U.S. in­tel in­sists on al Qaeda ties in Beng­hazi

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Nearly 16 months af­ter deadly at­tack on the U.S. diplo­matic out­post and CIA an­nex in Beng­hazi, Libya, the de­tails about the per­pe­tra­tors, their tac­tics and their mo­tives con­tinue to get spun, bounced and rein­ter­preted like a po­lit­i­cal ping­pong ball.

The lat­est player was The New York Times, which ran a de­tailed ar­ti­cle a few days af­ter Christ­mas about what Libyan mili­tias think hap­pened dur­ing the at­tack un­der a sweep­ing head­line that crit­ics claimed ap­peared bent on po­lit­i­cally ab­solv­ing for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton. The news­pa­per un­equiv­o­cally as­serted its re­porters found “no ev­i­dence that al Qaeda or other in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist groups had any role in the as­sault.”

But cur­rent and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials, con­gres­sional sources and out­side an­a­lysts briefed on the at­tack told The Wash­ing­ton Times last week that the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s as­sess­ment about al Qaeda’s links to the Beng­hazi tragedy has not changed.

The con­sen­sus, they said, re­mains to­day, as it has for more than a year, that Is­lamic ex­trem­ists with ties to al Qaeda and its evolv­ing North African af­fil­i­ates ex­e­cuted the at­tack, which was pre­ceded by some de­gree of plan­ning de­spite be­ing launched dur­ing a spon­ta­neous op­por­tu­nity that pre­sented it­self on the 11th an­niver­sary of al Qaeda’s hor­rific Sept. 11 at­tacks on the United States.

“The in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity has not changed its po­si­tion from Day One as far as its po­si­tion of al Qaeda and its in­volve­ment in the at­tack,” Rep. Lynn A. West­more­land, Ge­or­gia Repub­li­can and a key mem­ber of the House Per­ma­nent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence, said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “As far as the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity goes, they still un­der­stand that it was def­i­nitely al Qaeda-linked.”

The CIA point­edly stayed on the side­lines of the lat­est dis­pute and re­fused to ad­dress The Times’ as­sess­ment. But those briefed by the agency re­peat­edly over the past year un­leashed fury at the New York news­pa­per.

Mr. West­more­land said The New York Times ev­i­dently spoke with many mil­i­tants and other sources on the ground in­side Libya for its ar­ti­cle, but he got “kind of a shock” that it ap­peared the pa­per was mak­ing as­ser­tions with­out hav­ing in­ter­viewed any of the U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials on the ground at the CIA an­nex in Beng­hazi when it came un­der at­tack last year.

Those of­fi­cials tes­ti­fied in Oc­to­ber dur­ing a hear­ing of the House In­tel­li­gence sub­com­mit­tee on over­sight and in­ves­ti­ga­tions. “The re­al­ity of it is, you can tell more about what peo­ple think if you’re lis­ten­ing to them when they don’t know you’re lis­ten­ing,” said Mr. West­more­land, who is chair­man of the sub­com­mit­tee.

In essence, the con­gress­man said, he trusts the tes­ti­mony of in­tel­li­gence sources who were in Beng­hazi be­fore and dur­ing the at­tack more than any rec­ol­lec­tion by mil­i­tants claim­ing to have knowl­edge of what oc­curred.

Al­though tran­scripts of the tes­ti­mony pro­vided by in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials dur­ing the Oc­to­ber hear­ing re­main clas­si­fied, Mr. West­more­land said that “from their ob­ser­va­tion, it was a planned at­tack.”

“Th­ese guys just saw that the at­tack­ers had at least some type of train­ing, or co­or­di­nated move­ments about where to go and what each per­son was go­ing to do when they were on the ground,” Mr. West­more­land said. “So from that stand­point, it was a co­or­di­nated at­tack.”

Fur­ther­more, he said, the over­all as­sess­ment pro­vided to the com­mit­tee by the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity “just leads you to be­lieve, or to know that [the at­tack­ers] were al Qaeda-re­lated.”

