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Disconnecting the Dots in Benghazi

6:25 AM, May 8, 2013 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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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.

Here is how James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has described the Benghazi attack in written testimony delivered to Congress three times since March (emphasis added):  

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.”

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