonel and head of the Presidential Guard (BASEP), was a key leader in the 2005 coup. That coup paved the way for a transition to civilian rule under President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who took office in 2007. But the military perceived Abdallahi's approach to Muslim militancy as too lenient, and commanders grew tired of Abdallahi's struggles with parliament. As conflict between Abdallahi and Abdel Aziz grew, the President attempted to fire the (by then) General. Abdel Aziz seized power in August 2008.

The 2008 coup drew international condemnation. The U.S. and the European Union suspended aid. But Abdel Aziz organized, contested, and won "generally free and fair" elections in July 2009. Ruling as a civilian president has brought Abdel Aziz international legitimacy, and foreign aid has resumed. Intensifying a trend that began among Mauritanian military rulers after September 11, 2001, Abdel Aziz has also won international support by presenting himself as tough on terrorists, especially Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has (under different names) perpetrated attacks in Mauritania since 2005. Under Abdel Aziz, the Mauritanian military has foiled AQIM plots, clashed with militants at remote outposts and, in 2010 and 2011, hunted AQIM fighters in northern Mali. During the turmoil in Mali this year, which has involved the seizure of northern Mali by a coalition of armed Islamists that includes AQIM, Mauritania has held its forces back. American and European officials, however, have been visiting the Mauritanian capital as they consider policy options toward Mali and the broader Sahel.

Given Mauritania's history, coups and terrorists leapt to many observers' minds when Abdel Aziz was shot. "President Shot ‘By Accident' in Land Where Coups Prevail," one headline read. "Mauritania Shooting May Have al-Qaida Link, Some Say," read another. The weeks since the shooting have brought little evidence to corroborate either the coup theory or the terrorism theory, but have also brought little information that would convince skeptics to believe the official story. The televised account of one of the soldiers who allegedly fired at Abdel Aziz's car did not put an end to questions about the story's authenticity.

In the weeks after the shooting before the president's return, the focus of political debate in Mauritania moved from the question of what happened on October 13 to the question of what would happen next. The opposition umbrella group known as the Coordination of the Democratic Opposition went from calling for an investigation into the shooting to calling for a transitional political framework to guide the country in the president's absence. As part of this call, some in the opposition broached the issue of the military's role in politics.

Since Abdel Aziz became a civilian president, critics inside and outside Mauritania have charged that military control of Mauritania's government has not ended, but merely changed form. Such criticism intensified during the Arab Spring, when Mauritanian protesters in the "February 25" movement -- so named for the date of their first street protest -- made the military's withdrawal from politics one of their core demands. The demand in and of itself cast doubt on the authenticity of Abdel Aziz's claims to civilian status.

After the shooting, opposition politicians and activists reiterated demands for the military to leave politics. Army Chief of Staff General Mohamed Ould Ghazouani acted as head of state during Abdel Aziz's absence, a situation that occasioned outcry. At an opposition rally in the capital of Nouakchott on November 1, Khadiata Malik Diallo of the Union of the Forces of Progress stated, "The soldiers held the power for more than 40 years, and today it's not just a coincidence if everyone thinks it's the army chief of staff who has the power." Other opposition leaders, such as Jamil Mansour of the Islamist Tewassoul Party, made similar statements. On November 6, activists from the February 25 movement distributed 10,000 fliers denouncing "dictatorship." Some commentators saw the episode of Abdel Aziz's absence as one that, in Professor Boubacar N'diaye's words, "reveals [a] military regime parading as a democracy."

The return of Abdel Aziz renders the debate about who rules Mauritania, for the time being, moot. But the February 25 movement's charges of continued military dominance, and the anxiety generated by Abdel Aziz's time away from Mauritania, point to deep uncertainties about the solidity of civilian institutional frameworks in Mauritania. Problematically, the 2006 Mauritanian constitution gives little detail regarding the mechanisms for transferring executive authority in the event of a president's incapacity. As the blog The Moor Next Door reported, while the president was away, different actors proposed different solutions to the "constitutional vacuum" in Mauritania, including a constitutional amendment to clarify succession mechanisms, the installation of a vice president, and the election of a transitional president by parliament. The opposition pushed for a transition, not only organizing demonstrations but also forming committees to reach out to civil society, political parties, and other actors. No one seemed to know what should or would happen, but key political actors openly debated the mechanics of a post-Abdel Aziz transition in new ways. When Mauritania faces its next political crisis, expect debate over the military's role in politics -- and calls for that role to diminish -- to resurface.