Mr. West­more­land’s as­sess­ment dove­tailed with com­ments on the Christ­mas weekend Sun­day talk shows by Rep. Mike Rogers, Michi­gan Repub­li­can and the in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee’s chair­man.

Bi­par­ti­san skep­ti­cism

Al­though some Repub­li­can law­mak­ers have been ac­cused of ag­gres­sively politi­ciz­ing the Beng­hazi at­tack as a way to smear the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and tar­nish Mrs. Clin­ton’s record as sec­re­tary of state, some Democrats also have crit­i­cized the story in The New York Times.

Most no­tably, a top staffer in the of­fice of Rep. Adam B. Schiff, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, said that Mr. Schiff was stand­ing by as­ser­tions he made dur­ing an in­ter­view on “Fox News Sun­day” that there was at least some con­nec­tion be­tween al Qaeda and some of the mili­tia groups in­volved in the at­tack, but that the in­ci­dent did not ap­pear to be a planned at­tack by the core al Qaeda group founded by Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Schiff was care­ful to as­sert that he did not think The New York Times in­ten­tion­ally at­tempted to use the story to ex­on­er­ate the State Depart­ment for se­cu­rity lapses in Beng­hazi, but he said out­right that “the in­tel­li­gence in­di­cates that al Qaeda was in­volved.”

“But,” he added, “there were also plenty of peo­ple and mili­tias that were un­af­fil­i­ated with al Qaeda that were in­volved.”

Coun­tert­er­ror­ism an­a­lysts and for­mer high-level of­fi­cials in­di­cated dur­ing in­ter­views with The Wash­ing­ton Times last sum­mer that the FBI, which was tasked by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion with car­ry­ing out an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the at­tack, had set­tled on a broad con­clu­sion: The at­tack was car­ried out by a com­bi­na­tion of mil­i­tants with vary­ing de­grees of con­nec­tion to three Is­lamist groups: An­sar alSharia, the Muham­mad Ja­mal net­work, and al Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb.

The Pen­tagon’s own ter­ror­ism re­search agency con­cluded in Au­gust 2012 that “al Qaeda se­nior lead­er­ship” based in Pak­istan was “likely seek­ing to build a clan­des­tine net­work in Libya as it pur­sues its strat­egy of re­in­forc­ing its pres­ence in North Africa.”

The re­port, pub­lished by the Li­brary of Congress in co­or­di­na­tion with the Ir­reg­u­lar War­fare Sup­port pro­gram, pre­dicted that AQIM was “likely to join hands with the al Qaeda clan­des­tine net­work.”

More specif­i­cally, the re­port — re­leased roughly a month be­fore the Beng­hazi at­tack — con­cluded that “An­sar alSharia, led by Su­fian Ben Qhumu, a for­mer Guan­tanamo de­tainee, has in­creas­ingly em­bod­ied al Qaeda’s pres­ence in Libya, as in­di­cated by its ac­tive so­cial-me­dia pro­pa­ganda, ex­trem­ist dis­course, and ha­tred of the West, es­pe­cially the United States.”

Beng­hazi’s tan­gled web

As a multi­na­tional net­work, AQIM is of­fi­cially listed by the U.S. as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, and its op­er­a­tives, along with mem­bers of An­sar al-Sharia and the Muham­mad Ja­mal net­work, are be­lieved to have par­tic­i­pated in a se­ries of ter­ror­ist as­saults on Western in­ter­ests in Beng­hazi dur­ing the months lead­ing up to the storm­ing of the U.S. diplo­matic post and CIA house in the city.

For­mer of­fi­cials and in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity sources have said dozens of for­eign fight­ers linked to AQIM, and to the Egypt-based Muham­mad Ja­mal net­work — whether from Egypt, Tu­nisia or else­where in North Africa — ar­rived in Beng­hazi in 2011 as part of a re­gional ji­hadist push to over­throw dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi. Many stayed on af­ter his down­fall and be­gan work­ing with op­er­a­tives from An­sar al-Sharia.

Among the most vex­ing as­pects of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is that none of three groups has specif­i­cally claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity.

