Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

Terrorism in Benghazi—or was it “just one of those things”?

In a recent Foreign Policy opinion piece, Louis Klarevas takes issue with the White House declaration that the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans (whose grieving relatives are no doubt sick to the teeth of seeing their loved ones referred to as merely “other” victims) was “self-evidently” an act of terrorism. Klarevas contends that lacking evidence of a “significantly pre-planned attack”, the Benghazi killings do not qualify as terrorism under U.S. law, which defined terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents”.

I think Professor Klarevas grants the question of premeditation considerably more importance than it deserves, given the circumstances of the attack in Libya. To decide that a given attack was premeditated, we do not require evidence of long or elaborate advance planning; all we need is convincing evidence that the violence was not spontaneous.

As an illustration (a purely hypothetical one, I should add, as I am a thoroughly inoffensive person most of the time), let us posit that I get into a political argument with somebody, and he eventually becomes angry enough that he picks up a rock and throws it at me. This is clearly a spontaneous act of violence: no planning was involved, the weapon was simply something available to hand, and the act was carried out in the heat of the moment. This is the kind of violent act that the premeditation standard is meant to rule out as terrorism, even when it might otherwise qualify.

In Benghazi, on the other hand, those who carried out the attack were carrying some fairly heavy weaponry—apparently including rocket-propelled grenades. These are obviously not weapons that one would carry for ordinary self defense, even in Libya; and so, anyone carrying such weapons to a demonstration can be assumed to have an intention of carrying out an offensive attack of some sort. Possession of heavy weapons (without some other very good justification) would thus count as good prima facie evidence of premeditation to commit an act of violence.

As with conventional crime, it is not necessary to prove specific intent to kill a particular individual, or indeed to kill at all, to prove premeditation. In American law, the term “depraved-heart murder” is used to describe killing that results not from specific intent, but from a reckless disregard for human life. While such a murder may be classified (depending on jurisdiction) as somewhat less severe than a fully (and specifically) premeditated killing, it is nonetheless classified as murder rather than manslaughter.

It would seem fairly silly to refuse to classify an attack that any district attorney would prosecute as murder (even it it was in the second degree) as terrorism; and it seems even sillier to believe that the Benghazi attack was “spontaneous” in any meaningful sense.