Washington is preoccupied with the political decisions surrounding last year’s attack in Benghazi, but nine months later the who and why of the terrorist assault that left four Americans dead remains shrouded in mystery.
Some analysts say Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was the target, while others believe he may have been an opportunistic way to smoke out the location of a CIA compound in the eastern Libyan city. It’s not even clear whether the attack was long premeditated or whether it was a last-minute strike organized after Stevens was seen in town the afternoon of Sept. 11.
The FBI is investigating the attack in order to fulfill President Obama’s promise to “bring to justice the killers.” But no arrests have been made and only one suspect — a Tunisian since released from custody — has been interrogated.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. dodged the issue when asked about progress last month at a congressional hearing.
“I can’t be definitive other than to say that the investigation is ongoing,” Mr. Holder told the House Judiciary Committee on May 15, though he said that the FBI has made “definitive” and “concrete” steps in the inquiry and that “we will be prepared shortly, I think, to reveal all that we have done.”
One man, 28-year-old Tunisian Ali Harzi, was detained briefly by Tunisian authorities early this year. FBI agents reportedly interviewed him, but he was then released and the bureau declined to comment on whether his name was cleared.
The FBI also declined to comment on reports that it has been unsuccessful in gaining access to a second person, Muhammad Jamal Ahmad, the leader of an Egypt-based jihadist network who has been detained by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government since December.
With no clear explanation of who the three men are, or what their specific motivations were in carrying out the attack, the grainy images seem to symbolize the elusive and uncertain threat posted by Islamic extremism and its evolving terrorist networks across North Africa.
A ‘perfect storm’
Sources said the FBI has set up an office in Tripoli to oversee the Benghazi probe but that investigators have struggled from the start because of reduced U.S. intelligence and diplomatic footprint in Libya after the attack.
Agents have had trouble even getting to the crime scene because of lawlessness in eastern Libya. The country’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies, born out of the chaos surrounding the 2011 ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, haven’t been able to be of much help.
Counterterrorism analysts, foreign policy insiders and former officials, however, say the FBI has settled on a broad conclusion: The attacks were 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.
“I’ve looked at this pretty carefully,” said Seth G. Jones, who worked on counterterrorism campaigns with U.S. Special Operations Command prior to his current position as an international security analyst at the Rand Corp.