Let’s start by giving David Kirkpatrick credit. Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief of the New York Times and author of this weekend’s much-discussed piece on Benghazi, provides many new on-the-ground, minute-by-minute details of the attacks and the weeks and months leading up to them. Some of the reporting is incredible. Kirkpatrick describes the vase in the living room of the home belonging to the mother of Abu Khattala, a main suspect in those attacks. He reports on how the fighting in the consulate paused when Abu Khattala entered the compound, a revealing fact. Citing security camera video footage, the author describes how one of the attackers paused amidst the bedlam in the consulate to pour some Hershey’s chocolate syrup down his throat. Kirkpatrick obviously spent considerable time on the ground in Benghazi and interviewed several anti-Western Islamists, including some involved in the attacks. There’s little doubt he took considerable risks as he reported his piece.
While much of Kirkpatrick’s reporting is admirable and while these details add to our knowledge of certain aspects of the attack, they do not tell the whole story. And that’s where the piece ultimately fails.
The piece makes two main claims that challenge much of the previous reporting about Benghazi: 1) The Times asserts that there is “no evidence that al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault;” and, 2) that the attack “was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”
We'll focus on the first one.
There is, in fact, evidence that terrorists linked to al Qaeda had a role in the Benghazi attacks. Indeed, there’s a fair amount of that kind of evidence. As Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence put it on Sunday when asked about the Times report: “The intelligence indicates that al Qaeda was involved, but there were also plenty of people and militias that were unaffiliated with al Qaeda involved.” Schiff who has defended the Obama administration on Benghazi and praised the Times piece as adding “valuable insights,” nonetheless pronounced it incomplete and hinted that signals intelligence contradicted the claims in the piece. The Times report, Schiff continued, was “deficient in they didn’t have the same access to people who were not aware they were being listened to. They were heavily reliant obviously on people that they interviewed who had a reason to provide the story that they did.” He concluded: “So I think it does add some insights but I don’t think it’s complete.”
In addition to the signals intelligence Schiff mentions, there is abundant open-source reporting that contradicts Kirkpatrick’s sweeping claim about “no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.” And most problematic for this revisionist account, some of that evidence comes from the Times itself in a story the paper published on October 29, 2012.
That story, like this latest one, was a major front-page investigative piece. It reported that “American officials” said the Benghazi attacks “included participants from Ansar al Shariah, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Muhammad Jamal network, a militant group in Egypt.” So according to previous reporting in the Times, the Benghazi attacks included participants from the main al Qaeda affiliate in Libya and a terrorist network in Egypt, and, contrary to Kirkpatrick’s assertion, evidence that both al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups played some role in the assault. Kirkpatrick was presumably aware of that earlier report, since he was credited with contributing reporting from Benghazi.
There’s more. As my colleague Tom Joscelyn reports, the namesake of that Egyptian jihadist network, Muhammad Jamal, is not mentioned in the Times’s latest piece. Why not? The Times had previously reported the involvement of his network. When Mohammad Jamal was arrested in Egypt in December of 2012, two months after the Times article that mentioned him, the Wall Street Journal reported on his extensive ties to al Qaeda and its senior leadership, as well as his alleged involvement in the Benghazi attacks.
Have U.S. officials since concluded that his network wasn’t involved, as the Times and many others had reported? And if that were the case, wouldn’t Kirkpatrick have reported that? A U.S. official familiar with the intelligence on Benghazi tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD that there has been no change. U.S. intelligence officials continue to believe Jamal’s network was involved.
Why was Jamal left out of this latest Times piece? That’s unclear. But we do know that including him would have undermined one of the piece’s central claims – that there was no evidence of any Benghazi role for either al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups.
As Joscelyn writes:
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.”
When Jamal was detained in Egypt, a U.S. intelligence official involved in the Benghazi investigation described his capture as “a big deal,” and investigators would later express frustration at their inability to interrogate Jamal to better understand the role his network played in the attacks.
U.S. officials also suspected other al Qaeda-affiliated groups. CNN reported that intelligence officials also believed jihadists from al Qaeda in Iraq also participated in the Benghazi assault.
And, as Joscelyn notes, U.S. intelligence officials told THE WEEKLY STANDARD last fall that Faraj al-Shibli, a Libyan who once served as a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, participated in the Benghazi attacks and, in the days that followed, delivered to senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan intelligence taken from the U.S. compound after the attacks.
Are the officials who spoke to THE WEEKLY STANDARD about al Qaeda's involvement in the Benghazi attacks wrong? And those who talked to CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and others? What about the Democratic congressman on the House Intelligence Committee who declared that "the intelligence indicates that al Qaeda was involved?"
And what about that previous major investigative piece in the New York Times, the one that reported the involvement of a key al Qaeda affiliate and international terrorist groups? Was it wrong? Should we expect a correction?