BENGHAZI, Libya — The villa complex that formerly housed the United States diplomatic mission in this city, the site where four Americans died during attacks that began on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, sits astride a dusty street teeming with bougainvillea. A burned police station lies down the road, the scars of more recent fighting. But beyond this, the compound has a placid feel, with no signs of violence. The city around it seems serene as well, at least on the surface. It is Benghazi’s first real peace in years, residents say, since its fall into chaos after the attacks and America’s retreat.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
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One former resident of this town, Fathi al-Obeidi, knows that retreat well. A commercial diver turned militiaman, the fiftysomething Mr. Obeidi played a fateful role on the night of the attack. What happened to him in the months and years that followed shows how Libya’s complex rivalries and divided loyalties thwarted American policy, with American retrenchment then hastening Libya’s unraveling.

On that September night, Mr. Obeidi was on duty at the base of his militia, an armed group called Libya Shield, that was the most powerful in Benghazi at the time. At around 1 a.m., a few hours after the attacks began, an American rescue team of military special operators and a C.I.A. officer landed at Benghazi’s airport. They didn’t have their own vehicles and they had no way to leave the airport. The Americans had tried calling their usual contacts but to no avail. They were stranded. That’s when Mr. Obeidi got the call.

He arrived at the airport in a caravan of armored Land Cruisers and Kia sedans. But so did a number of other militias. To the stranded Americans, Mr. Obeidi seemed more reliable than the rest or, at least in the words of one American special operator, “less bad.” Mr. Obeidi drove the lead vehicle with one of the Americans sitting next to him. It was a tense journey; they feared an ambush.

The rescue team arrived just after 5 a.m. to the C.I.A.’s annex compund, where the American survivors of the first attack on the State Department facility had fled. They found it hunkered down; the annex had already been hit twice earlier that morning. Mr. Obeidi accompanied the American team inside. Just as he was entering the building, he heard the sound of mortars. A barrage rained down on them: six 81-millimeter mortar rounds arrived in just over a minute. Two Americans defending the compound died on the roof, others were gravely injured.

With the annex in danger of being overrun, the C.I.A. chief decided to evacuate. A convoy of more trucks and vehicles from Mr. Obeidi’s militia and others arrived; the survivors loaded their fallen comrades and clambered in. At the Benghazi airport, the Americans received the body of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and flew to Tripoli, the capital, and then out of Libya. Mr. Obeidi stayed behind. His account of that night and his role is corroborated by C.I.A. trial testimony.

Most Americans are familiar with what happened next in Washington. Years of hand-wringing and millions of dollars spent on Congressional investigations that added little beyond what a State Department internal review concluded about bureaucratic lapses in security. “Benghazi” was no longer a place in Libya, the country’s second largest city, but a partisan battle cry. Yet the effect of “Benghazi” beyond the Beltway — on Libya and especially on Benghazi itself — was no less seismic.

After the attack, American diplomats retreated further into their embassy in Tripoli, their staff reduced and their forays outside the heavily guarded embassy walls curtailed. The American mission in Libya, diplomats told me, became twofold: avoid any further loss of life and bring the culprits of the 2012 Benghazi attack to justice. Interactions with everyday Libyans dropped off. So did the embassy’s morale and, crucially, insights into Libya’s politics. The retrenchment happened just as the country was unraveling.

In Benghazi, the effect of the American absence was especially acute. Thousands of people took to the streets after the attack to memorialize the death of the Americans and to demand the eviction of militias from their city and the return of law and order. That didn’t happen. In the following years, a spate of killings shook the city — the result, people said, of growing radicalism among Islamist militias but also tribal vendettas and criminality. By late 2013 and early 2014, activists, judges, journalists and security men were being regularly killed in drive-by shootings and car bombings.

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. …”

This excerpt from the forthcoming book The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya was originally published in the New York Times.