How the Attack on Benghazi Shaped Political Propaganda

How the Attack on Benghazi Shaped Political Propaganda

Kylie Dion, Fall 2022

The Committee on Foreign Affairs House of Representatives met on January 23, 2013 to question the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton on the failures of the US State Department to prevent the terrorist attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. This meeting was a way to ask the Secretary of State questions about the event and to hopefully gain further knowledge about how it unfolded so it couldn’t happen again. [1] The anti-terrorist actions by the United States government in the Middle East since September 11, 2001 shows the perceived, current threat to democracy. The anti-terrorist actions have been chiefly conducted through the use of United States Embassies in foreign countries. Therefore, I will analyze Hillary Clinton’s testimony to the House Committee and will draw conclusions about the impact the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi had on the 2016 presidential election as a result of political propaganda.

Muammar Gadhaffi, the former long-standing militant dictator of Libya, was known for state-sponsored terrorism because of his weapons shipments to terrorist organizations and allowing terrorists to seek asylum in Libya. Although his history of state-sponsored terrorism forced countries like the US to isolate him from international debate, trade, and travel, Gadhaffi gained minimal credibility when he denounced the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC on September 9, 2001 by the terrorist organization al-Qaeda. Libya slowly became acquainted with the outside world – nearly impossible before 9/11 and this can be argued as the fire that lit the Libyan people to revolution. [2]

The United States and NATO got involved with the Civil War in Libya because of human rights offenses occurring under the regime of Muammar Gadhaffi. The revolutionaries’ uprising against Gadhaffi – with the help of NATO – were able to overthrow the controversial leader in August of 2011. Only a few months later, Gadhaffi was assassinated by Libyan rebels, so the International Criminal Court was unable to convict the former dictator of his human rights offenses. [3] The aftermath of the revolutionary offensive is shown in the death of four United States citizens and government officials in Benghazi at the US Embassy by Islamic extremists on September 11 and 12 of 2012. As the current Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton testified in front of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs so the faults of Benghazi could be analyzed and hopefully rendered better for the future. [4]

The purpose of the committee as stated by the Chairman, Ed Royce of California was: “Examining the first murder of a U.S. Ambassador in nearly 35 years and the killing of three other brave Americans.” [5] The US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, along with three other Americans were murdered by Islamic extremists who were believed to be either al-Qaeda or a closely affiliated group. Either way, the committee along with other government officials identified the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi as a terrorist attack. This  came after years of US involvement and NATO intervention with the country, and only a year after the former dictator Gadhaffi was removed from power. In the presence of national security, the Chairman states, “[it] is important to remember that security is not a one-off endeavor. Indeed, it is a long-term responsibility and investment.” [6] Since the attacks on 9/11, the fight against terrorism became imperative for the security of the nation, domestic and abroad. The attack in Benghazi is therefore viewed as a direct attack on democracy by Islamic extremists and can be seen as a threat to the United States.

In her opening statement, Hillary Clinton remarks on the overall importance of holding a committee hearing about this particular event and talks about the four lives lost. The crucial point Clinton makes is, “the United States must continue to lead in the Middle East, in North Africa, and around the globe. We have come a long way in the past 4 years, and we cannot afford to retreat now. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences: Extremism takes root; our interests suffer; and our security at home is threatened.” [7] The important thing to realize is the intent Clinton is alluding to about American foreign policy. American involvement in the deposing of Gadhaffi perpetuates the idea that the US is responsible for spreading and securing democracy abroad despite the dangers that may surface, even at the cost of American lives. The securing of democracy for the betterment of global society is a heroic concept. Further explained by Secretary Clinton at the hearing, “[they] get up and go to work every day, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances, thousands of miles from home, because they believe the United States is the most extraordinary force for peace and progress the Earth has ever known.” [8] Yet this desire for peace has ultimately been corrupted by death, terror and political opportunists.

As a result of the Benghazi attack, “[there] are numerous press reports that U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and his team made repeated requests for security assistance. So my questions are these: One, you defined taking responsibility for Benghazi in your testimony a few moments ago in terms and only in terms of during and after the terrorist attacks. What about before the attack on September 11, 2012? What did you personally and your staff know? When did you become aware of Ambassador Stevens’ and his team’s requests for security upgrades? What exactly did you do in response? You obviously were very close to him. Did he ask you personally at any time?” [9] Such crucial inquiries by Congressional leaders were made useful in defining the weaknesses in the States Department before, during and after the Benghazi attack. Yet this mechanism for furthering national security became an intentional propaganda tactic used by the 2016 Presidential nominee of the Republican Party and eventual President of the United States, Donald Trump.

Because of “the Obama administration’s highly confusing response to the attack on the US Mission, the American Right was able to weaponize Benghazi” as a means of securing the legislative and executive bodies of the US federal government. [10] Instinctively, Donald Trump and his close followers during the 2016 Presidential campaign were able “to attach Benghazi to Clinton personally as a marker of poor character, under-pinned by long-term Republican narratives about the Clintons.” [11] Despite the many controversies spawning from the 2016 presidential election, such as the release of Hillary Clinton’s private emails, it can be argued the aftermath of Benghazi played a significant role in the rhetoric used by largely Republican leaders and voters in the 2016 election. This powerful tool of rhetoric ultimately led to Clinton losing the election even though she won the popular vote.

