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Key attackers were identified early as belonging to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A video message sent via cyberspace from al-Zawahri on the night before the incident explicitly called for attacks on Americans in Libya to avenge a fatal U.S. drone strike on a Libyan-born senior al Qaeda operative in Pakistan.

The message was almost immediately identified as a possible motivation, or trigger, for the Benghazi attack.

Despite being briefed on it privately, Mr. Obama and his surrogates resisted portraying the attack as having been carried out, or even inspired by, al Qaeda. To the contrary, Mr. Obama — then in the throes of daily campaigning for re-election — appeared only to ramp up his narrative that the al Qaeda threat was diminished.

On the day after the Benghazi attack, which occurred on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, Mr. Obama told an audience in Las Vegas that “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat and bin Laden is dead” — a talking point the president hammered again the next day in Golden, Colo., and in back-to-back speeches Sept. 17 in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio.

At times, Mr. Obama substituted the word “decimated” to describe al Qaeda in general. “We have gone after the terrorists who actually attacked us 9/11 and decimated al Qaeda,” he said at an Oct. 24 fundraising event at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

A week later, he told an audience in Green Bay, Wis., “Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Politically savvy insiders on the Republican side viewed the president’s declarations with bitter amusement. “It’s not that it was an alternative narrative being pushed,” said one congressional source familiar with the intelligence. “But, kind of like a half-truth.”

“There was a narrative of al Qaeda being ‘defeated’ or ‘decimated,’ but that would only be true in the case of specifying al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan,” said the source, who chastised the campaign for “not specifying that that’s what they were talking about.”

“To the general public, a lot of people don’t know the difference” between al Qaeda central and its African offshoots, the source said.

Inside the intelligence community, officials feared Mr. Obama’s campaign rhetoric might boomerang on American spy agencies if there is a major terrorist attack on the United States.

“Intelligence leaders didn’t want a media story line that they somehow missed this emerging Africa threat if something happened,” the official said.

Two former senior intelligence officials even took to the airwaves last fall to try to combat the political portrait of al Qaeda on its last leg. Former CIA Directors Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden gave pointed interviews disputing the oversimplification of the political rhetoric and insisting that al Qaeda remained a real threat to strike through the African affiliates.

Asked for his own assessment of al Qaeda, Mr. Goss told Fox News in October that “it’s much stronger” and “it’s spreading out.”

“It’s sort of running across the map of northern Africa,” Mr. Goss said. “There are franchise activities springing up with different names and constantly are changing the names. They basically are part of this loosely affiliated network. There’s a lot of money in it. There is a lot of dedication and commitment in it.”

Mr. Hayden openly suggested that the Obama administration may have tried to hide the al Qaeda affiliate’s role in the Benghazi tragedy for political reasons when, in fact, “Benghazi is really a home game for al Qaeda.”

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