Nearly eight months after terrorists killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, the Obama administration still has not explained who, exactly, was responsible.
The dispersed and decentralized nature of the terrorist networks active in the region highlights that the threat to US and Western interests overseas is more likely to be unpredictable. The 2012 attack on the US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, and the 2013 attack on Algeria’s In-Amenas oil facility demonstrate the threat to US interests from splinter groups, ad hoc coalitions, or individual terrorists who can conduct anti-US operations, even in the absence of official direction or guidance from leaders of established al Qaeda affiliates.
Clapper almost certainly didn’t come up with this assessment himself. It was probably drafted by other intelligence officials and analysts for him to present to Congress. Regardless, the effect of this description is, quite obviously, to downplay the ties between “established al Qaeda affiliates” and the attacks in both Benghazi and in Algeria.
It is a misleading description, at best. The intelligence community’s assessment simply does not square with publicly-available reporting.
Let us begin with the January 2013 attack in Algeria, which left nearly 40 victims dead, and then work our way back to the terrorist attack in Benghazi four months earlier. These two attacks are connected, but the ties between them actually undermine the description delivered by Clapper.
Piecing together the details reported in the press, the picture that emerges is one that includes several al Qaeda-affiliated groups. Here is an overview of those groups.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – The undisputed mastermind of the In-Amenas raid is a longtime al Qaeda commander named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who has served in al Qaeda affiliated groups since the early 1990s. Belmokhtar became a senior commander in the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which evolved into Al Qaeda in the Islamic (AQIM) after formally merging with al Qaeda. Belmokhtar was one of the most senior commanders in AQIM.
After the attack in Algeria earlier this year, some tried to argue that Belmokhtar wasn’t really an al Qaeda operative because he earns funds from various criminal activities (including cigarette smuggling, earning him the nickname “Mr. Marlboro”) and he had a falling out with the head of AQIM late last year. The first argument is myopic because it assumes that al Qaeda ideologues aren’t capable of more mundane criminality when it suits their interests. Precisely the opposite is true: Al Qaeda operatives frequently use criminal enterprises to fund their ideologically-driven terrorism.
Belmokhtar’s falling out with AQIM has also been misunderstood and overplayed. It was the result of personal differences between Belmokhtar and other AQIM commanders. This inside baseball did not result in Belmokhtar leaving al Qaeda entirely. Instead, the longtime terrorist reaffirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda.
In December, when Belmokhtar established his own fighting force, his spokesman made it clear that Belmokhtar remains loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. The Associated Press interviewed Oumar Ould Hamaha, who spoke on behalf of Belmokhtar. The AP reported: “Hamaha said…that while he and Belmokhtar have left the North African branch [AQIM], they remain under the orders of al Qaeda central.”
Belmokhtar underscored his al Qaeda role in a video recorded during the attack in Algeria on January 17. “We in al Qaeda announce that we carried out the blessed commando operation,” Belmokhtar announced as he stood in front of an al Qaeda-style black banner.
Last month, the head of AQIM’s media commission gave an interview online. Ahmad Abu-Abd-al-Ilah was asked repeatedly about Belmokhtar, and the AQIM spokesman confirmed that Belmokhtar “announced his withdrawal from” AQIM in December 2012. However, AQIM’s man also stressed: “As for the doctrinal and practical aspects, we all work jointly as one body to confront the French Crusader campaign.” Belmokhtar and AQIM “stand in one trench to repel the French occupation,” Abu-Abd-al-Ilah added.
In other words, Belmokhtar and AQIM still fight side-by-side. (There have been conflicting reports suggesting that Belmokhtar has been killed, but those remain unconfirmed.)
Not only was Belmokhtar responsible for the attack on In-Amenas, he may also have played a role in the Benghazi attack. Belmokhtar reportedly spent a considerable amount of time inside post-Qaddafi Libya, giving him ample opportunity to set up operational ties to like-minded terrorists.
Eli Lake of the Daily Beast first reported that some of the Benghazi attackers were in contact with AQIM members shortly after the assault on the U.S. mission.
CNN reported in March that Belmokhtar himself received a phone call from near the scene of the Benghazi attack on the night of September 11, 2012. “Mabruk, Mabruk!" or “Congratulations, Congratulations!” the caller said to Belmokhtar. “There is no proof that the call was specifically about the attack,” CNN noted, “but the sources say that is the assumption among those with knowledge of the call.”
Belmokhtar was still officially an AQIM commander when the Benghazi mission came under fire. If he was involved in the Benghazi attack, then Clapper’s testimony falls apart due to this fact alone.
In any event, Belmokhtar was undoubtedly responsible for the attack on In-Amenas four months later, making the description provided by Clapper misleading. One can argue that Belmokhtar had by that time established a “splinter group” outside of AQIM’s chain of command. But that group, according to Belmokhtar’s spokesman and Belmokhtar himself, is still a part of al Qaeda and his group continues to fight alongside AQIM.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – CNN reported this past weekend that “[s]everal Yemeni men belonging to al Qaeda took part in the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.” One source added that three or four of the terrorists belonged to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – an established al Qaeda affiliate.
“Another source briefed on the Benghazi investigation said Western intelligence services suspect the men may have been sent by the group specifically to carry out the attack,” CNN reported. “But it's not been ruled out that they were already in the city and participated as the opportunity arose.”
