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Spinning Benghazi

10:56 AM, Oct 20, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On October 19, the Associated Press reported that the CIA station chief in Libya “reported to Washington within 24 hours of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate that there was evidence it was carried out by militants, not a spontaneous mob upset about an American-made video ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.”

The AP also reported (emphasis added)

Intelligence officials say the leading suspected culprit is a local Benghazi militia, Ansar al-Shariah. The group denies responsibility for the attack but is known to have ties to a leading African terror group, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Some of its leaders and fighters were spotted by Libyan locals at the consulate during the violence, and intelligence intercepts show the militants were in contact with AQIM militants before and after the attack, one U.S. intelligence official said.

The push to obfuscate links between an al Qaeda affiliate, and its allies inside Libya, to the attack began earlier in the week.

On Wednesday, October 17, the New York Times reported that “Libyan authorities have singled out Ahmed Abu Khattala, a leader of the Benghazi-based Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah, as a commander in the attack.” Although the Times argued that Khattala’’s “exact role” was not yet clear, the paper was quick to argue that both he and “Ansar al-Shariah share Al Qaeda’s puritanism and militancy, but operate independently and focus only on Libya rather than on a global jihad against the West.”

That claim makes no sense on its face. If Abu Khattala and his Ansar al-Sharia brigade are responsible for launching a terrorist attack on a U.S. consulate and killing four Americans, then they certainly are interested in jihad against Western interests.

The Times added that Abu Khattala’s “leadership would not rule out participation or encouragement by militants connected to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian Islamic insurgency that adopted the name of Bin Laden’s group a few years ago to bolster its image, but has so far avoided attacks on Western interests.”

This is not true. AQIM has not “avoided attacks on Western interests.” Kidnapping Western tourists has been one of the group’s main sources of revenue for years. The official United Nations web page discussing AQIM notes that after the group’s “formal alliance” with al Qaeda in 2006, “AQIM expanded its aims and declared its intention to attack Western targets.”

“In late 2006 and early 2007,” the U.N.’s web page continues, AQIM “conducted several attacks against convoys of foreign nationals in Algeria.” Then, in December 2007, “AQIM attacked the United Nations office in Algiers, killing 17, at the same time as it attacked the Algerian Constitutional Council.”

In the wake of the attack in Benghazi, AQIM has called for more attacks on American diplomats. AQIM leaders have also said that they intend to target France.

And, obviously, if AQIM was involved in the Benghazi attack, as has been widely reported, then it most certainly is interested in attacking American interests.

The New York Times’s account of AQIM sounds eerily similar to a storyline that some Obama administration officials and their surrogates have been pushing. They claim that groups such as AQIM are just “local” jihadist groups that are not really al Qaeda, per se, because they don’t want to attack the West. This is nonsense for many reasons, but this argument has mysteriously migrated into the press’s reporting on the Benghazi attack.

Other press accounts have fingered additional suspects with links to al Qaeda as well. And there is substantial evidence that al Qaeda has built a substantial network inside of Libya.

Even though no one disputes that AQIM members were in contact with the attackers, however, it will take time to sort through all of the precise details.

But these latest accounts are not intended to comb through the evidence carefully. They are intended to provide political cover ahead of the final presidential debate.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

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