Therefore, Donald Trump in many instances during his 2016 campaign utilized the previous failures of the Obama administration as would any political candidate wishing to curb voters to his side of the polls. However, in doing this Donald Trump was able to prolong talk about Hillary Clinton alongside the terrorist attacks in Benghazi: “‘Maybe we’ll all be surprised, maybe our laws will work the way they are supposed to work,’ Trump told supporters in Atlanta earlier this month. ‘But folks, I think if something was going to happen on the crimes that have been committed, I would have assumed it would have happened already.’” [12] In a political market constantly dedicated to slander, Donald Trump’s sympathizers followed in their leaders footsteps: “The Russians used the controversy and its derivative scandals as feedstock to power its Right-riling fake news campaigns. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in her book Cyberwar, documents how Russian bots and trolls inserted Benghazi-related memes and phrases, like ‘Killary,’ ‘Remember Benghazi,’ ‘Lock her up,’ and ‘the Butcher of Benghazi,’ into their social media campaigns.” [13] Regardless of the Congressional hearings and testimonies and no credibility in the criminal claims against Hillary Clinton, rival governments such as Russia were able to use the rhetoric purported by Donald Trump and insert it into the devices of everyday American citizens. In so doing, it supplied greater sympathy for Trump in prospective voters rather than for Clinton in the 2016 election.

The United States became involved in the Libyan Revolution during the Arab Spring in 2011. The US and NATO allies were able to overthrow the dictator Muammar Gadhaffi who ruled over Libya for forty-two years. [14] After deposing Gadhaffi, the former leader was assassinated and weakened the possibility for an international trial of human rights offenses conducted by the dictator. In an effort to curb the turmoil left in Gaddhaffi’s wake, the United States maintained a diplomatic presence in Libya, particularly in the city Benghazi. As a result of the terrorist attack conducted by al-Qaeda sympathizers on the US Embassy in Benghazi, the current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked a series of questions by Congressional officials in the Committee on Foreign Affairs House of Representatives titled: “Terrorist Attack in Benghazi: The Secretary of State’s View.” [15] The House Committee used the situation as a means of rendering a safer environment abroad in countries with developing democracies; however, it also became a propaganda tactic used in the 2016 presidential campaign by Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton as his opponent. Through repeated political rhetoric, Donald Trump was able to convince a significant amount of his sympathizers as well as Republican voters to view Benghazi as a failure strictly at the hands of Secretary Clinton. In so doing, Russian bots were able to use social media to manipulate the stance of prospective voters against Clinton by the continued revival of the attacks in Benghazi.

Therefore, my argument stands as this: due to US involvement in Libya during the deposing of the severely controversial leader Muammar Gaddhafi, and their continued presence thereafter, terrorists linked to the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda attacked the US Embassy in Benghazi. As a result, four Americans were killed including an Ambassador. The attack brought controversy to the US State Department and by extension the presiding Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton. Finally, providing an environment which Donald Trump and various political and Russian actors used to sway voters to distrust Hillary Clinton as a possible President of the United States.



[1] Committee on Foreign Affairs House of Representatives, “Terrorist Attack in Benghazi: The Secretary of State’s View,” House Hearing, 113 Congress, (January 23, 2013),

[2] Peter Finn, “The rise and fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi,” Washington Post, National Security, (August 25, 2011),

[3] Borzou Daragahi, “Ten years ago, Libyans staged a revolution. Here’s why it has failed,” Atlantic Council, Arab Spring, (February 17, 2021),

[4] International Criminal Court, “Gaddafi Case,” The Prosecutor v. Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi,

[5,6,7,8,9] Committee on Foreign Affairs House of Representatives, “Terrorist Attack in Benghazi: The Secretary of State’s View,” House Hearing, 113 Congress, (January 23, 2013),

[10, 11] Ethan Chorin, “Just How Much Did the Benghazi Attack Affect the Outcome of the 2016 Election?” Literary Hub, (September 7, 20022),

[12] Nick Gass, “Trump sharpens Benghazi attacks on Clinton; Clinton on Benghazi Report: ‘Time to move on,’” Politico, (June 28, 2016),

[13] Ethan Chorin, “Just How Much Did the Benghazi Attack Affect the Outcome of the 2016 Election?” Literary Hub, (September 7, 20022),

[14] Peter Finn, “The rise and fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi,” Washington Post, National Security, (August 25, 2011),

[15] Committee on Foreign Affairs House of Representatives, “Terrorist Attack in Benghazi: The Secretary of State’s View,” House Hearing, 113 Congress, (January 23, 2013),

Further Reading

Cynthia C Combs, Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, Routledge, (1997), Eighth Edition


Worcester State University Fall 2022