If AQAP did dispatch the terrorists to Benghazi specifically to take part in the September 11, 2012 attack, then this is another hole in the characterization provided by Clapper. Note this means that CNN’s sources are keeping open the possibility, to use Clapper’s words, that an “established” al Qaeda affiliate provided “official guidance and direction.”
CNN added another intriguing detail: The Yemenis “were later traced to northern Mali, where they are believed to have connected with a fighting group commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a prominent jihadist leader, according to a senior law enforcement source.”
That’s another potential tie to Belmokhtar.
Muhammad Jamal al Kashef’s Network – The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and CNN have all reported that Egyptians trained in camps run by Muhammad Jamal al Kashef (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed) took part in the Benghazi attack. Al Kashef served in Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1990s and was imprisoned by Hosni Mubarak’s regime only to be released in 2011. Al Kashef immediately went back to work.
The Egyptian press has published two letters Al Kashef wrote to Ayman al Zawahiri, who became the emir of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s death. The first letter was written in late 2011 and the second is dated August 18, 2012.
Al Kashef is deferential to Zawahiri in the letters. Al Kashef provides a short biography, which may be intended to update newer members of al Qaeda’s management who are not familiar with his dossier since he spent so much time in prison. Al Kashef reveals that he once served as part of Zawahiri’s bodyguard detail and trained several terrorists who went on to lead Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Al Kashef asks for financial assistance from Zawahiri to purchase and transport more weapons from Libya. Al Kashef writes that he had already received funding from AQAP and summarizes his operations, which stretched from the Sinai and Egypt, through Libya and North Africa, into Mali.
Al Kashef was arrested by Egyptian authorities in late 2012. He has been identified as a leader of the Nasr City Cell, which has numerous additional ties to al Qaeda. The Egyptians launched raids on the Nasr City Cell beginning on October 24, 2012 and have accused at least one member of the cell, besides al Kashef, of being tied to the Benghazi assault.
Al Kashef was trying to establish his own al Qaeda franchise prior to his arrest. Thus, he did not lead an “established” al Qaeda affiliate, to use Clapper’s parlance. But al Kashef’s ties to Zawahiri and other al Qaeda parties (including AQAP) deserve their own scrutiny and should not be dismissed as being outside of al Qaeda’s orbit. For instance, other jihadists with longstanding ties to Zawahiri reportedly helped fill al Kashef’s Libyan training camps with Egyptian recruits.
In addition, according to the New York Times, a senior Algerian official told the press in January that some of the Egyptians who attacked the mission in Benghazi were also part of Belmokhtar’s terrorist squad in Algeria.
Additional ties to al Qaeda-linked parties – We can add several parties to the list of al Qaeda-affiliated groups and individuals suspected of launching the Benghazi attack.
CNN reported in October that U.S. intelligence officials think “that assailants connected to al Qaeda in Iraq were among the core group that attacked the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.” Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is, therefore, the third “established” al Qaeda affiliate suspected of having ties to Benghazi. (The other two are AQIM and AQAP. All three have pledged their loyalty to Ayman al Zawahiri.)
CNN added at the time that the “latest intelligence suggests the core group of suspects from the first wave of the attack on the Benghazi mission numbered between 35 to 40.” And “[a]round a dozen of the attackers are believed to be connected to either al Qaeda in Iraq or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” according to a “government official.”
Ali Ani al Harzi, a Tunisian who posted updates on social media from Benghazi as the attack unfolded, previously tried to join AQI. Al Harzi was freed from a Tunisian jail in January after being detained at the request of U.S. officials. And Al Harzi’s brother is reportedly an AQI facilitator who now works for al Qaeda’s Al-Nusra Front in Syria.
Faraj al Chalabi, a Libyan who was arrested in March, may have played a role in the Benghazi attack. That is unclear, however. Al Chalabi was arrested by Libyan authorities after returning from a trip to Pakistan. Muammar Qaddafi’s regime accused al Chalabi of working for Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.
And finally, there is the Ansar al Sharia militia in Benghazi. Intercepted phone calls show that members of Ansar al Sharia “bragged” to AQIM after ransacking the Benghazi mission.
The Al Qaeda Network
We do not know if any specific al Qaeda leader ordered the attack in Benghazi. Then again, in all likelihood, neither does the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The investigation into the events of September 11, 2012 has been slow going, with few suspects in foreign custody. And U.S. officials have been granted only limited access to those suspects.
The Obama administration has not revealed the specific evidence that led Clapper to describe the attackers in Benghazi and In-Amenas as belonging to “splinter groups,” or “ad hoc coalitions,” or as “individual terrorists” operating without “official direction or guidance from leaders of established al Qaeda affiliates.”
The evidence cited in this analysis shows that the intelligence community’s assessment is specious. Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al Qaeda bona fides were established years ago. Belmokhtar was responsible for In-Amenas and possibly played a role in Benghazi. CNN has recently reported that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) may have deliberately dispatched several of its members to Libya in advance of the attack in Benghazi. Some of the Benghazi terrorists were trained in Muhammad Jamal al Kashef’s camps. The Egyptian al Kashef first served Ayman al Zawahiri in the 1990s, wrote to al Qaeda’s head in the months leading up to September 2012, and received assistance from AQAP. Other terrorists with ties to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) reportedly assaulted the U.S. mission in Benghazi as well.
We do not know the full story, which continues to evolve as investigators learn more. But the evidence reported thus far points in one direction: Terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda’s international terrorist network killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya and dozens of foreign hostages in In-Amenas four months later.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.