The Benghazi story continues to evolve. CNN reports that multiple al Qaeda franchises, and others with al Qaeda links, are suspected of taking part in the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate.
The lead sentence from a new CNN.com piece (“US Intel believes some Benghazi attackers tied to al Qaeda in Iraq”) reads: “U.S. intelligence believes that assailants connected to al Qaeda in Iraq were among the core group that attacked the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, a U.S. government official told CNN.”
The al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists reportedly joined others from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a local militia named Ansar al Sharia that has suspected al Qaeda ties, and an Egyptian jihadist network that also reportedly has direct ties to al Qaeda’s senior leaders.
While the story is still being pieced together, the overall picture is becoming clearer: The more one investigates the attack in Benghazi, the more al Qaeda ties one finds.
CNN reports that the “latest intelligence suggests the core group of suspects from the first wave of the attack on the Benghazi mission numbered between 35 to 40,” and that “[a]round a dozen of the attackers are believed to be connected to either al Qaeda in Iraq or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the government official said.”
Other reports have pegged the number of attackers at closer to 20. But CNN’s account is consistent with what the State Department has said. During congressional testimony earlier this month, State Department official Charlene Lamb described the scene in Benghazi as a large-scale terrorist assault involving “dozens of attackers…that was unprecedented in its size and intensity.”
Again, all of these details remain to be confirmed. But here is a brief look at the four al Qaeda-linked constituencies that reportedly executed this “unprecedented” attack:
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – AQI has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and has threatened American interests. The group had previously sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden.
Al Qaeda’s arm in Iraq suffered a serious setback as a result of the surge of American forces and a local uprising against its draconian rule in parts of Saddam’s former nation state. But the group has experienced a comeback of late for two main reasons.
First, Iraqi forces could not completely fill the security vacuum left by the withdrawal of American combat forces, which was completed in late 2011. As a result, AQI has greatly increased its operational tempo, from about 75 attacks per week earlier this year to around 140 attacks per week currently.
Second, the uprising against Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria has created conditions that are ripe for al Qaeda’s expansion. And that is precisely what AQI has done, expanding its operations in Syria through new affiliated groups including the Al Nusrah Front. The number of al Qaeda-style suicide bombings inside Syria has increased dramatically in the past year. And the suicide bombings are just one, especially dramatic aspect of AQI’s overall operations inside Syria.
AQI’s expansion in Syria is a form of blowback as the group ran a facilitation network inside Assad’s country for years. That al Qaeda network operated with the consent of the Syrian president and his goons.
We should not be surprised if CNN’s latest account of the Benghazi attack holds up. For years, eastern Libya provided a disproportionate number of the al Qaeda recruits traveling through AQI’s Syrian pipeline into Iraq to fight the American-led coalition. That is, the al Qaeda network has well-established ties between Libya, Syria and Iraq.
Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – Like al Qaeda in Iraq, AQIM has sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri and al Qaeda, previously swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and has openly threatened American and Western interests.
Obama administration officials have already suggested that AQIM was connected to the attack in Benghazi. And published reports have added more color to the picture.
On September 26, during a speech at the U.N. , Secretary of State Hillary Clinton connected the Benghazi attack to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies inside Libya. AQIM and “other groups” have a “larger safe haven” and “increased freedom to maneuver,” Clinton warned. This allows them “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.” And, Clinton added, “they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.”
Two days later, on September 28, Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reported that the terrorists who led the attack were in contact with members of AQIM. “In the hours following the 9/11 anniversary attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya,” Lake reported, “U.S. 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.” The jihadists who contacted AQIM included members of the Ansar al Sharia militia (discussed below).
AQIM’s rise has been deeply unsettling. The group, along with its allies, controls a large portion of northern Mali. In addition to targeting local Muslims, especially Sufis, AQIM has made its intent to attack Western interests clear. Some have tried to pretend that AQIM is not really part of al Qaeda’s global jihad, but that is simply false.
Kidnapping Western tourists has been one of the group’s main sources of revenue for years. The official United Nations web page discussing AQIM notes that after the group’s “formal alliance” with al Qaeda in 2006, “AQIM expanded its aims and declared its intention to attack Western targets.”
“In late 2006 and early 2007,” the U.N.’s web page continues, AQIM “conducted several attacks against convoys of foreign nationals in Algeria.” Then, in December 2007, “AQIM attacked the United Nations office in Algiers, killing 17, at the same time as it attacked the Algerian Constitutional Council.”
In the wake of the attack in Benghazi, AQIM has called for more attacks on American diplomats. AQIM leaders have also said that they intend to target France.
Ansar al Sharia militia (AAS) – In the wake of the Arab Spring, multiple groups calling themselves Ansar al Sharia have sprung up. Ansar al Sharia in Yemen is a known front for al Qaeda. The State Department designated Ansar al Sharia in Yemen an “alias” for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) earlier this month. The precise relationship between the various Ansar al Sharia groups, including inside Libya and across countries, remains unclear. The State Department’s designation deals solely with AAS in Yemen, but known al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists operate other AAS chapters.
An Ansar al Sharia militia in Libya is known to have taken part in the Benghazi attack. As with AQIM, some have tried to portray AAS in Benghazi as a strictly local actor that is uninterested in al Qaeda’s global jihad. But this is demonstrably false. Members of the group took part in an attack on a U.S. consulate, thereby demonstrating their clear animosity for America and the West. And members of AAS in Benghazi were the ones who reportedly contacted AQIM both before and after the terrorist attack. This provides a tangible link between AAS and al Qaeda’s global affiliate network.
A report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) published by the Library of Congress in August, in cooperation with the Defense Department, identified Ansar al Sharia in Libya as part of al Qaeda’s clandestine network. The report said that Ansar al Sharia “has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States.”
“Egyptian Jihad Network” – On top of AQI, AQIM, and AAS, CNN reports that members of “an Egyptian jihad network” took part in the assault. An intelligence official cited by CNN explained that “the core group” of Benghazi terrorists included suspected AAS members. In addition, “many” members of the core “are believed to be Egyptian jihadis.”
This tracks with what the Wall Street Journal reported previously. The Journal’s sources identified “fighters” tied to Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) who was released from prison last year, as participants in the attack. Abu Ahmad “has long ties” to Ayman al Zawahiri, the chief of al Qaeda. The EIJ is a core part of the al Qaeda joint venture.
The Journal reported that Ahmad “has petitioned” Ayman al Zawahiri “for permission to launch an al Qaeda affiliate and has secured financing from al Qaeda's Yemeni wing.” Ahmad “is building his own terror group, say Western officials, who call it the Jamal Network.” EIJ members are suspected of funneling Egyptian militants to training camps in Libya as well.
The Journal added another intriguing detail: “U.S. officials believe [Mohammed al Zawahiri] has helped Mr. Ahmad connect with the al Qaeda chief.” Mohammed al Zawahiri is the younger brother of Ayman al Zawahiri.
Mohammed al Zawahiri helped orchestrate the embassy protest in Cairo earlier in the day on September 11, 2012.
Al Qaeda is not defeated
One thing should be painfully obvious from reading this summary of the Benghazi suspects: Al Qaeda is not dead. It will take even more time to piece together this puzzle. The U.S. government has had a confused and muddled reaction to the events of September 11, 2012.
For this reason, among others, most of the pieces to the Benghazi puzzle should be declassified and released to the public.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.