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.”
The FBI has refused to comment during the weeks since, although media reports suggest that the bureau has identified five men as potential suspects in the Benghazi attack.
COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope
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.
In early May, the FBI posted to its website photos of three men taken from security cameras that recorded footage at the Benghazi diplomatic post during the attack.
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.
“My understanding,” said Mr. Jones, “is that members of Ansar al-Sharia, the Mohamed Jamal Network and AQIM came together and conducted the attack against the building in Benghazi.”
Of the three suspected groups, only AQIM, as it’s known in intelligence circles, is listed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. But operatives from all three 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.
Dozens of foreign fighters linked to the multinational 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 Gadhafi. Many stayed on following his ouster and began working with operatives from Ansar al-Sharia, a local group long advocating for the implementation of Islamist law in Libya.
The timing of the Benghazi attacks, analysts say, cannot be overstated. In addition to falling on the 11th anniversary of the attacks on Washington and New York, the assault occurred as the world’s major television news outlets were broadcasting images of protesters storming U.S. embassies in Egypt and Tunisia. That set the stage for what one former official described as a “perfect storm” in Benghazi.
But that still doesn’t answer the question of whether the attack was truly premeditated and carefully orchestrated, or whether it was a spontaneous outbreak of the anti-Western Islamic militancy gripping Benghazi.
No claim of responsibility
Among the most vexing aspects of the investigation is that none of three groups suspected of involvement has claimed responsibility.
“Al Qaeda has no issue with claiming responsibility for attacks, so you would think that if they were the ones who did it, they would say something,” said Aaron Zelin, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in combing Islamist websites for terrorism-related chatter.
AQIM issued a statement on 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 on Sept. 10 in which al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri called for attacks on Americans in Libya to avenge the killing of a senior al Qaeda operative by U.S. drone strike in Pakistan last year.
Some analysts have argued the Zawahri video proves al Qaeda’s involvement because it surely would have trickled digitally down to AQIM operatives during the hours prior to the attack.
But that ignores a subsequent message put out by Zawahri roughly a month after the attack where he made only passing reference to Benghazi, and notably avoided claiming responsibility for it.
In the hours immediately after the attack, State Department officials sent emails referencing a Facebook posting that Ansar al-Sharia claimed responsibility. But that posting has never materialized publicly and Mr. Zelin, who keeps a scrupulous record of every digital move by Ansar al-Sharia, believes State Department officials erred.
“All the stuff in those emails from the State Department, they got wrong,” he said. “They weren’t looking at the actual official Facebook page of Ansar al-Sharia because there was not a posting on the official page until a day later.”
Mr. Zelin said the only posting made by Ansar al-Sharia stated outright that the group “as military did not participate formally and not by direct orders” in the attack.
He said such precise wording may suggest low-level members in the group were involved but that the attack was not planned or orchestrated by Ansar al-Sharia leadership.
One former U.S. official said Mr. Stevens’ popularity among the wider public in Benghazi may have factored into decisions to avoid claiming responsibility for his death. A local group such as Ansar al-Sharia, the former official said, might fear backlash from the public if it was seen to be bragging about the popular ambassador’s death.
The ‘smoke out’ theory
With no claim of responsibility, authorities have struggled to identify the goal of the attack.
Sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity, some with close ties to FBI investigators but not authorized to speak officially on the matter, said one major question is whether the attackers knew ahead of time the location of the CIA house, which was roughly a mile and a half away and which came under assault after the diplomatic compound.
One possibility is that an American armored car that fled from the diplomatic compound to the CIA house inadvertently led the attackers.
A more vexing prospect, one source said, is that the CIA house was the actual “end target” and the militants attacked the diplomatic post to “smoke out” the CIA location. That theory draws on a series of details divulged by senior State Department officials during an Oct. 9 background call with reporters.
During the call, one senior official explained how a “quick reaction security team” of “agents” had driven from the CIA house to the diplomatic post in an attempt to rescue Mr. Stevens and others.
After failing to find the ambassador in the smoke-filled compound, the agents piled back into their vehicle and drove back to the CIA house, facing heavy fire along the way.
Driving with two flat tires, the agents at one point careened the vehicle over “a grassy median and into opposing traffic,” the senior official said. They proceeded to weave “counterflow” through oncoming cars before making it back to the CIA house.
The vehicle’s action-packed course would have been highly visible to militants.
The source who outlined the “smoke out” theory said it was notable that the militants left Stevens’ body behind at the burning diplomatic post. Had he been the end target, the militants surely would have gone back to make sure he was dead.
The attackers even could have seen Stevens the hour before the assault. According to one of the senior officials who spoke with reporters during that Oct. 9 briefing, the ambassador escorted a Turkish official with whom he had been meeting to an area “out in the street” beyond the external gate of the diplomatic post.
The source who laid out the “smoke out” theory said the militants could have been monitoring Stevens prior to the attack. His presence at the diplomatic post would be required in order to ensure that officials from the CIA house would come rushing to the rescue once fire had been set to the post.
“The folks moving through Benghazi with ties to AQIM, they’ve been around for a while,” said the source. “They would be competent in some basic tradecraft, and really what they would be trying to do is track Stevens to find the CIA location, maybe just to conduct countersurveillance.”
Mr. Jones, the Rand Corp. analyst, said it was more likely that the attack was one of opportunity.
The militants who carried out the attack, he said, “decided to take action when they did because of a few factors, including the Ayman al-Zawahri comment about avenging the death of a former al Qaeda commander, and then particularly in response to news that the U.S. Embassy was being overrun in Cairo.”
“These kinds of organizations did have plans for attacks, but I’m not sure if they had a plan for that particular day,” he said. “They probably just pulled some stuff off the shelf and implemented that day.”
But that is not to say the attack was entirely spur-of-the-moment.
“They have to put together sources, plots, locations, some reconnaissance. In some cases, the plots are imminent and discussed in detail,” said Mr. Jones. “In some cases, you just may get a window of opportunity that you can quickly pull one off.”
• Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.