Months and months ago, when Barack Obama could be bothered to say anything at all about the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, the president promised to bring the perpetrators to justice. That was before White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the attacks as something that “happened a long time ago.”
It’s been 16 months. The U.S. government has neither captured nor killed a single participant in those attacks, which left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
Why? A new report on the attacks from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, along with more than 400 pages of newly declassified congressional testimony from senior military officials, provides fresh insight. The explanation for this failure—a lack of will, combined with a shameless mischaracterization of intelligence—is almost as outrageous as the failure itself.
Since the attack in Benghazi, the Obama administration has refused to publicly identify the parties responsible. But the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report confirms that the U.S. government’s investigation has turned up more and more ties to al Qaeda.
“Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks,” according to the Senate Benghazi report, prepared under the supervision of Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and signed by every Democrat on the panel.
Obama administration officials know this. And so, when questioned by the press, they increasingly rely on a false distinction. While some of the perpetrators may be tied to al Qaeda, the administration argues, they are not part of “core” al Qaeda.
State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf lectured reporters on this supposedly crucial distinction during a briefing on January 14. A reporter pointed out that Feinstein has openly disagreed with the idea that al Qaeda had nothing to do with the attack. “I believe that groups loosely associated with al Qaeda were” involved, she told the Hill last week. Feinstein’s comment was actually an understatement, but it was enough to draw a defensive response from Harf.
“Well, as I said, we have no information at this point that core al Qaeda, which I think is probably what the senator was referring to, was involved in planning or directing this attack,” Harf responded. Harf pointed to the State Department’s recent terrorist designation of Ansar al Sharia, one of the groups responsible, and conceded that there may be “some affiliations between some people in Ansar al Sharia and some people who may be affiliated with al Qaeda.” Still, Harf insisted: “But let’s be very clear that we don’t have evidence—which I think we should all rely on evidence here—in our investigation that links core al Qaeda to developing, planning this attack at this point.”
Harf is right that “we should all rely on evidence.” When we look at the available evidence it becomes crystal clear that the Obama administration is dissembling.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report found that terrorists “affiliated” with four organizations participated in the attack. The ties between those organizations and al Qaeda are direct. Two of those groups, AQIM and AQAP, are official branches of al Qaeda. Both have sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda since the death of Osama bin Laden, and there is considerable evidence that they continue to follow the direction set forth by Zawahiri and his advisers.
Neither Harf nor any other administration official has offered a precise definition of “core” al Qaeda. The term, invented in the West, vaguely refers to the group’s top leaders in South Asia. But al Qaeda’s senior leaders are not confined to any one nation or region. They operate in several countries across the globe.
A short biography of Nasir al Wu-hayshi, the general manager of al Qaeda, shows just how dubious the administration’s concept of “core” al Qaeda really is. Wuhayshi was handpicked by Osama bin Laden to serve as his aide-de-camp and protégé years before the September 11, 2001, attacks. He fled Afghanistan after the Taliban’s fall in late 2001 and was then imprisoned for several years in his native Yemen. But Wuhayshi eventually escaped and quickly rose through al Qaeda’s ranks once again. In early 2009, he announced the creation of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—a merger of al Qaeda’s wings in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In August 2013, Zawahiri appointed Wuhayshi as al Qaeda’s global general manager—a “core” position if there ever was one. Wuhayshi is largely responsible for managing al Qaeda’s international operations. The position was previously filled by terrorists operating in Pakistan. In short, Wuhayshi is “core” al Qaeda.
Some of Wuhayshi’s men participated in the Benghazi assault. CNN first reported that several Yemenis belonging to AQAP were directly involved. The Senate Intelligence Committee has now confirmed the participation of terrorists “affiliated” with Wuhayshi’s AQAP.
A third group identified in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report is the Muhammad Jamal network. Jamal is an Egyptian who was trained by al Qaeda in the late 1980s. In the years that followed, Jamal served as a commander in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a group headed by Ayman al Zawahiri that merged with Osama bin Laden’s joint venture prior to the 9/11 attacks. Jamal was imprisoned by Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but released in 2011 after the Arab uprisings. He quickly got back to work. Jamal established training camps in the Sinai Peninsula and eastern Libya.
Jamal was rearrested in late 2012. Egyptian authorities then discovered, on a seized computer, that Jamal had been in direct contact with Zawahiri. In his letters, Jamal reveals that he had sworn bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri. This oath is binding and requires Jamal to follow Zawahiri’s orders. One of Jamal’s letters to Zawahiri was dated August 18, 2012—less than a month before the attack in Benghazi. (The letter summarized Jamal’s prior operations, but doesn’t discuss any upcoming plans.)
Jamal was working to establish his own official branch of al Qaeda prior to his most recent confinement. He was clearly operating as part of the al Qaeda network. Both the State Department and the United Nations have recognized in formal terrorist designations that Jamal conspired with AQAP, AQIM, and al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan.
As was first reported by the Wall Street Journal and other press outlets, some of Jamal’s Egyptian trainees helped overrun the U.S. compound in Benghazi. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report confirms this fact.