Abdel Aziz is back, but he returns to a political landscape that has subtly shifted. As he reasserts his domestic leadership, outsiders will also be watching how he approaches the ongoing crisis in neighboring Mali. Mauritania is not a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which plans to deploy soldiers to Mali in 2013. Abdel Aziz stated in August that Mauritania would not intervene in Mali, and in an interview with Radio France Internationale the day before his return home, he avoided committing himself to any particular course on Mali. While regional and international powers might desire Mauritania's active backing for an intervention in Mali, Abdel Aziz may continue to keep Mauritania on the sidelines.

Photo by KAMBOU SIA/AFP/Getty Images


The Hot Seat

What you need to know about Benghazi going into this week's congressional hearings.

The election might be over, but the Benghazi fiasco isn't -- not nearly. Congress is gearing up this week for another round of hearings on the Sept. 11 attack that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In total, four House and Senate panels are due to hold closed-door briefings this week, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), expected to kick things off on Tuesday at 3:00 p.m.

In the two months since Ambassador Stevens's death, a dizzying amount of information -- some of it contradictory -- has emerged about the security situation in Benghazi and the administration's handling of the attack. Here's a guide to what we know, what we don't, and what's likely to come up as lawmakers try to get to the bottom of it all this week.

Protest or planned attack?

In the immediate aftermath of the consular attack, President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials generally portrayed the incident as a spontaneous reaction to the anti-Muslim YouTube video that had sparked protests across the Middle East. In his initial remarks from the Rose Garden, Obama said that "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," but did not directly refer to the attack as a terrorist plot. (He was more explicit a day later.)

Soon after, White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that the administration had any "actionable intelligence" that the attack was "planned or imminent." On "Face the Nation" on Sept. 16, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told Bob Schieffer that the attack "began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo." Her remarks were caveated, and according to the New York Times, she was merely repeating talking points given to her by the CIA. Moreover, one intelligence official insisted to the paper, "The bulk of available information supports the early assessment that the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo."

Interestingly, Paula Broadwell, the alleged paramour of David Petraeus, explained in an Oct. 26 talk why the CIA director may have been concerned about the link between those protests and what happened in Benghazi. "[I]f you remember at the time -- the Muslim video, the Mohamed video that came out, the demonstrations that were going on in Cairo -- there were demonstrations in 22 other countries around the world," she said. "Tens of thousands of people. And our government was very concerned that this was going to become a nightmare for us."

She added: "So you can understand if you put yourself in his shoes or Secretary Clinton's shoes or the president's shoes that we thought it was tied somehow to the demonstrations in Cairo. And it's true that we have signal intelligence that shows the militia members in Libya were watching the demonstration in Cairo and it did sort of galvanize their effort."

The administration's initial account also dovetailed with early reports from the New York Times and Reuters, which placed unarmed demonstrators as well as armed assailants outside the consulate in Benghazi. As Reuters reported, "The attackers were part of a mob blaming America for a film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad." By Sept. 20, however, the administration had clearly acknowledged that the attack was indeed a terrorist attack and on Oct. 9, State Department officials said that the supposed protest outside the consulate never occurred. Currently, U.S. intelligence officials suspect that some combination of three militant groups was behind the consular attack: Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jamal Network.

The administration's mischaracterization of events -- which its critics have attributed to political calculations -- is sure to come up at the hearings, as is the apparently poor intelligence with which the administration was working. Even if no one was intentionally misleading the public, lawmakers will likely want to know why a consulate that was primarily a CIA front did not know what was happening immediately outside its walls -- or how the intelligence community could still be feeding the administration bad information weeks after the fact.

We hired who for security?

In addition to the five U.S. diplomatic security agents stationed on the compound and the CIA's "rapid reaction" team, located at an annex a little more than a mile away, the United States relied on a local militia called the 17th of February Brigade to guard the consulate against intruders. According to the Washington Post, the decision was probably made for lack of a better alternative (international law requires the Libyan government to furnish protection for foreign diplomatic outposts that it's simply incapable of providing), but it ultimately proved costly.

