When South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham threatened last week to place a hold in the Senate on all Obama administration nominations until the president and his advisers cooperate fully with investigations into the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, White House press secretary Jay Carney responded with a familiar accusation.
“Let’s be clear that some Republicans are choosing to play politics with this for partisan purposes, and we find that unfortunate,” he said at a White House press briefing on October 28. Carney, in a we’ve-been-over-this-before tone of annoyance, ticked off numbers meant to show administration cooperation: 13 congressional hearings, 40 staff briefings, and “providing over 25,000 pages of documents.”
It’s been more than a year since four Americans were killed in Libya and more than six months since Carney dismissively declared that Benghazi “happened a long time ago.” Is he simply doing his job or does he really believe that Benghazi is a “phony scandal” trumped up by Republicans? Whatever the answer, Benghazi is not going away.
Why? “The most explosive stuff is still in front of us,” says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and who knows the details of Benghazi as well as any member of Congress.
Too many basic questions about that night remain unanswered. Too many of the administration’s answers are inadequate or misleading. Too many of those who know what happened have not yet spoken. And if White House officials think that the continued interest in Benghazi is attributable to Republicans seeking a political issue, too many others disagree with them.
On October 27, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a story they’d been reporting for nearly a year and concluded that Benghazi “was a planned, sophisticated attack by al Qaeda against a barely protected American outpost.” Although security officials on the ground “saw it coming,” they were powerless to prevent it because no one in Washington would listen to their warnings.
The following day, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, perhaps the most slavish Obama defender in the media, excoriated the administration for its failure to respond during the attacks and its failure to answer the many reasonable questions since then. The president and others, Matthews said, were “getting an instantaneous report of what’s going on there. What weren’t they looking at in terms of assets that could have been sent? Where was the U.S. cavalry, to use an American image? Where were the people that could have come or that tried to get there within however many hours it took to save the lives of the people still living? Where were they? And why couldn’t they do it? I’m going to ask that question until I get an answer.” He went on:
And the president and the national security adviser and everybody sitting in that Situation Room. We had lots of coverage of people when we killed bin Laden, we had a lot of coverage of that. There’s a lot of photographers around during that. How come this is shrouded in mystery? What I can’t understand is all these months later we’re still trying to figure out what happened. I just want to know, as an American, what happened? Did everybody do what they were supposed to do? Did everybody make a really good desperate effort to save the lives of our people over there or didn’t they? If they didn’t, that’s a problem, but I want an answer.
It wasn’t just CBS and MSNBC. Reporters covering the White House and the State Department quizzed administration spokesmen last week about the attacks and the subsequent investigations. CNN disclosed that a raid targeting one of the ringleaders of the Benghazi attacks had been called off. A few days earlier, Fox News aired an in-depth report on the jihadist background of some of the attackers. Big questions remain:
The Obama administration isn’t doing much to answer any of these questions and in some cases is going to great lengths to avoid them. At a State Department briefing last week, Lucas Tomlinson, a producer for Fox News, asked spokeswoman Jen Psaki why two chief suspects in the Benghazi attacks, both with long al Qaeda ties, have not been listed on the department’s “Rewards for Justice” program, which offers money for information that leads to the capture of terrorists.
“I will say, you know, the question has always been who, exactly, the attackers were, what their motivations were and how they—the attack evolved,” Psaki said. “We’ve always said that there were extremists that we felt were involved. There’s an ongoing criminal investigation, as you are very familiar with, that you just referred to, so I’d refer other questions to them.”
In a follow-up, Psaki was asked: “When you call them ‘extremists,’ will you not say ‘al Qaeda’ from that podium?”
She would not. “It’s an ongoing FBI investigation,” she said.
The reticence is odd. Reporting by The Weekly Standard, as well as by Lara Logan of 60 Minutes and Fox News’s Catherine Herridge, has uncovered multiple al Qaeda ties. The chief Benghazi suspects include men who not only have been involved with al Qaeda for years but also have direct ties to al Qaeda’s founding leaders: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. According to U.S. officials familiar with the investigation, they include an Egyptian who was trained by al Qaeda in the late 1980s, served as a terrorist commander under Zawahiri in the 1990s, and was in direct contact with Zawahiri in the months leading up to the Benghazi attack. Another is a Libyan who served as one of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards and is suspected of delivering materials taken from the Benghazi compound after the attack to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan. Still another is a former Guantánamo detainee who worked for bin Laden as a driver during the 1990s, and whose alias was found on the laptop of one of the 9/11 conspirators. In addition, intelligence officials tell The Weekly Standard that a trusted al Qaeda courier was involved in the attacks.
On October 7, the State Department designated Muhammad Jamal, an Egyptian who long served as Zawahiri’s subordinate, as an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist. Jamal had been imprisoned under Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak only to be released in the wake of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. The State Department recognized Jamal’s relationship with Zawahiri and “AQ senior leadership,” as well as two al Qaeda affiliates: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
State’s designation also noted that Jamal’s “confiscated computer contained letters to al Zawahiri in which Jamal asked for assistance and described [his network’s] activities, including acquiring weapons, conducting terrorist training, and establishing terrorist groups in the Sinai.”
But there was a curious omission from the State Department’s designation: Benghazi. It has been widely reported—by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and others—that some of Jamal’s trainees took part in the attack. Indeed, two weeks after the State Department’s announcement, the U.N.’s own terrorist designation of Jamal included this line: “Reported to be involved in the attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 Sep. 2012.” Jamal is in custody in Egypt, where he is awaiting trial, according to the U.N.
