Mixed Messages

Ansar al-Sharia’s Role in Benghazi Attacks Still a Mystery

The U.S. didn’t consider Ansar al-Sharia a threat—until they showed up in Benghazi on Sept. 11. Eli Lake on the truth behind Libya’s latest jihadists.

11.05.12 9:45 AM ET

One of the main participants in the Sept. 11 anniversary assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission and Central Intelligence Agency annex in Benghazi is a group formed earlier this year called Ansar al-Sharia, according to the current U.S. intelligence assessment of the attack. Ansar al-Sharia, which translates as “supporters of Islamic law,” has many roles in Libya’s second city. It provides security for the city’s main hospital. It’s also a social-services organization and an ideological movement that seeks to bring its corner of eastern Libya under the rule of an Islamic government, according to the group’s own public information and published interviews with its leaders. 

Before the attacks, the U.S. intelligence community didn’t consider Ansar al-Sharia a threat to American interests, and the group wasn’t a priority target for the CIA officers monitoring jihadists in Libya, according to U.S. intelligence officials with knowledge of the investigations into the Benghazi attacks.

Because Ansar al-Sharia wasn’t designated as a terrorist group or thought to have significant connections to al Qaeda, there were fewer resources deployed to monitor the organization’s members, these officials say. It also makes it tricky to go after the group’s leaders now. Under the war resolution Congress passed three days after the original Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush and President Obama have asserted the authority to kill or capture al Qaeda and associated groups all over the world. That resolution is the legal basis for the maintenance of kill lists maintained by the CIA and the military to send special operations teams or predator drones to Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Because Ansar al-Sharia was regarded by the intelligence community as separate and distinct from al Qaeda, the group managed to avoid being added to these target lists, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials.

Some analysts in the intelligence community disagreed with the official assessment, however. A public report released in August by the Library of Congress at the direction of a Pentagon organization that focuses on counter-terrorism research concluded that Ansar al-Sharia “increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya.” But this wasn’t the prevailing view.

“In general, Ansar al-Sharia was viewed as a local extremist group with an eye on gaining political ground in Libya,”  said one U.S. official who is familiar with the intelligence assessment. “Of course, there were concerns that Islamist militias such as Ansar could help more violent extremists gain a foothold.”  

One U.S. intelligence contractor working on the investigation into the Benghazi attacks said, “We were not focused on these guys.” Militias like Ansar al-Sharia, this person said, might be analyzed and monitored, but they weren’t the focus of the analysts who were maintaining kill lists and monitoring the broader war against al Qaeda.

Today, the intelligence community has begun to reassess its view of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, in part because the attacks there included not only that group’s members but two other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Jamal network.

Unraveling Ansar al-Sharia, however, is one of the harder jobs today for U.S. intelligence analysts. The group itself has offered conflicting messages about its role in the Benghazi assault. On Sept. 12, a spokesman for the group said members of the organization participated in the attack, but also said it wasn’t sanctioned by the group’s leadership. In an interview from Sept. 18 with the BBC, Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, said his group was not involved in the attack. Then in mid-October, Ahmed Abu Khattala, a leader of an Islamist brigade affiliated at times with Ansar al-Sharia, said he was at the scene of the attack, though he denied participating in it.

Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has been tracking the social media and public statements of Ansar al-Sharia in the last year, said the group has presented itself as a local outfit.  “I could only go on the information Ansar al Sharia put out themselves,” he said. “They present themselves as a group with local concerns and only interested in Benghazi issues and not a global jihad like al Qaeda.”

Mary Habeck, a former National Security Council expert on al Qaeda during the George W. Bush administration, says being a local group doesn’t preclude having a global agenda. “People are not paying enough attention to these so-called local groups,” she said. Habeck said al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, was largely seen as pre-occupied with its insurgency in Yemen, but later claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009. The following year, there was an attempted Times Square bombing by an American named Faisal Shahzad who had trained earlier with the Pakistani Taliban.