The Blog

W.H. Tries to Write Al Qaeda Out of Libya Story

12:22 PM, Oct 20, 2012 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The "spontaneous" talking point came from an intercepted telephone call between jihadists, in which one of the attackers notes that his group had attacked after seeing the demonstrations in Cairo. U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence on Benghazi tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD there are two schools of thought on what that means. The first view is reflected in the administration's "spontaneous" line. It holds that jihadists in Benghazi saw the demonstration in Egypt and decided, almost on a whim, to assault the compound. But the nature of the attack—the weapons, the sequencing, the coordination—suggests more planning. The attackers flushed Americans from the compound toward an "annex" two kilometers away. As the Americans fled, they encountered (and avoided) an attempted ambush on the route.
The second view is that the demonstrations in Cairo, which followed the release of a video from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri on September 10, were seen as something of a "go signal." As we first reported on September 12, the film, in this view, was merely the pretext for an al Qaeda "information operation," and the Zawahiri video, which called directly for renewed jihad and for al Qaeda sympathizers to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al Libi, was intended to trigger protests and assaults throughout the region. Many of those with prominent roles in the protests and assaults—in Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps Libya—had strong ties to al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.

Not surprisingly, this view is not popular with an administration that has built its case for reelection in part on the notion that "bin Laden is dead" and "al Qaeda is on its heels." Which leads us to the claims in the Los Angeles Times article that ran under the heading: "No evidence found of al Qaeda role in Libya attack." That story begins: "The assault on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi last month appears to have been an opportunistic attack rather than a long-planned operation and intelligence agencies have found no evidence that it was ordered by al Qaeda, according to US officials and witnesses interviewed in Libya."

The claim in the headline is not the same as the claim in the article, of course. It's possible for there to have been "an Qaeda role" in the attack without it having been directly ordered by al Qaeda central. And there is, in fact, evidence of some al Qaeda role in the attack.

The same phone call that the administration had used to pin its argument that the attack was "spontaneous" also provides evidence of such al Qaeda involvement. Indeed, as Eli Lake reported three weeks ago: "In the hours following the 9/11 anniversary attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, US intelligence agencies monitored communications from jihadists affiliated with the group that led the attack and members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group's north African affiliate."

Several of the local jihadists were affiliated Ansar al Sharia, which has its own ties to al Qaeda. An August report from the Pentagon's "Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office," reported that Ansar al Sharia "has increasingly embodied al Qaeda's presence in Libya, as indicated by its active propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States." One of the leaders of AAS, a former Guantanamo detainee named Sufyan ben Qumu, has ties to senior al Qaeda leaders. As Tom Joscelyn first reported, Qumu's alias was found on the laptop of Mustafa al Hawsawi, an al Qaeda financier who helped fund the original 9/11 attacks. Qumu is described "as an al Qaeda member receiving family support."

The other group, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has a more direct relationship with al Qaeda central. As Joscelyn reported last month, AQIM entered into a "formal alliance" with al Qaeda in 2006, according to a United Nations report on the group. The Pentagon's Combating Terrorism study reported: "Al Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM are also benefiting from the situation in Libya. AQIM will likely join hands with the al Qaeda clandestine network in Libya to secure a supply of arms for its areas of operations in northern Mali and Algeria." The report also notes: "Although no information in open sources was found regarding the whereabouts of al Qaeda's leadership in Libya, it is likely that at this point al Qaeda's clandestine network is run directly by al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan."

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers