The Senate Intelligence Committee has now released its declassified review of the intelligence surrounding the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. The bottom line is this: Multiple parts of al Qaeda’s international terrorist network were involved.
The key language comes forty pages into the report:
“Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP, and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks.”
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are both official branches of al Qaeda and have sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir.
The Mohammad Jamal Network is run by an Egyptian who was trained by al Qaeda in the 1980s and has long been a subordinate to Zawahiri. Jamal was in direct contact with Zawahiri in 2011 and 2012. And, according to both the U.S. government and the United Nations, Jamal conspired with AQAP, AQIM, and al Qaeda’s senior leadership. Jamal, who was re-arrested by Egyptian authorities in late 2012, was seeking to establish his own official branch of al Qaeda.
Members of both Ansar al Sharia in Derna and Benghazi took part in the attack, according to the U.S. State Department. Some have tried to distance Ansar al Sharia in Libya from al Qaeda’s network, despite the fact that Ansar al Sharia in both Yemen and Tunisia are officially recognized by the U.S. government as being tied to al Qaeda. Ansar al Sharia in Yemen is, in fact, an obvious rebranding of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In addition, in Derna, Ansar al Sharia is led by an ex-Guantanamo detainee, Sufian Ben Qumu, who has long served as an al Qaeda operative. There are many additional pieces of evidence tying Ansar al Sharia in Libya to al Qaeda’s network.
Before the Benghazi attack, the CIA identified the presence of AQIM, AQAP, and Jamal’s network inside Libya. The Senate Intelligence Committee found that the CIA produced a report entitled, “Libya: Al-Qa’ida Establishing Sanctuary,” on July 6, 2012. The report reads:
Al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups and associates are exploiting the permissive security environment in Libya to enhance their capabilities and expand their operational reach. This year, Muhammad Jamal’s Egypt-based network, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qa’ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have conducted training, built communication networks, and facilitated extremist travel across North Africa from their safe haven in parts of eastern Libya.
So, before the Benghazi attack, the CIA had identified three of the groups that contributed attackers to the assault – AQIM, AQAP, and the Jamal Network – as being part of the al Qaeda network’s operations inside Libya.
The committee was careful to note that it “remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate.” The committee also noted that some intelligence “suggests that the attack was not a highly coordinated plot, but was opportunistic.”
The truth is that the committee and the U.S. intelligence community do not know if one or more al Qaeda chieftains ordered their men to attack. The FBI’s investigation “has been hampered by inadequate cooperation and a lack of capacity by foreign governments,” according to the report. “As a result, key information gaps remain about the potential foreknowledge and complicity of Libyan militia groups and security forces, the level of pre-planning for the attacks, the perpetrators and their involvement in other terrorist activities, and the motivation for the attacks.”
Thus, the question is not whether terrorists from al Qaeda’s network participated in the attack. The intelligence says they did. The question left open by the committee’s report is: Did any al Qaeda leader order them to attack?
Here we should remember that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, especially given the many “gaps” in the U.S. intelligence community’s knowledge of the attackers. Perhaps no such order was issued. But the U.S. intelligence community does not know one way or the other.
Those who have sought to disconnect the Benghazi attack from al Qaeda’s network are left to explain how individuals “affiliated” with AQIM, AQAP, Muhammad Jamal’s network, and Ansar al Sharia could have otherwise come together on the anniversary of al Qaeda’s greatest day of terror to kill four Americans.
Whatever scenarios they may envision are certainly less likely than the simplistic explanation: the al Qaeda network overran the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.