Less than two weeks ago, on December 28, David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times trumpeted the results of his investigation into the attacks on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, writing that there was “no evidence that al Qaeda or other international terrorists had any role in the assault.” The Times piece specifically ruled out any meaningful involvement of an ex-Guantanamo detainee named Sufian Ben Qumu, who has longstanding ties to al Qaeda and is currently the leader of Ansar al Sharia in Derna, Libya.
According to the Times on Dec. 28, “neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack in the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.”
But on January 7, Adam Goldman of the Washington Post first reported that the U.S. State Department will formally designate Ansar al Sharia Derna as a terrorist entity, a designation that includes Sufian Ben Qumu. The designation will specifically mention Ansar al Sharia Derna’s involvement in the attack, as some of Ben Qumu’s men participated in the assault.
As THE WEEKLY STANDARD pointed out after the Post’s piece was published, the reporting in the designation directly contradicts Kirkpatrick’s conclusion.
Kirkpatrick wrote that no one from Derna “played a significant role” in the Benghazi attack. The State Department disagrees.
A re-write was in order.
On January 8, Kirkpatrick and the Times contributed a follow-up to the Post’s reporting. Kirkpatrick recasts his original reporting from less than two weeks ago, acknowledging that fighters from Ansar al Sharia Derna did, in fact, participate in the Benghazi attack and conceding Ben Qumu’s ties to the al Qaeda network.
Kirkpatrick now reports that the upcoming designation was “expected to apply to Ansar al-Shariah of Derna, Libya” and “is expected to assert that its fighters were also involved in the attack.”
Beyond this concession, however, the Times seeks to disconnect the dots, thereby limiting any further re-writes to its preferred narrative.
It is exceedingly difficult to ignore the connections between Sufian Ben Qumu, who leads Ansar al Sharia Derna, and al Qaeda.
Kirkpatrick tries to get around this red flag by reporting the following (emphasis added):
The designation was also expected to apply to Sufian bin Qumu, a former driver for a company controlled by Osama bin Laden and a former inmate at the United States military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He is identified as a leader of Ansar al-Shariah in Derna, but officials briefed on the designations and the intelligence reports said that there was no evidence linking him to the attack.
Let’s compare Kirkpatrick’s reporting with the Washington Post’s article. They both deal with the upcoming designation and cite officials familiar with the investigation into Benghazi.
Kirkpatrick’s sources say there is “no evidence” linking Ben Qumu himself to the attack – presumably beyond the involvement of his fighters. This is not what the Post reported.
The title of the Post’s article is “Former Guantanamo detainee implicated in Benghazi attack.”
The opening line of the Post’s article reads (emphasis added):
U.S. officials suspect that a former Guantanamo Bay detainee played a role in the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and are planning to designate the group he leads as a foreign terrorist organization, according to officials familiar with the plans.
Conveniently, the Times’s sources say there is no evidence that Ben Qumu himself was involved, even though his fighters were. But just one day prior, the Post’s sources were saying the opposite – Ben Qumu is suspected of playing “a role in the attack.”
THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported last November that Ben Qumu is, in fact, a suspect and that his men directly participated in the attack.
Ben Qumu was part of al Qaeda in the years leading up to his confinement in late 2001. He was in contact with the al Qaeda network once again by the middle of last year, according to the Times. (Kirkpatrick’s sources tell him that “by mid-2013…Mr. Qumu was known to have contacts and communication with Al Qaeda or its regional affiliates, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”) And as THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported previously, a report published by the Library of Congress in August 2012 connected Ben Qumu to al Qaeda’s clandestine network inside Libya prior to the Benghazi attack.
In other words, Ben Qumu’s dossier is littered with al Qaeda ties. And if he was involved in the Benghazi attack, then that means a terrorist who has long operated as part of al Qaeda’s network was involved.
Kirkpatrick asserts, based on his anonymous sources, that “there is no evidence that the fighters from Ansar al-Shariah of Derna who were involved in the attack came to Benghazi for that reason.” They apparently just happened to be in town for a successful terrorist attack.
But the Post, citing its own anonymous sources, left it more open-ended (emphasis added):
Witnesses have told American officials that Qumu’s men were in Benghazi before the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, according to the officials. It’s unclear whether they were there as part of a planned attack or out of happenstance. The drive from Darnah to Benghazi takes several hours.
Thus, the Times’s unidentified sources, speaking through Kirkpatrick, declare that there is “no evidence” Ansar al Sharia Derna’s fighters were in town specifically for the attack. The Post’s sources left it an open question, saying it is “unclear.”
It is interesting that Kirkpatrick’s sources can quickly dismiss an issue that the Post’s sources found uncertain just the day before.
Moreover, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – it is certainly possible that the Ansar al Sharia Derna fighters were dispatched to Benghazi specifically for the attack and U.S. investigators have simply not uncovered that fact. It is also possible that U.S. officials do not know how much foreknowledge of the attack Ben Qumu had. He is not in U.S. or Libyan custody and has not been questioned.
The intelligence world is one of probabilities. And the Times is asking readers to assume unlikely scenarios are the most probable ones.
Contrary to the Times’s original reporting, members of Ansar al Sharia in Derna took part in the Benghazi attack. The paper now wants readers to believe they were in Benghazi out of happenstance and that their boss, an experienced al Qaeda terrorist, had no idea what they were going to do. From the Times’s perspective, they spontaneously took part in a terrorist attack that left a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead.
But while Kirkpatrick’s sources are playing disconnect the dots on all of this, other U.S. officials (including those cited by the Post) are not.
It is no secret that some U.S. officials are desperately trying to dismiss the ties between the al Qaeda network and the Benghazi attack. It is easy to find sources who will approve a disconnect the dots storyline. The Times itself is playing this game not just with respect to Sufian Ben Qumu, but also when it comes to other al Qaeda connections to Benghazi.
Is it a coincidence that Egyptians trained by Muhammad Jamal, a terrorist who has been loyal to al Qaeda and Ayman al Zawahiri since the 1980s, just happened to show up in Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012, too?
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.