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In a recent op-ed for Time, Republican Kentucky senator Rand Paul pushed back against hawks in Washington who write off his foreign-policy strategy as "isolationist" at a time of mounting international crises.
"Some pundits are surprised that I support destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militarily. They shouldn’t be," Paul wrote. "I’ve said since I began public life that I am not an isolationist, nor am I an interventionist. I look at the world, and consider war, realistically and constitutionally."
Paul goes on to describe the state of world affairs during President Barack Obama’s term, including in Libya after the fall of ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
"Libya is a sanctuary and safe haven for training and arms for terrorists from Northern Africa to Syria," Paul said. "Our deserted Embassy in Tripoli is controlled by militants. Jihadists today swim in our embassy pool."
Paul doubled down on that assertion Sept. 10 after Obama announced his strategy for dealing with the terrorist organization Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
We wondered: Are there really jihadists swimming in our embassy pool in Tripoli? So we decided to take a look.
Are militants occupying and damaging the embassy?
Since Gaddafi was ousted three years ago by rebel groups aided by French and American airstrikes, Libya has been in chaos, with a weak central government and warring secular and Islamic factions fighting for control of the state.
Renewed violence in the Libyan capital Tripoli forced the United States and several allies, including France and Spain, to pull their embassy staffs out of the city in July, leaving behind unoccupied diplomatic posts.
Paul’s statement refers to an amateur video posted on YouTube that surfaced in mid August. In it, a large group of Libyans are circled around a pool, while men jump from a second story balcony into the water. According to the New York Times, one man is heard saying, "This used to be the American embassy. God is great!"
Since the video’s release — and prior to the publication of Paul’s op-ed — many more details have been reported about what exactly happened.
For starters, the man in the video wrongly identified the compound as the "American embassy." On Twitter, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones wrote that the video "appears to be a residential annex of the U.S. mission but cannot say definitively since not there." The Associated Press and New York Times verified as much on Aug. 31.
Jones added in another Twitter post: "To my knowledge and per recent photos the U.S. Embassy Tripoli chancery and compound is now being safeguarded and has not been ransacked."
The U.S. embassy in Tripoli is about a half mile to a mile from the spot filmed.
Are the men jihadists?
More questionable is Paul’s assertion that those occupying the residential compound were "jihadists."
Since the fall of Gaddafi, local militia groups, including some responsible for leading the revolution, have maintained law enforcement and government functions throughout the country.
However, more recently, fighting between the various militias has escalated. In July, one militia group, the Dawn of Libya, captured the capital city and the Tripoli airport after weeks of fighting a rival militia from the city of Zintan.
The Dawn of Libya also pushed Zintan forces out of the U.S. compound. It was after these fights that the video at the pool was taken.
After the video was released, leaders for the Dawn of Libya sought to clear the air and assure the rest of the world that their efforts were intended to secure the embassy compounds, rather than to loot and destroy American property. They even invited embassy workers to return. (That’s not likely to happen.)
Dawn of Libya leaders allowed Associated Press reporters to view the facilities. They reported little damage to the residences and that "it didn’t appear that the villas in the compound had been ransacked." A commander for the Dawn of Libya told them, "This place is secure and under protection" and their forces were guarding the embassy from other militia groups." The State Department told the AP that the embassy in Tripoli was "secure."
Experts we spoke with about Dawn of Libya cautioned that a lot of information and intelligence coming out of Libya is hazy. While "jihadist" is a vague term, it often suggests Islamic extremism that involves violence, terrorism and/or suicide attacks in the name of establishing a pure Islamic state. Under that definition, it would be a stretch to characterize Dawn of Libya as "jihadists," experts said.
"That is a simplification that is absolutely ridiculous," said Karim Mezran, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Mezran said using the term for Dawn of Libya lumps together groups fighting for political reasons with dangerous, terrorist organizations.
The Dawn of Libya is an umbrella group that includes several local Islamic militias, but the bulk of its forces are made up of rebel fighters from the city of Misrata. They undertook some of the fiercest fighting against Gaddafi's forces during the Libyan revolution.
While they support the Islamist party in government, they are not considered extremists. In fact, the group has turned down requests to join an alliance with Ansar al-Sharia, the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks two years ago on the Benghazi compound that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Ansar al-Sharia is on the State Department terrorist watch list. Dawn of Libya is not.
Ansar al-Sharia has called for the Dawn of Libya to unite under a "common banner," said Wayne White, a former deputy director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia.
"They rebuffed it harshly, saying, ‘We oppose terrorism, we oppose extremism,’" said White, now with the Middle East Institute. "It has shunned what could have been a valuable alliance of combination with the east to prove it’s not a terrorist or extreme militia."
White added that it’s possible that within any organization there could be individuals or small groups of people who are extremists, and intelligence on the groups that have since joined the umbrella organization is incomplete. Still, history has shown the core group "has not been known for wild, murderous" attacks but rather as a "very proud military force that took the brunt of Gaddafi's forces" during the revolution, White said.
Paul said that in Tripoli, "jihadists today swim in our embassy pool."
The claim stems from a video that shows members of the Dawn of Libya militia group diving into a pool. However, it has emerged that the pool wasn’t at the U.S. embassy, but rather at a residential annex a half-mile away. More critically, labeling the people in the video as "jihadists" is, at best, an exaggeration.
The group in charge is a militia organization that is fighting a political and regional war, but it has rebuffed alliances with terrorist organizations. Reports from Tripoli suggest that the group has left the property largely intact, and U.S. officials have said the compound "remains secure."
The average listener would not get that more nuanced impression from Paul’s comments, so we rate the claim Half True.
Time, "Rand Paul: ‘I Am Not an Isolationist,’" Sept. 4, 2014
Phone interview with Brian Darling, spokesman for Sen. Rand Paul, Sept. 10, 2014
Independent Journal Review, "Islamist Militia Group Parties It Up… At Swimming Pool Of An Abandoned U.S. Annex In Libya," Sept. 3, 2014
New York Times, "Libyans Overrun Compound Abandoned by U.S. Embassy in Tripoli," Aug. 31, 2014
Associated Press, "Islamist militia now guards US Embassy in Libya," Aug. 31, 2014, accessed via Nexis on Sept. 10, 2014
LobeLog Foreign Policy, "A Rush for the Exits in Libya," Aug. 1, 2014
LobeLog Foreign Policy, "Libyan Crisis Fails to take Center Stage," Sept. 2, 2014
BBC News Africa, "Libya militias 'seize ministries' as al-Thinni reappointed," Sept. 1, 2014
Islamic Supreme Council of America, "Jihad, Terrorism and Suicide Bombing: The Classical Islamic Perspective," accessed Sept. 10, 2014
State Department, "Foreign Terrorist Organizations," accessed Sept. 10, 2014
Phone interview with Wayne White, policy expert with the Middle East Policy Council, Sept. 10, 2014
Phone interview with Karim Mezran, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Sept. 10, 2014
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