AQIM is­sued a state­ment Sept. 18 — a week af­ter­ward — prais­ing the at­tack, but did not claim credit for plan­ning or ex­e­cut­ing it. Another state­ment around the same time, at­trib­uted to al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula, also did not claim re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Investigators have given sig­nif­i­cant at­ten­tion to a video mes­sage cir­cu­lated Sept. 10 in which al Qaeda’s se­nior leader, Ay­man al-Zawahri, who is be­lieved to be hiding in Pak­istan, called for at­tacks on Amer­i­cans in Libya to avenge the killing of a se­nior al Qaeda op­er­a­tive by a U.S. drone strike in Pak­istan last year.

Some an­a­lysts have ar­gued that the al-Zawahri video proves al Qaeda’s in­volve­ment be­cause it surely would have trick­led down dig­i­tally to AQIM op­er­a­tives dur­ing the hours be­fore the at­tack. But that ig­nores a sub­se­quent mes­sage put out by al-Zawahri roughly a month af­ter the at­tack in which he made only pass­ing ref­er­ence to Beng­hazi, and no­tably avoided claim­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for it.

That al Qaeda’s af­fil­i­ates in North Africa are evolv­ing rapidly, with op­er­a­tives emerg­ing in dif­fer­ent ar­eas, also has played into de­bates over ex­actly what tran­spired in Beng­hazi.

For­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency and CIA Di­rec­tor Michael V. Hay­den al­luded to such fac­tors dur­ing an ap­pear­ance on CBS, al­though he stopped short of di­rectly dis­put­ing The New York Times’ as­ser­tion that it had found no ev­i­dence of al Qaeda in­volve­ment in the at­tack, and in­stead praised the pa­per for other re­port­ing in its weekend story. He said it pro­vided broad view of a com­plex se­cu­rity land­scape in Libya.

“When the at­tack hap­pened, ac­tu­ally on this net­work a few days af­ter­wards, I was asked who did it. And I said well, you know, the al Qaeda move­ment’s di­vided into three lay­ers: al Qaeda prime, for­mally af­fil­i­ated and like-minded. And at the time, I said this was prob­a­bly high-end like-minded or low-end af­fil­i­ated. And I think The Times story to­day kind of bears that out,” Mr. Hay­den said.

“The al Qaeda move­ment has changed,” Mr. Hay­den said. “And ac­tu­ally, that’s prob­a­bly the bet­ter word, not the al Qaeda or­ga­ni­za­tion, but the al Qaeda move­ment.”

New names, new threats

One ex­am­ple of the change can be seen in An­sar alSharia. Al­though the group had been con­sid­ered lo­cal in Libya, ad­vo­cat­ing for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of Is­lamist law, indi­ca­tions over the past year sug­gest it is now in­volved in send­ing ji­hadist fight­ers to join the Nus­rah Front, a group in Syria that the State Depart­ment has said is an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq.

“The fact that An­sar is send­ing fight­ers to Syria shows you they’re part of the global ji­had and not just some strictly lo­cal group,” Thomas Josce­lyn, a se­nior fel­low fo­cus­ing on al Qaeda and North Africa at the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies, said in an in­ter­view Mon­day.

Mr. Josce­lyn, who man­ages the foun­da­tion’s Long War Jour­nal, said The New York Times story was strong in that “the reporter did a lot of on-the-ground talk­ing to peo­ple,” but that it “missed the mark in terms of anal­y­sis.”

“You can see that when one of the main Democrats on the House in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee comes out and says that al Qaeda was in­volved, ob­vi­ously there’s in­tel­li­gence show­ing that, which con­flicts with The New York Times’ declar­a­tive state­ments on the whole thing,” Mr. Josce­lyn said.

More trou­ble­some, he said, is the fact that on Oct. 29, 2012, the pa­per it­self cited uniden­ti­fied “Amer­i­can of­fi­cials” as say­ing the Beng­hazi at­tack “in­cluded par­tic­i­pants from An­sar al Sharia, al Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb and the Muham­mad Ja­mal net­work.”

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