U.S. intelligence told President Barack Obama and senior administration officials within 72 hours of the Benghazi tragedy that the attack was likely carried out by local militia and other armed extremists sympathetic to al-Qaida in the region, officials directly familiar with the information told the Washington Guardianon Friday.
Based on electronic intercepts and human intelligence on the ground, the early briefings after the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya identified possible organizers and participants. Most were believed to be from a local Libyan militia group called Ansar al-Sharia that is sympathetic to al-Qaida, the official said, while a handful of others was linked to a direct al-Qaida affiliate in North Africa known as AQIM.
Those briefings also raised the possibility that the attackers may have been inspired both by spontaneous protests across the globe on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and by a desire to seek vengeance for the U.S. killing last summer of a Libyan-born leader of al-Qaida named Abu Yaya al-Libi, the officials said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence matters.
The details from the CIA and Pentagon assessments of the killing of Ambassador Chris Stephens were far more specific, more detailed and more current than the unclassified talking points that UN Ambassador Susan Rice and other officials used five days after the attack to suggest to Americans that an unruly mob angry over an anti-Islamic video was to blame, officials said.
Most of the details affirming al-Qaida links were edited or excluded from the unclassified talking points used by Rice in appearances on news programs the weekend after the attack, officials confirmed Friday. Multiple agencies were involved in excising information, doing so because it revealed sources and methods, dealt with classified intercepts or involved information that was not yet fully confirmed, the officials said.
“There were multiple agencies involved, not for political reasons, but because of intelligence concerns,” one official explained.
Rice’s performance on the Sunday talk shows has become a source of controversy between Congress and the White House. Lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have questioned whether the administration was trying to mislead the country by suggesting the Benghazi attack was like the spontaneous protests that had occurred elsewhere on Sept. 11, in places like Egypt.
Obama has defended Rice, and he and his top aides have insisted politics was not involved. They argue the administration’s shifting story was the result of changing intelligence.
U.S. intelligence officials said Friday, however, the assessment that the tragedy was an attack by extremists with al-Qaida links was well defined within 48 to 72 hours.
“We knew this was an attack by extremists, a terror attack, and that this was more violent than the embassy protests we saw that day,” one official said. “But it also had an element of spontaneous opportunity and disorganization.”
The Washington Guardian was first to report just 48 hours after the attack that U.S. officials believed the attack was linked to al-Qaida sympathizers and may have evolved from spontaneous early attacks to a more organized mortar shelling.
Among the early evidence cited in the briefings to the preisdent and other senior officials were intercepts showing some of the participants were known members or supporters of Ansar al-Sharia — the al-Qaida-sympathizing militia in Libya —and the AQIM, which is a direct affiliate of al-Qaida in northern Africa, the officials said.
The use of rocket propelled grenades and mortars also indicated the players were engaged in more than a spontaneous uprising, though ground reports also showed some of the attackers were somewhat disorganized during the early waves of attacks, the officials said.
Senior officials were briefed within 72 hours of the attack that the attackers may have staged or used a spontaneous crowd that formed outside the consulate in Benghazi to launch the first wave of attacks with gunfire and rocket-fired grenades, and that they may have been aided by sympathesizers inside Libyan security forces who were supposed to protect the consulate, the officials said. Stephens is believed to have been killed in the first attacks, most likely from smoke from related fires, officials have said.
Officials were also told a second-wave attack — about four hours after the first evacuations of the consulate — focused on an annex where the CIA and others had significant assets. It was more sophisticated and lethal in force, though only 11 minutes in length. Two mortars missed, while three struck the building, killing two former Navy SEALs who worked for the CIA and were trying to fend off that attack, the officials said.