The Washington Post reports that U.S. officials suspect Sufian Ben Qumu, an ex-Guantanamo detainee, “played a role in the attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya, and are planning to designate the group he leads as a foreign terrorism organization.” Ben Qumu is based in Derna, Libya and runs a branch of Ansar al Sharia headquartered in the city.
U.S. officials have found that some of Ben Qumu’s militiamen from Derna “participated in the attack” and “were in Benghazi before the attack took place on Sept. 11, 2012.”
Ben Qumu was fingered early on as a suspect in the Benghazi attack, but his name dropped out of much of the reporting on the assault for more than one year.
In November 2013, however, THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported: “U.S. intelligence officials believe that Sufian Ben Qumu, a Libyan ex-Guantánamo detainee, trained some of the jihadists who carried out the attacks in Benghazi.” Ben Qumu, TWS reported, “has longstanding connections with al Qaeda leadership.”
Ben Qumu’s biography is rich with al Qaeda links:
Ben Qumu is one of the original “Arab Afghans” who traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. In the years that followed the end of the anti-Soviet jihad, Ben Qumu followed al Qaeda to the Sudan and then, in the mid-to-late 1990s, back to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was eventually arrested in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks and transferred to the American detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.
A leaked Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment describes Ben Qumu as an “associate” of Osama bin Laden. JTF-GTMO found that Ben Qumu worked as a driver for a company owned by bin Laden in the Sudan, fought alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and maintained ties to several other well-known al Qaeda leaders. Ben Qumu’s alias was found on the laptop of an al Qaeda operative responsible for overseeing the finances for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The information on the laptop indicated that Ben Qumu was an al Qaeda “member receiving family support.”
An August 2012 report published by the Library of Congress in conjunction with the Defense Department, titled “Al Qaeda in Libya: a Profile,” identified Ben Qumu as the possible “new face of al Qaeda in Libya despite” his denial of an ongoing al Qaeda role. The report also noted that Ben Qumu and his Ansar al Sharia fighters are “believed to be close to the al Qaeda clandestine network” in Libya. According to the report’s authors, that same network is headed by al Qaeda operatives who report to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al Zawahiri.
The reporting on Ben Qumu’s ties to the Benghazi attack directly refutes an account by David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times. Kirkpatrick reported that “neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.”
The Post reports that, in addition to Ben Qumu and Ansar al Sharia Derna, the branches of Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi and Tunisia are going to be designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department.
Two other individuals, Ahmed Abu Khattala and Seifallah ben Hassine, are going to be added to the list of “specially designated global terrorists.”
Seifallah Ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi) is the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which assaulted the U.S. Embassy in Tunis just three days after the attack in Benghazi.
In its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, published in May 2013, the State Department noted that Ben Hassine “was implicated as the mastermind behind the September 14 attack on the US Embassy,” which involved “a mob of 2,000 - 3,000” people, “including individuals affiliated with the militant organization Ansar al Sharia.”
According to multiple published reports, Ben Hassine relocated to Libya after the Tunisian government labeled Ansar al Sharia a terrorist organization and cracked down on its operatives. The Tunisian government has repeatedly alleged that the Ansar al Sharia groups in Libya and Tunisia are tied to one another, as well as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Post’s report concludes: “In addition to Qumu and Khattala, American officials are eager to question Faraj al Chalabi, a Libyan extremist who might have fled the country.”
As THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported on multiple occasions, Chalabi is considered a key suspect by U.S. intelligence officials. Two U.S. intelligence officials say Chalabi once served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and is suspected of bringing materials from the compound in Benghazi to senior al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.