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Disconnecting the Dots in Benghazi

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

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