Most notably, a top staffer in the office of Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, said Monday 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 al-Sharia, 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 al-Sharia, 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.