The final group identified in the Senate report is Ansar al Sharia. Administration officials and some journalists have tried to portray Ansar al Sharia as a purely “local” group unaffiliated with al Qaeda’s global operations. This is false. According to multiple recent reports, the Ansar al Sharia chapters in Libya and Tunisia are sending fighters to al Qaeda’s branches in Syria. Leaders in both organizations are openly pro-al Qaeda, even when they deny being part of the organization. And in the recent State Department designation mentioned by Harf, the Obama administration recognized that Ansar al Sharia Tunisia is, in fact, “tied” to al Qaeda’s branches, including AQIM. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia was responsible for the ransacking of the U.S. embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012.
The head of Ansar al Sharia in Derna, Libya, is a former Guantánamo detainee named Sufian Ben Qumu. A leaked threat assessment authored by military officials at Guantánamo identifies Ben Qumu as a longtime al Qaeda operative and “associate” of Osama bin Laden. The same file notes that Ben Qumu’s alias was discovered on the laptop of the terrorist who oversaw the finances for the 9/11 plot. The paymaster listed Ben Qumu as an al Qaeda “member receiving family support.” Ben Qumu trained in al Qaeda camps, received al Qaeda stipends, and worked with senior al Qaeda leaders.
Members of Ben Qumu’s group in Derna also took part in the Benghazi attack, according to the State Department.
The ties between al Qaeda and the four organizations identified in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report are obvious and indisputable. What’s more, prior to the Benghazi attack, the U.S. government had no trouble identifying the groups involved as being part of al Qaeda. A July 6, 2012, report authored by the CIA, “Libya: Al Qaeda Establishing Sanctuary,” described the Jamal network, AQAP, and AQIM as “al Qaeda-affiliated” groups and warned that they “have conducted training, built communication networks, and facilitated extremist travel across North Africa from their safe haven in parts of eastern Libya.”
On August 16, 2012, Ambassador Stevens sent a cable to the State Department’s headquarters summarizing a security meeting the previous day. During that meeting, a CIA officer pinpointed “the location of approximately 10 Islamist militias and AQ training camps within Benghazi.” Also in August 2012, the Library of Congress published a report in conjunction with the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) that exposed al Qaeda’s clandestine network inside Libya and concluded that Sufian Ben Qumu and his Ansar al Sharia group have “increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya.”
Immediately after the attack, nothing changed. According to Feinstein, when then-CIA director David Petraeus testified before her committee on September 13, 2012, he was clear that “al Qaeda elements” were involved in the assault. On September 14, the original draft of the CIA’s talking points noted, “we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack.” A follow-up draft contained the same language before it was taken out—ostensibly to protect sources and methods but certainly not because it was inaccurate. In public statements well beyond those early days after the attack, members of the intelligence committees in both houses of Congress—and from both parties—pointed to al Qaeda involvement in the Benghazi attack.
Even so, the Obama administration persists in hiding behind a rhetorical smoke screen. It claims there is no evidence that “core al Qaeda” gave a secret, specific order for these groups to conduct this particular attack, at this particular time, in this particular manner. But we know that senior al Qaeda leaders wanted U.S. facilities attacked. We know this, because they said so, publicly. On September 10, 2012, the day before the Benghazi attacks, Ayman al Zawahiri released a 42-minute video in which he called on followers to avenge the death of Abu Yaha al Libi, a senior al Qaeda operative from Libya who had been killed in a U.S. drone attack in June.
Zawahiri called to the “Ummah of Islam and oh free and honorable ones in Libya” to seek revenge. “So, where are you from retaliating for your son and reviver of the biography of your Sheikh? His blood is calling you and is urging you and is inciting you to fight and kill the crusaders. So, don’t weaken.”
The Obama administration would have us believe that what happened in Libya the following day, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was a coincidence. White House spokesman Jay Carney has scolded reporters for “conflating” the attacks in Benghazi with the anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, as if the events are obviously unrelated. The administration is clinging to the fanciful notion that multiple members of al Qaeda’s international network—from Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere—wandered onto the scene and just happened to kill four Americans.
This is far from an academic point. The administration is using lawyerly misdirection to excuse its failure to capture or kill any perpetrators. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last fall, declassified last week and first reported by Kristina Wong of the Hill, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, said the U.S. military was not authorized to target the Benghazi attackers because they were not considered “al Qaeda” or “associated forces” and were therefore not covered by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress after the original 9/11 attacks.
“The individuals related in the Benghazi attack, those that we believe were either participants or leadership of it, . . . don’t fall under the AUMF authorized by the Congress of the United States. So we would not have the capacity to simply find them and kill them either with a remotely piloted aircraft or with an assault on the ground.”
Thus the official position of the Obama administration—as conveyed under oath, in a classified setting, by the nation’s top uniformed military official: The Benghazi attackers are not covered by the AUMF because they are neither al Qaeda nor “associated forces.”
This is a reprehensible evasion. It explains why the United States has failed to bring the Benghazi perpetrators to justice. But it in no way excuses that failure.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.