The Accountability Review Board’s investigation into the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi says much about the deteriorating security situation surrounding the U.S. consulate beforehand. The report also documents the State Department’s mishandling of that increasingly perilous environment. However, the report says little about al Qaeda and affiliated groups. And what it does say is incomplete given all that we now know.
“The Benghazi attacks also took place in a context in which the global terrorism threat as most often represented by al Qaeda (AQ) is fragmenting and increasingly devolving to local affiliates and other actors who share many of AQ’s aims, including violent anti-Americanism, without necessarily being organized or operated under direct AQ command and control,” the report reads. “This growing, diffuse range of terrorist and hostile actors poses an additional challenge to American security officers, diplomats, development professionals and decision-makers seeking to mitigate risk and remain active in high threat environments without resorting to an unacceptable total fortress and stay-at-home approach to U.S. diplomacy.”
From one vantage point this is true. We have witnessed the proliferation of al Qaeda-style groups that are not “necessarily…organized or operated under direct AQ command and control” and America cannot accept a “total fortress and stay-at-home approach” to diplomacy.
The problem, as we’ve seen in Syria and elsewhere, is that al Qaeda does still maintain “command and control” over some of these groups. And there are disturbing leads raising the possibility that this was the case in Benghazi.
As far as we know, there is no proof (a legalistic concept that is not appropriate for murky intelligence matters) that al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri directly ordered the Benghazi attack. He may not have. Of course, he could have ordered it without us knowing it. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders have deliberately concealed their roles in prior attacks for various reasons, even using alternative brand names to claim responsibility.
Moreover, there is evidence that terrorists who answer to Zawahiri were involved in the attack. They may have acted without a specific order to strike in Benghazi, but that doesn’t mean they were acting independently from al Qaeda.
Consider the cases of Sheikh Adel Shehato and Muhammad al Kashef (also known as Abu Ahmed), both of whom are longtime Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) leaders. The EIJ’s chief just so happens to be Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda.
Shehato and Kashef are leaders of what Egyptian authorities have called the Nasr City cell. On Oct. 24, Egyptian police raided an apartment building in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo. The Egyptians have stated repeatedly that the cell was involved in the Benghazi attack and has direct ties to al Qaeda.
Shehato was subsequently arrested and accused of founding and financing the cell. Shehato was allegedly en route to Libya with a large sum of cash at the time of his arrest. He is also a close ally of Mohammed al Zawahiri, Ayman al Zawahiri’s younger brother. Mohammed al Zawahiri and Shehato have repeatedly appeared in pro-al Qaeda jihadist videos, clips of which have been included in al Qaeda’s official propaganda. The pair also worked together to instigate the September 11 protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. That protest preceded the Benghazi attack later that same day.
Shehato does not hide his allegiance to al Qaeda. Asked during one interview what the EIJ stands for today, Shehato replied, “We still espouse the old jihadi ideology that is today the ideology of Sheikh Ayman Al Zawahiri, the late Sheikh Osama bin Laden, and Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi.”
Kashef was an EIJ military commander during the 1990s and answered to Ayman al Zawahiri at the time. While imprisoned in 2007, Kashef was one of several al Qaeda-linked jihadists who rebuked a high-profile critique of al Qaeda’s ideology from one of Zawahiri’s longtime allies.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that after Kashef’s release from prison he “petitioned al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to establish a new Qaeda affiliate he called Al Qaeda in Egypt” and also received financing from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Mohammed al Zawahiri reportedly helped Kashef get in touch with his older brother.
Kashef established training camps in both Egypt and Libya and some of his trainees took part in the Benghazi attack. Like Shehato, Kashef has been arrested by Egyptian authorities.
Al Hayat reported the Egyptian “investigations revealed that [Kashef] had close links to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who assigned him to lead the organization in Egypt and Libya.” Kashef, Al Hayat continued, “has masterminded several operations . . . particularly in Libya and Yemen, upon Zawahiri’s instructions,” and “he got the green light to carry out further jihadist operations in Egypt and Libya.”
The Egyptian press has reported that Kashef has “joined al Qaeda.” And Die Welt, citing Western intelligence sources, recently reported that Shehato and Kashef “look after al Qaeda’s interests” in Egypt. Die Welt added that the Nasr City cell worked “directly under [Ayman al] Zawahiri's orders.”
In other words, what we know about the Nasr City cell’s involvement in Benghazi does not support the Accountability Review Board’s assessment of the terrorist threat.
There are additional al Qaeda connections to the attack in Benghazi. Senior U.S. officials have pointed to the involvement of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an al Qaeda affiliate that has sworn fealty to Ayman al Zawahiri. According to CNN, terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) are thought to have been involved. AQI has also sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri.
And then there is the Ansar al Sharia militia in Benghazi. The Obama administration has repeatedly said that members of the militia took part in the Benghazi assault. But the administration and its surrogates have sought to distinguish the group from al Qaeda.
According to ABC News, however, Kashef has “admitted to traveling to Libya and assisting Ansar al Sharia, which U.S. officials suspect organized the attack on the consulate that killed U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.”
We are left with numerous connections between al Qaeda, the attack in Benghazi, and the Cairo protest earlier that same day.
Some in Washington have sought to downplay the possibility that September 11, 2012 was an al Qaeda terrorist attack. An independent review panel, or perhaps a special congressional committee, should comb through the intelligence identifying and describing the Benghazi attackers. And the U.S. government should declassify and release as much of that intelligence as possible.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.