Despite initial Obama administration assertions that the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was spontaneous and instigated by an almost entirely unknown YouTube video attacking the Muslim prophet Muhammad, there is increasing evidence that the attack was coordinated and linked to al-Qaida.
In a video message released on Sept. 10, 2012 — the day before the attack on the consulate — al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri confirmed for the first time the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan-born top al-Qaida member killed by an American drone strike in Pakistan in June. Zawahiri expressed hope in the video that with the “martyrdom” of al-Libi, “people will flock even more to his writings and call.”
“I celebrate with the Islamic nation, the holy warriors, the prince of the faithful Mullah Omar and the Muslims and jihadists in Libya, the news of the martyrdom of Libya’s lion,” Zawahiri said.
A day after the video message aired, the American ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other American personnel were killed in the consulate attack in Benghazi.
While the release of the video confirming the death of “Libya’s lion” and the attack on the Benghazi consulate may very well be unconnected, the Obama administration’s charge that the Benghazi attack was the spontaneous result of outrage over an anti-Islam film seems even less likely given recent evidence.
CBS News reported Thursday that witnesses on the ground in Benghazi said there were no anti-American protests outside of the consulate at the time of the attack.
Libyan interim President Mohammed el-Megarif himself has implicated a Libyan Islamist group that has ties to al-Qaida as responsible for the deadly assault, which he suggested was pre-planned.
“I think this was al-Qaida,” el-Megarif said last week in an interview with al-Jazeera. “If you take into account the weapons used, like RPGs and other heavy weapons, it proves that it was pre-planned. It’s a dirty act of revenge that has nothing to do with religion.”
El-Megarif has also claimed that U.S. communications intercepts before the attack tied a Libyan militia, Ansar al-Sharia, to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Meanwhile, Fox News reported that intelligence sources told the news organization that they believed al-Qaida was involved in the attack and that a former Guantanamo detainee participated.
CNN reported Thursday that a source told it that Stevens had been worried that al-Qaida’s presence in Libya was expanding and even suggested his name was on an al-Qaida hit list.
Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that from the information he has seen, the attack has all the signs of an al-Qaida operation, even if he can’t yet definitely say the group was involved.
“We can’t say for certain it was an al-Qaida event; it just has all of the hallmarks of an al-Qaida-style event,” he said.
On Wednesday, U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Matthew Olsen said that he would classify the attack as an act of terrorism.
“I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy,” he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
He also told the committee that the NCTC was looking into a possible al-Qaida connection.
“As well, we are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaida or al-Qaida’s affiliates, in particular al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb,” he said.
But Olson insisted that the evidence didn’t yet indicate the attack was pre-planned, at least not significantly so.
“The best information we have now indicates that this was an opportunistic attack,” he said.
“What we don’t have at this point is specific intelligence that there was significant advance planning or coordination for this attack.”
The Obama administration’s first response was to blame the attack on an anti-Islam YouTube clip.
“First of all, let’s be clear about what transpired here,” American ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Sunday on “This Week.”
“What happened this week in Cairo, in Benghazi, in many other parts of the region was a direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated that the U.S. government had nothing to do with, which we have made clear that it’s reprehensible and disgusting.”
By Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney was echoing Olson and at least suggesting that al-Qaida may have been responsible for the attack.
“I don’t think the fact that we hadn’t is not — as our NCTC director testified yesterday, a number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area,” he said in a press gaggle on Air Force One. “We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaida or al-Qaida’s affiliates, in particular al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.”
But, he added, “[W]e have no information at this point that suggests that this was a significantly pre-planned attack, but this was the result of opportunism, taking advantage of and exploiting what was happening as a result of reaction to the video that was found to be offensive.”
Michael Rubin, a foreign policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Caller that “initial White House denials in the face of overwhelming evidence suggest the complete politicization of national security under President Barack Obama and Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton.”
“There is no such thing as a spontaneous mass rally in the Middle East; they are always planned in advance,” he continued in an email. “Protestors sacking consulates and embassies are not like a flash mob of bored kids converging on a food court. Nor is it a coincidence that skilled al-Qaida operatives were in the right place, at the right time, with the right intelligence.”
FBI officials are currently in Libya investigating the attack.