The Magazine

Questions They Won’t Answer

Benghazi isn’t going away.

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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A leaked Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment describes Ben Qumu as an “associate” of Osama bin Laden. JTF-GTMO found that Ben Qumu worked as a driver for a company owned by bin Laden in the Sudan, fought alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and maintained ties to several other well-known al Qaeda leaders. Ben Qumu’s alias was found on the laptop of an al Qaeda operative responsible for overseeing the finances for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The information on the laptop indicated that Ben Qumu was an al Qaeda “member receiving family support.”

Ben Qumu was transferred from Guantánamo to Libyan custody on September 28, 2007. He was released from prison in 2010 as part of a deal Qaddafi cut with militants. He then became the leader of Ansar al Sharia in Derna and trained some of the rebels who helped overthrow Qaddafi’s regime.

The authors of “Al Qaeda in Libya: a Profile,” a report published by the Library of Congress in conjunction with the Defense Department in August 2012—a month before the Benghazi attacks—identified Ben Qumu as the possible “new face of al Qaeda in Libya despite” his denial of an ongoing al Qaeda role. The report also noted that Ben Qumu and his Ansar al Sharia fighters are “believed to be close to the al Qaeda clandestine network” in Libya. According to the report’s authors, that same network is headed by al Qaeda operatives who report to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al Zawahiri.

Jamal, Chalabi, and Ben Qumu are well known in the counterterrorism world. They have been part of the al Qaeda network for decades. Yet in the context of Benghazi, the Obama administration seeks to define them as something other than al Qaeda operatives. Obama and the State Department (as in the exchange above) consistently refer to the Benghazi attackers as generic “extremists.”

Obama used that descriptor when discussing Benghazi during his speech at the National Defense University (NDU) in May. He referred to “extremists” operating in Libya and Syria as “simply collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory.” He did not identify them as a part of al Qaeda’s international network. “While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat,” Obama argued, “most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based.”

Obama’s bottom line is that these “local” terrorists are not as worrisome as the al Qaeda that attacked us on September 11, 2001. They are, in the president’s view, a distinct, lower-level threat that can be managed.

Obama elaborated: “We’ll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria, in which local operatives—perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks—launch periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies, and other soft targets, or resort to kidnapping and other criminal enterprises to fund their operations.”

The president’s description of the Benghazi attack network does not match the evidence collected by the U.S. intelligence community. Jamal, for instance, was hardly a “local” actor. The Egyptian operated training camps in the north Sinai and eastern Libya. He received support from al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen and North Africa and, according to the State Department, had “established links with terrorists in Europe.” All of this was in addition to his ongoing communications with Ayman al Zawahiri in South Asia. Chalabi traveled to Pakistan to share the documents he captured with al Qaeda senior leadership. And the presence of Egyptians, Libyans, and Tunisians, as well as possibly Algerians, Iraqis, and Yemenis among the attackers suggests Benghazi was far more than a “local” effort.

Still more al Qaeda ties have been unearthed during the investigation. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a longtime al Qaeda commander, reportedly received a call from members of Ansar al Sharia in Libya on the night of the attack. “Mabruk, mabruk!” (congratulations!), one of the callers said to Belmokhtar, according to CNN.

Belmokhtar was first designated an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist by the U.N. in 2003. He served as a top commander in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group that formally merged with al Qaeda’s parent organization in 2007. Belmokhtar was an AQIM commander on the night of September 11, 2012. Three months later he decided to establish his own fighting group outside AQIM’s chain-of-command. Belmokhtar’s spokesman confirmed at the time, however, that the group (the “Those Who Sign with Blood” brigade) was still loyal to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan.

The following month, in January 2013, Belmokhtar’s group laid siege to the In Amenas natural gas facility in Algeria. “We in al Qaeda announce that we carried out the blessed commando operation,” Belmokhtar said in a video claiming responsibility. The Algerian government subsequently said that a group of Egyptians who took part in the attack in Ben-ghazi were also involved in the siege of In Amenas, which left dozens of Westerners dead.

In his speech at NDU, the president claimed that “the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston.” 

How could Obama know that al Qaeda’s senior leaders did not order the attack in Benghazi? Behind closed doors, some U.S. intelligence officials found such certitude troubling. None of the chief suspects is in U.S. custody. Intelligence officials have had very limited access to the alleged attackers held abroad, and many have been released.

So what role did al Qaeda senior leadership play in the Benghazi attacks of September 11, 2012? It’s a question we can add to the many others that remain unanswered.

And those questions, more than anything, are why Benghazi is not going away.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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