When assailants breached the diplomatic compound on Sept. 11, the two members of the 17th of February Brigade on duty apparently hid on the roof while their off-duty comrades failed to respond to the CIA's repeated requests for backup. Given this miserable failure, we should expect questions about the wisdom of trusting a rag-tag collection of militiamen with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood -- all the more so because McClatchy has reported that, while most embassies hire local security, "only the United States of the 10 or so foreign missions here allowed the local militia to be the first line of defense."

Sparse timelines

Both the CIA and the Pentagon have released timelines of the Benghazi attack, but they are sparse and contain few points of convergence to suggest how or whether they coordinated their responses. (Both timelines also conflict with the accounts of local witnesses, who say the attack began as many as 15 minutes earlier than the United States says it did.)

The Pentagon's timeline begins simply with: "9:42 p.m. -- Armed men begin their assault on the U.S. Consulate." It provides no explanation of how Defense Department officials learned of the attack or whether they were in contact with the CIA's rapid response team on the ground. The appearance of an unarmed surveillance drone in both timelines suggests some level of cooperation, especially since the CIA's timeline states that the drone failed to observe the mortars that eventually killed CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, but lawmakers will likely want to fill these and other holes in the current accounting.

Rapid response team told to "stand down"?

In the CIA's version of events, a State Department security officer at the consulate called the CIA annex to request backup within minutes of the attack, prompting a team to "immediately" begin "gathering weapons and preparing to leave," which it did about 25 minutes later. But Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin reported that CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who received the State Department's request for backup at the annex, were twice told to "stand down" by superiors before they "ignored those orders and made their way to the consulate which at that point was on fire."

The CIA has vigorously disputed Fox's claim: "We can say with confidence that the Agency reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi. Moreover, no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate," a CIA spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. Whether or not there's any truth to the Fox story, which is based on testimony from anonymous "sources who were on the ground in Benghazi," this discrepancy will likely come up in the congressional hearings. Likewise, lawmakers will likely want to answer one question the Fox report didn't -- namely, who ordered the CIA operatives to "stand down" if, in fact," they were ordered to do so.

Another question that may come up is why, according to the CIA's timeline, the Global Response Staff team that arrived in Benghazi from Tripoli at 1:15 a.m. did not leave the airport until 4:30 a.m. The timeline explains away the lapse by citing "negotiations with Libyan authorities over permission to leave the airport; obtaining vehicles; and the need to frame a clear mission plan." It's certainly possible that they were delayed by local authorities, but it seems likely that lawmakers will want to know why a trained military response squad couldn't negotiate a couple of rental cars in under three hours. Likewise, there are unanswered questions about why reinforcements were needed in the first place. Out of more than 30 employees at the consulate in Benghazi, only seven worked for the State Department. "Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate," according to the Wall Street Journal. If there were so many CIA operatives at the consulate, why did it fall to Doherty and Woods to make a heroic defense of the compound?

Pentagon response

If the CIA's response to the consular attack remains murky, the Pentagon's isn't much clearer -- and why the best DOD could manage was an unarmed surveillance drone is almost certain to come up at the hearings this week. According to the Pentagon's timeline, it took Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta more than three hours after the consulate was breached to order Marine anti-terrorist teams scrambled from Spain and Croatia -- and another 40-50 minutes for them to receive formal authorization -- meaning that they did not arrive in Libya until almost 24 hours after the attack began. By that time, the consular officials, CIA officers, and contractors had been evacuated along with the bodies of Stevens, Woods, Doherty, and Sean Smith, a technology expert who died alongside the ambassador.

Panetta maintained that the Pentagon did everything in its power to respond in a timely manner, but congressional Republicans have already raised questions about the Defense Department's handling of the situation. Panetta's explanation "only confirms what we already knew -- that there were no forces at a sufficient alert posture in Europe, Africa or the Middle East to provide timely assistance to our fellow citizens in need in Libya," wrote Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and five other senators in a joint statement. But it "fails to address the most important question -- why not?" Expect lawmakers to get into why the U.S. Africa Command did not have a Commanders' In-Extremis Force, or C.I.F., on hand, and why no armed drones or gunships were readily accessible.

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