While Washington vacationed in August, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service issued a now prescient-sounding report warning that Libya's security concerns were an "immediate priority" that might require far more attention and resources than the United States had given it.
"Libya's security remains a function of Libyans' self-restraint rather than the capability of security authorities," CRS warned.
That self-restraint broke down severely this week as, according to U.S. officials, an apparently coordinated attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi emerged from a crowded protest, leading to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and others. It was the apex of a string of concerning violent incidents dating back months.
The author of the report, Christopher Blanchard, specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, on Thursday told the E-Ring, "Security has deteriorated since the election [in July] and the government has not appeared able to stop attacks on religious buildings or an ongoing string of assassination attacks on former regime security officials. The attacks on the U.S. offices in Benghazi were the latest and most severe in a series of attacks on foreign diplomatic facilities and international organizations in Libya."
"This incident underscores what the State Department itself said in its late August travel warning: militia groups outside of state control are active in Libya and pose a direct threat to Libyans and foreigners."
According to Blanchard's report, which is titled Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy
and dated August 9, 2012, Libyan security is severely hampered by several factors, as the country continues to emerge from civil war and moves haltingly toward unifying its governance and security institutions and ad-hoc groups.
U.S. officials and outside experts, CRS stated, already harbored significant concerns over loose security at the country's borders and "hundreds of suspected weapons sites," in addition to massive proliferation of small arms, shoulder-fired MANPADS rockets, and "heavy weaponry" in and just outside of Libya.
The combination of those factors, CRS surmised, specifically worried counterterrorism and arms-trafficking experts, citing "unexploded ordnance, explosive remnants, and looted weaponry."
The precarious security situation is made worse by the existence and state-reliance on militia groups across the country, only some of which have willingly integrated, to various degrees, with official security forces.
"Security concerns remain the immediate priority, as a series of isolated armed conflicts and attacks on international targets in several cities have raised serious questions about the ability of the interim authorities to ensure order," wrote Blanchard. "As of August 2012, militia groups remained active and influential, with some acknowledging and participating in government efforts to assert central security authority. Public displays of weapons, attacks on international targets, and isolated armed clashes underscore the threats posed by some groups. Security officials continue to rely on irregular forces to provide security in much of the country."
The report continues, "Libyans' initial euphoria at the downfall of Muammar al Qadhafi has settled into an uneasy mix of hope and fear about the country's future."
By August, CRS concluded, "popular patience has waned."
On Thursday, Blanchard said Libya's limited "ability to provide security creates a dilemma for U.S. decision makers." If the U.S. targets "hostile groups" or even provides direct security support for the Libyan government to do so, it may "inflame local opinion and undermine the image of the recently elected government among some Libyans."
And any expansion of U.S. assistance would take time and money, both of which are "politically controversial...in both countries."