The United States government and the Libyan government are currently waging a war of narratives, each giving a version of the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that best suits its needs. U.S. officials desperately want the world to believe that this was a spontaneous response to anger over a movie that ridiculed Islam. The folks in Tripoli consider it equally urgent for us to accept that foreign agitators carefully planned the attack in advance, under the radar of Libya's miniscule security apparatus. Either way, press reports, including an article on the country's Hollywood-inspired (yes, really) improvised weapons industry, make it clear that Libya is a place that's armed, dangerous, very creative — and a place in which anybody with a survival instinct should plan on forting-up if they have even an inkling that they might attract hostile local attention.
First, of all, any country coming out of armed turmoil, in which the military was divided against itself, defeated, or simply evaporated in some places, is going to be up to its armpits in weapons that used to belong to that military, or else were imported to fight it. Fawzi Abd al-'Aali, the interior ministry's representative for eastern Libya, told Al Jazeera:
"This happened because of all the weapons: everyone is Libya is armed now," he said. "Ex-prisoners and thieves who participated in the revolution have kept their arms."
And Colonel Hamid al-Hassi of the Libyan military suggested that Americans should have anticipated trouble in what has become a special date around the world and prepared accordingly.
"They killed an al-Qaeda leader and then send their ambassador on the anniversary of September 11," he said, waving his arms in outrage. "They know there's a lot of terrorism in Libya. They should take care of their ambassador."
It's actually fascinating to discover just how entrenched the armed factions and their suppliers have become in a relatively short period of time (the uprising against the old regime began just a year and a half ago). In July, Makeshift ran a piece on the weapons shops of Misrata — a city hundreds of miles from Benghazi, but one that offers an insight into the turbulent state of the country. In particular, the author, Charla Jones, talks of how the city's mechanics became armorers during and after the country's civil war. She was especially intrigued by the armored vehicles the locals slapped together and sent into battle.
I followed one of the battle wagons to the garage to see the place where this species of homemade fighting vehicles was assembled and repaired. Despite the lack of signage, the spot was easy to find because of the loud bursts of automatic gunfire coming from the shop's test range. Fighters gathered there in the evenings after days of battle under the blazing sun, telling stories and hammering their broken weapons back into service.
The rebels were badly outgunned but compensated with wicked creativity. They fashioned shotguns from steel pipes and drilled out the bores of starter pistols to make handguns. They ransacked a military airfield and stripped the weaponry from old Russian fighter jets, then reinforced the chassis of pickup trucks to handle the groaning weight of aircraft guns.
I'll leave to others an assessment of the wisdom of mounting aircraft guns on trucks— and of being anywhere within blast radius when the trigger is pulled. Reading about the inspiration for those vehicles, though, I'm reminded of old tales that The Godfather not only documented Mafia behavior, but influenced and altered that behavior.
Some of these modifications seemed unnecessarily theatrical—in a war fought with 14.5-millimeter machine guns, how often do you need a battering ram?—and the mechanics would sheepishly admit that they added a few flourishes for the sake of intimidation. Many of them had watched the Mad Max movies and would discuss the merits and drawbacks of the military hardware used by Mel Gibson's character in the series.
The mob that attacked the U.S. consulate may or may not have given a damn about movies attacking their religion, but their weapons seem to have had some cinematic input, anyway. And, in a still-tumultuous and violent country where Road Warrior is considered an instruction manual, it's worth asking why American officials weren't prepared for a visit by the local equivalent of Lord Humungus.