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Of 112 Libyans identified, 52 had come from Darnah and 21 from Benghazi, according to the report, which noted that this made Darnah the single-largest town of jihadist origin in the Arab world.

At that time, Gadhafi, eager to regain international legitimacy after having abandoned his country’s weapons of mass destruction programs, was offering to cooperate with the U.S. on counterterrorism.

So when a multiagency team headed by the State Department was dispatched to brief intelligence, security and foreign affairs officials in Arab capitals during the winter of 2007 about the Sinjar report, the Libyan capital of Tripoli was one of its stops.

The former official recalled that in Tripoli a very high-level member of Gadhafi’s inner circle took umbrage when asked why more wasn’t being done to crack down on extremists in eastern Libya.

“He was pretty defensive in his response, and I remember him getting pretty sharp in saying ‘The whole eastern province has always brought us trouble,’ and ‘Three times we’ve brought conventional ground forces in there to try and quell these insurrectionist groups, and we’ll never get there,’” the former official said.

“That really set the tone for me at the time about the challenges posed by the region,” the former official said. “And now, five years later, we have what’s gone on in Benghazi.”

A convoluted path

The path from the Iraqi insurgency to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is a long and twisted trek.

By the time the U.S. delegation arrived in Tripoli in 2008, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had splintered, said Mr. Zelin, the Washington Institute scholar.

Several of its imprisoned and exiled leaders had taken part in peace talks opened by Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, in 2005, and others effectively latched onto al Qaeda in 2007.

The revolution that toppled Gadhafi and the other Arab Spring rebellions sparked another wave of extremism in eastern Libya, fueled by veterans of the revolution’s militias and still exporting jihadists — these days to Syria.

“You have a new generation [of extremists] now who never went through the hardships, defeats and mistakes of the 1990s,” Mr. Zelin said.

The jihadist group in Benghazi thought to have been pre-eminent in calling for the hastily organized attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission, Katibat Ansar al-Shariah Benghazi, or “the Benghazi brigade of the supporters of Islamic law,” is led by Mohammed al-Zawahi and announced its formation after Gadhafi’s overthrow, Mr. Zelin said.

Katibat Ansar al-Shariah Benghazi was one of several Islamist groups that paraded heavy weapons through Benghazi in June, prompting a cable from Stevens who reported their rise in eastern Libya and displays of “the al Qaeda flag” over buildings in Darnah.

He also noted an attack that month on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, where a homemade bomb ripped a hole in a security wall. Jihadists claimed responsibility for the attack, but the cable made no reference to any U.S. attempt to investigate.

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