Faraj al Chalabi, the Libyan who once served as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard, fled Libya for Pakistan shortly after the Benghazi attack. According to several sources, Chalabi is suspected of delivering sensitive materials from the compound in Benghazi to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan. He was detained and returned to Libya, where he was questioned and then inexplicably released.
Chalabi has a long rap sheet. Interpol issued an arrest warrant for him in March 1998. That same warrant targeted bin Laden as well—the very first one issued by Interpol for the late al Qaeda leader. Under Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan government repeatedly accused Chalabi of being responsible for the murder of a German couple in 1994. “It is worth noting that the elements that carried out that act and Osama bin Laden’s arrangements are still wanted and that their organizational connection to the Al Qaeda organization has been confirmed,” Qaddafi’s regime claimed in a June 2004 U.N. filing.
There’s more. U.S. intelligence officials believe that Sufian Ben Qumu, a Libyan ex-Guantánamo detainee, trained some of the jihadists who carried out the attacks in Benghazi. He, too, has longstanding connections with al Qaeda leadership.
Ben Qumu is one of the original “Arab Afghans” who traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. In the years that followed the end of the anti-Soviet jihad, Ben Qumu followed al Qaeda to the Sudan and then, in the mid-to-late 1990s, back to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was eventually arrested in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks and transferred to the American detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.
A leaked Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment describes Ben Qumu as an “associate” of Osama bin Laden. JTF-GTMO found that Ben Qumu worked as a driver for a company owned by bin Laden in the Sudan, fought alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and maintained ties to several other well-known al Qaeda leaders. Ben Qumu’s alias was found on the laptop of an al Qaeda operative responsible for overseeing the finances for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The information on the laptop indicated that Ben Qumu was an al Qaeda “member receiving family support.”
Ben Qumu was transferred from Guantánamo to Libyan custody on September 28, 2007. He was released from prison in 2010 as part of a deal Qaddafi cut with militants. He then became the leader of Ansar al Sharia in Derna and trained some of the rebels who helped overthrow Qaddafi’s regime.
The authors of “Al Qaeda in Libya: a Profile,” a report published by the Library of Congress in conjunction with the Defense Department in August 2012—a month before the Benghazi attacks—identified Ben Qumu as the possible “new face of al Qaeda in Libya despite” his denial of an ongoing al Qaeda role. The report also noted that Ben Qumu and his Ansar al Sharia fighters are “believed to be close to the al Qaeda clandestine network” in Libya. According to the report’s authors, that same network is headed by al Qaeda operatives who report to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al Zawahiri.
Jamal, Chalabi, and Ben Qumu are well known in the counterterrorism world. They have been part of the al Qaeda network for decades. Yet in the context of Benghazi, the Obama administration seeks to define them as something other than al Qaeda operatives. Obama and the State Department (as in the exchange above) consistently refer to the Benghazi attackers as generic “extremists.”
Obama used that descriptor when discussing Benghazi during his speech at the National Defense University (NDU) in May. He referred to “extremists” operating in Libya and Syria as “simply collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory.” He did not identify them as a part of al Qaeda’s international network. “While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat,” Obama argued, “most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based.”
Obama’s bottom line is that these “local” terrorists are not as worrisome as the al Qaeda that attacked us on September 11, 2001. They are, in the president’s view, a distinct, lower-level threat that can be managed.
Obama elaborated: “We’ll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria, in which local operatives—perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks—launch periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies, and other soft targets, or resort to kidnapping and other criminal enterprises to fund their operations.”
The president’s description of the Benghazi attack network does not match the evidence collected by the U.S. intelligence community. Jamal, for instance, was hardly a “local” actor. The Egyptian operated training camps in the north Sinai and eastern Libya. He received support from al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen and North Africa and, according to the State Department, had “established links with terrorists in Europe.” All of this was in addition to his ongoing communications with Ayman al Zawahiri in South Asia. Chalabi traveled to Pakistan to share the documents he captured with al Qaeda senior leadership. And the presence of Egyptians, Libyans, and Tunisians, as well as possibly Algerians, Iraqis, and Yemenis among the attackers suggests Benghazi was far more than a “local” effort.
Still more al Qaeda ties have been unearthed during the investigation. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a longtime al Qaeda commander, reportedly received a call from members of Ansar al Sharia in Libya on the night of the attack. “Mabruk, mabruk!” (congratulations!), one of the callers said to Belmokhtar, according to CNN.
Belmokhtar was first designated an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist by the U.N. in 2003. He served as a top commander in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group that formally merged with al Qaeda’s parent organization in 2007. Belmokhtar was an AQIM commander on the night of September 11, 2012. Three months later he decided to establish his own fighting group outside AQIM’s chain-of-command. Belmokhtar’s spokesman confirmed at the time, however, that the group (the “Those Who Sign with Blood” brigade) was still loyal to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan.
The following month, in January 2013, Belmokhtar’s group laid siege to the In Amenas natural gas facility in Algeria. “We in al Qaeda announce that we carried out the blessed commando operation,” Belmokhtar said in a video claiming responsibility. The Algerian government subsequently said that a group of Egyptians who took part in the attack in Ben-ghazi were also involved in the siege of In Amenas, which left dozens of Westerners dead.
In his speech at NDU, the president claimed that “the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston.”
How could Obama know that al Qaeda’s senior leaders did not order the attack in Benghazi? Behind closed doors, some U.S. intelligence officials found such certitude troubling. None of the chief suspects is in U.S. custody. Intelligence officials have had very limited access to the alleged attackers held abroad, and many have been released.
So what role did al Qaeda senior leadership play in the Benghazi attacks of September 11, 2012? It’s a question we can add to the many others that remain unanswered.
And those questions, more than anything, are why Benghazi is not going away.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.