Ahead of what is sure to be a contentious presidential debate focusing on foreign policy on Monday, anonymous “intelligence officials” have decided to update the Benghazi story. “No evidence found of Al Qaeda role in Libya attack,” a Los Angeles Times headline reads. A Washington Post headline declares, “U.S.: Evidence doesn’t show planning in Libyan attack.”
There is just one problem: These new accounts don’t add up.
The L.A. Times says that “U.S. intelligence agencies…have found no evidence of Al Qaeda participation.” That is contradicted by numerous other accounts and by the Post’s latest version. The Post reports that intelligence “suggests the attack was spontaneous even if it involved militants with ties to al-Qaeda.”
The Post adds: “The violence in Benghazi appears to have involved militants with ties to al-Qaeda in North Africa, but no evidence indicates that it was organized by al-Qaeda, or timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, officials said.”
So either the attack did involve terrorists tied to al Qaeda, or it didn’t, depending on which report you read.
More than one month after Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack, “intelligence officials” cannot even provide the press with a consistent account of what happened. And keep in mind that neither account says that there was a protest before the attack, which was the original story given to the American public.
Whether the L.A. Times’s sources want to admit it or not, ties between al Qaeda-affiliated parties and the attack are already established in the record.
On September 26, during a speech at the U.N. , Secretary of State Hillary Clinton connected the 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.”
On September 28, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement saying “we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qa'ida.”
Also 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.”
Lake continued: “In the communications, members of Ansar al-Sharia (AAS) bragged about their successful attack against the American consulate and the U.S. ambassador, according to three U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to The Daily Beast anonymously because they were not authorized to talk to the press.”
Other journalists would follow up on Lake’s reporting, confirming that AQIM members were in contact with the attackers.
On October 18, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Intelligence officials now have evidence that al Qaeda-linked militants were at the scene of the attack, although those militants may not have been its leaders, according to people briefed on the matter.”
On October 19, the Associated Press reported that the CIA station chief in Libya “reported to Washington within 24 hours of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate that there was evidence it was carried out by militants, not a spontaneous mob upset about an American-made video ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.”
The AP also reported (emphasis added)
Intelligence officials say the leading suspected culprit is a local Benghazi militia, Ansar al-Shariah. The group denies responsibility for the attack but is known to have ties to a leading African terror group, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Some of its leaders and fighters were spotted by Libyan locals at the consulate during the violence, and intelligence intercepts show the militants were in contact with AQIM militants before and after the attack, one U.S. intelligence official said.
The push to obfuscate links between an al Qaeda affiliate, and its allies inside Libya, to the attack began earlier in the week.
On Wednesday, October 17, the New York Times reported that “Libyan authorities have singled out Ahmed Abu Khattala, a leader of the Benghazi-based Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah, as a commander in the attack.” Although the Times argued that Khattala’’s “exact role” was not yet clear, the paper was quick to argue that both he and “Ansar al-Shariah share Al Qaeda’s puritanism and militancy, but operate independently and focus only on Libya rather than on a global jihad against the West.”
That claim makes no sense on its face. If Abu Khattala and his Ansar al-Sharia brigade are responsible for launching a terrorist attack on a U.S. consulate and killing four Americans, then they certainly are interested in jihad against Western interests.
The Times added that Abu Khattala’s “leadership would not rule out participation or encouragement by militants connected to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian Islamic insurgency that adopted the name of Bin Laden’s group a few years ago to bolster its image, but has so far avoided attacks on Western interests.”
This is not true. AQIM has not “avoided attacks on Western interests.” 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.
And, obviously, if AQIM was involved in the Benghazi attack, as has been widely reported, then it most certainly is interested in attacking American interests.
The New York Times’s account of AQIM sounds eerily similar to a storyline that some Obama administration officials and their surrogates have been pushing. They claim that groups such as AQIM are just “local” jihadist groups that are not really al Qaeda, per se, because they don’t want to attack the West. This is nonsense for many reasons, but this argument has mysteriously migrated into the press’s reporting on the Benghazi attack.
Other press accounts have fingered additional suspects with links to al Qaeda as well. And there is substantial evidence that al Qaeda has built a substantial network inside of Libya.
Even though no one disputes that AQIM members were in contact with the attackers, however, it will take time to sort through all of the precise details.
But these latest accounts are not intended to comb through the evidence carefully. They are intended to provide political cover ahead of the final presidential debate.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.