The militants who gathered on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, to torch and kill inside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, were a who’s who of the modern al Qaeda movement, newly declassified documents show.
Since its attacks on the U.S. in 2001, al Qaeda has worked to establish partners outside its base in Pakistan, especially in North Africa and the new fertile territory of eastern Libya and the port city of Benghazi.
All of al Qaeda’s work converged that night in Benghazi, according to a bipartisan report last week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Global jihadists created a sort of convention of at least four terrorist franchises, complete with rocket-propelled grenades and diesel fuel.
The Senate report, containing newly declassified intelligence data, coincided with the release of once-secret transcripts from the House Armed Services Committee on what the military thought and did that day.
The twin disclosures provide an even fuller picture of who killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith and two former Navy SEALs defending a nearby CIA annex. They show that the nation’s most senior military leaders quickly concluded that the carnage was a terrorist attack, even though the White House persisted for more than a week in calling the attack a spontaneous act of irate demonstrators.
“I personally and I think the command very quickly got to the point this was not a demonstration. This was a terrorist attack,” retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, who led U.S. Africa Command at the time, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigation last fall.
The Senate report for the first time spelled out exactly who planned and executed the ambush.
“Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Ansar al Sharia, AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], and the Muhammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks,” the report states.
Network founder Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, known by his nom de guerre Abu Ahmad al-Masri, trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and returned to Egypt to become al-Zawahri’s operations chief in the Egyptian Jihad.
In designating Jamal a global terrorist in October, the State Department said he had established links to other al Qaeda-connected groups in North Africa and set up a terrorist training camp in Libya. He also wrote letters to al-Zawahri asking “for assistance and described [the network’s] activities, including acquiring weapons, conducting terrorist training, and establishing terrorist groups in the Sinai.”
The State Department said Egyptian authorities arrested Jamal in 2012. The government has declined to say whether he is still in custody.
‘Of course it was an attack’
Another leader of the Benghazi attack with firm al Qaeda connections is Abu Sufian bin Qumu, one of the leaders of Ansar al-Sharia. Qumu trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, worked for bin Laden when the terrorist leader lived in Sudan and fought alongside the Taliban, an al Qaeda ally, until his capture and incarceration at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The U.S. released him to the custody of the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya, which ultimately freed him.
This month, the State Department designated Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization and Qumu a global terrorist. Fox News reported that Qumu was in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
“AI-Qa’ida-affiliated groups and associates are exploiting the permissive security environment in Libya to enhance their capabilities and expand their operational reach,” said the report, dated July 6, 2012. “This year, Muhammad Jamal’s Egypt-based network, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qa’ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have conducted training, built communication networks, and facilitated extremist travel across North Africa from their safe haven in parts of eastern Libya.”
To Republicans, the bipartisan Senate report is a clear rebuttal to a Dec. 28 article in The New York Times — which conservatives believe was published to exonerate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time and is a possible Democratic presidential candidate.
The Times asserted: “Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, took to the Senate floor to call out The Times.
“The latest snow job came in December from The New York Times, that ever-reliable surrogate for the Obama administration, which published a long report, ‘challenging’ some key facts about the Benghazi attack,” Mr. McCain said. “The fact is, the attack against our diplomatic facility in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, was carried out in part by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists who had established a safe haven in parts of eastern Libya.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney attacked Republicans for releasing the House Armed Services transcripts.
But when pressed about the military’s early conclusion that the Benghazi incident was a terrorist attack, Mr. Carney changed his tune from September 2012, when he refused to characterize it as such.
“Of course it was an attack,” the press secretary said last week. “It was an attack that led to the deaths of four Americans. And there has been a significant amount of investigation to find out what went wrong when it came to security and to recommend steps that should be taken, and which we are taking, to do everything we can to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
He added: “So I think there has been a lot of reporting on this, and there has been a lot of inaccurate reporting on it, generally speaking, not just this particular case of House Republicans selectively releasing more testimony to outlets so that they can use it for political purposes. … But the idea that we were somehow saying it wasn’t an attack? I mean, the sky is blue. Up is not down, down is not up. Of course it was an attack.”
The House transcripts show that Gen. Ham, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, quickly concluded after the attack that it was terrorism, not a spontaneous demonstration.
“When we saw a rocket-propelled grenade attack, what appeared to be pretty well-aimed small arms fire — again, this is all coming second- and third-hand through unclassified, commercial cellphones for the most part initially — to me, it started to become clear pretty quickly that this was certainly a terrorist attack and not just something sporadic,” he told the House panel.
Asked how the White House could cling for nearly two weeks to a story that the attack was ignited by a demonstration, Gen. Ham said: “I’m not [privy] to those conversations. Mine were with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and with the secretary. And I think we were pretty clear on, you know, pretty shortly thereafter kind of the nature of the attack.”
Mr. Panetta testified before the Senate in February that he later became convinced the incident was terrorism, not a demonstration, and told Congress as such three days later.
Mr. Panetta testified that he had no other contact with the president during the seven-hour siege of the CIA annex.
The record of Benghazi now shows that Mr. Obama’s entire military leadership concluded that it was a planned terrorist attack within hours or a few days. It also shows that the CIA drafted an initial public statement, known as “talking points,” that said the attack was terrorism and made no mention of a demonstration. Likewise, the U.S. diplomatic mission never reported a demonstration that day. The CIA reviewed security video Sept. 18 that showed no demonstration outside the walls.
Yet Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper clung to the false report of a demonstration until Sept. 24, the day before Mr. Obama went before the United Nations and continued to blame the violence on spontaneous demonstrations against an American-produced anti-Muslim video, the Senate report said.