Senior State Department, defense and intelligence officials were well aware that Benghazi and its surrounding area harbored al Qaeda-linked extremists long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city.
But in recent interviews with The Washington Times, several former high-level officials explained that eastern Libya was notorious in Washington’s counterterrorism community for more than a decade as a hub for jihadists leaving for or returning from insurgencies abroad.
The agencies’ long-standing knowledge about Islamic extremists in Benghazi raises questions about the level of security at the U.S. Consulate on Sept. 11, when heavily armed militants stormed the diplomatic mission and a CIA annex and killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
The officials pointed to the 2007 seizure by coalition forces in Iraq of a treasure trove of documents that highlighted the town of Darnah, just east of Benghazi, as one of the top destinations in the world from which foreign fighters were recruited to join al Qaeda’s insurgency against U.S. troops in Iraq.
In 2008, a secret cable from a U.S. diplomat in Libya, later posted by WikiLeaks, reported that many people in Darnah “take great pride” in their town’s public reputation as the source for such large numbers of foreign fighters and suicide bombers — “invariably referred to as ‘martyrs,’” the cable reads.
Always a hotbed
Eastern Libya was home to many Libyans who had left to join the first global jihadist insurgency — against the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1980s, said Aaron Y. Zelin, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In the 1990s, Libyan veterans of the Afghan jihad launched an insurgency in eastern Libya under the banner of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which Gadhafi forces crushed. The group split with al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks, predicting that they would be disastrous for the global jihadist movement.
The documents recovered in 2007 in Iraq, which came to be known as the Sinjar records — named after a town on the Syrian-Iraqi border where the material was seized from an al Qaeda commander — included the identities and hometowns of hundreds of foreign fighters in Iraq.
“The info was picked up by special ops, and a very powerful decision was made not to treat it as intel but to declassify it and give it to the State Department so that it could be dealt with from a diplomatic approach and then to release the information academically,” said one former official with intimate knowledge of the discovery.
The result was a two-part report produced by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Titled “Al Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq,” the report showed that Libya ranked second only to Saudi Arabia as a country of origin for foreign fighters. The data shocked many U.S. analysts, who previously had not assessed Libya as a significant source of foreign jihadists.