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Former National Security Agency and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden alluded to such factors during an appearance Sunday 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.”

Mr. Hayden told The Washington Times on Monday that there are still uncertainties about who precisely executed and ordered the attack, but that he could say with confidence that the perpetrators were “al Qaeda affiliated if al Qaeda is viewed as a movement, a cause, a concept.”

New names, new threats

One example of the change can be seen in Ansar al-Sharia. 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.”

“Nothing in the sources I’ve talked to have said that was wrong,” said Mr. Joscelyn, who noted that David D. Kirkpatrick, the author of The Times’ more recent story, did not have a byline on the October report but was listed as a contributor.

“The Times is ignoring its own previous reporting on who’s responsible for Benghazi,” Mr. Joscelyn said. “In fact, at least some of the parties responsible are known al Qaeda-linked actors, specifically Muhammad Jamal and his trainees.”

“And,” he said, “the idea that AQIM has no ties to the al Qaeda network, or is not part of the al Qaeda network, is just completely flat false.”

Speculation was rife Monday, meanwhile, over how The Times story might stand to impact the image of Mrs. Clinton, who is rumored to be preparing for a presidential run in 2016. “I think that politically, if this story were true, it would give her some protection,” Mr. Westmoreland said.

Pushing the notion that no al Qaeda-linked groups were involved in Benghazi, he suggested, would provide a kind of cover for Mrs. Clinton and for her State Department, which was roundly criticized by Republicans for not doing more to respond to requests made by diplomats on the ground prior to the attacks for beefed-up security.

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