David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times has published a lengthy account of the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. While much in Kirkpatrick’s report is not new, the piece is receiving a considerable amount of attention because of this sweeping conclusion: “Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.”
But how much effort did Kirkpatrick expend to uncover any possible al Qaeda ties? Judging by the Times’s glaring omissions, not much.
Kirkpatrick’s piece totals more than 7,000 words and yet he fingers only one suspect out of the dozens who took part in the attack. Another suspect, an ex-Guantanamo detainee, is briefly mentioned, but only then to dismiss the notion of his involvement.
Left out of the Times’s account are the many leads tying the attackers to al Qaeda’s international network.
For instance, there is no mention of Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, an Egyptian, in Kirkpatrick’s retelling. This is odd, for many reasons.
On October 29, 2012 three other New York Times journalists reported that Jamal’s network, in addition to a known al Qaeda branch (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), was directly involved in the assault. The Times reported (emphasis added): “Three Congressional investigations and a State Department inquiry are now examining the attack, which American officials said included participants from Ansar al-Shariah, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Muhammad Jamal network, a militant group in Egypt.”
Jamal was trained by al Qaeda in the late 1980s, and has been loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri since at least the 1990s. He served as a commander in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a terrorist group headed by Zawahiri that merged with bin Laden’s enterprise. Jamal left prison in 2011 and quickly got back to work.
The Egyptian press has published some of Jamal’s letters to Zawahiri. In the letters, which were written in 2011 and 2012, Jamal is extremely deferential to Zawahiri. Jamal heaps praise on Zawahiri, seeking the al Qaeda master’s guidance and additional support. Jamal even mentions that he attempted to visit Zawahiri in person, but failed to do so because of restrictions on his travel. So, Jamal writes, he sent an emissary instead.
Jamal’s letters read like status reports. He writes that he has received financing from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but requires additional funds to purchase more weaponry. Jamal also explains that he had formed “groups for us inside Sinai” and had established “an advanced base outside Egypt in Libya to take advantage of the conditions in Libya after the revolution.”
Jamal’s operations inside the Sinai and Libya included training camps. Some of the trainees from those camps took part in the Benghazi attack.
Since the New York Times and other press outlets first reported on the Jamal network’s involvement, both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations have designated Jamal and his subordinates as terrorists. Both the U.S. and UN designations tie Jamal’s network directly to al Qaeda.
The State Department, for instance, notes that Jamal “has developed connections with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), AQ senior leadership, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leadership.” Jamal not only received funds from AQAP, but has also “used the AQAP network to smuggle fighters into training camps.”
While the State Department’s designation does not mention the Jamal network’s participation in the Benghazi attack, the UN’s designation does. The UN noted that both Jamal and members of his network are “[r]eported to be involved in the attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 Sep. 2012.”
Jamal is not the only key suspect omitted by Kirkpatrick. Another suspect is Faraj al-Shibli, a Libyan who, according to U.S. intelligence officials contacted by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, served as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard during the 1990s. According to these same officials, al-Shibli is suspected of bringing materials from the Benghazi compound to senior al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. Al-Shibli was detained in Pakistan and then Libya. Al Shibli did not immediately admit his involvement in the Benghazi attacks and was subsequently released. But U.S. officials continue to believe he played a role.
There are still other al Qaeda-linked suspects who do not receive any attention from Kirkpatrick. But the Jamal network’s part in the Benghazi story is enough alone to undermine the Times reporter’s claims.
In his Times piece and during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kirkpatrick claims that the Benghazi attackers were purely “local” actors.
This is simply not true – as evidenced by the Jamal network’s involvement and other pieces of evidence.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies