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From Benghazi to Algeria?

9:50 AM, Jan 23, 2013 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony today concerning the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, the New York Times has published an account that is potentially very important. The Times reports:

Several Egyptian members of the squad of militants that lay bloody siege to an Algerian gas complex last week also took part in the deadly attack on the United States Mission in Libya in September, a senior Algerian official said Tuesday.

The Egyptians involved in both attacks were killed by Algerian forces during the four-day ordeal that ended in the deaths of at least 38 hostages and 29 kidnappers, the official said. But three of the militants were captured alive, and one of them described the Egyptians’ role in both assaults under interrogation by the Algerian security services, the official said. 

The Times isn’t the only publication connecting “militants” in Libya to the siege of a natural gas field in Algeria that resulted in a hostage crisis.

Agence France Presse reports that “[m]ilitants who seized an Algerian gas plant before they were killed in a bloodbath received logistical aid from Islamists in Libya.” The AFP says its source is “close to hardline Islamist groups in Libya,” but “did not specify the exact nature of such aid.”

But then there is this: “International media groups, including AFP, were able to get from Islamist circles based in eastern Libya telephone numbers of the kidnappers as they last Wednesday overran the In Amenas gas plant in the deep Algerian desert.”

What should we make of these two reports? It is still early, and the details need to be verified. But here some is some elaboration, albeit somewhat speculative.

First, some journalists and their friends in the U.S. intelligence community have tried to spin the Benghazi attack as the work of local actors who are not part of a “global jihad.” For instance, the New York Times played this game in mid-October when it said that one of the groups suspected of taking part in the assault, Ansar al Sharia, “share[s] Al Qaeda’s puritanism and militancy,” but “operate[s] independently and focus[es] only on Libya rather than on a global jihad against the West.”  (Never mind that members of the group are thought to have helped kill a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.)

But now the Times has provided a good reason, in addition to many others, to discount this “It’s All Local” theory. The Times notes, “If confirmed, the link between two of the most brazen assaults in recent memory [in Benghazi and Algeria] would reinforce the transborder character of the jihadist groups now striking across the Sahara.”

Right. We are dealing with an international terrorist network. And that network has numerous ties to al Qaeda.

In reality, there were already many reasons to discount the ‘It’s All Local’ theory. Press reporting indicates that a coalition of jihadist terrorists with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar al Sharia, and an Egyptian jihadist network lead by a longtime of ally of Ayman al Zawahiri all took part in the Benghazi assault. 

Second, the Egyptian network connected to the Benghazi attack deserves more scrutiny, especially now that it may have been involved in the In Amenas raid, too. The head of the network is Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, who served in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) in the 1990s before being imprisoned. The EIJ was headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, now the emir of al Qaeda, at the time. Since being released from prison, Kashef has hooked up with his old buddies. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Egyptian press outlets have all reported that trainees from Kashef’s camps were among the Benghazi assailants.

The Egyptian government arrested Kashef for its own reasons. He was a leader in the so-called Nasr City cell, which was apparently plotting various nefarious activities inside Egypt.

American officials have not been granted access to Kashef, according to several U.S. intelligence officials contacted by The Weekly Standard.

The Algerians have not offered many details about the Egyptians they say were involved in the raid on the In Amenas natural gas plant. Were they among the same Egyptians who were trained in Kashef’s camps? We need to know because this adds an additional dimension to the Benghazi story that will be difficult for the ‘It’s All Local’ crowd to explain away.

Finally, the latest reports are entirely consistent with what we know about Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda commander who masterminded the raid in Algeria. Belmokhtar has reportedly visited his counterparts inside Libya since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. He is also suspected of receiving arms from Libya, some of which may have been used in the attack on In Amenas. And Belmokhtar’s goons launched their attack from Libya.

None of this sounds terribly local. 

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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