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Disconnecting the Dots in Benghazi

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

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