Yes, There IS Evidence Linking al Qaeda to Benghazi

Libyan militants tell the New York Times that al Qaeda is not behind the 2012 Benghazi attack. Some members of Congress have intelligence that says otherwise.

12.29.13 8:27 PM ET

On Sunday, The New York Times published an investigation that concluded al Qaeda played no role in the September 11, 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi. For Democrats, this was welcome news considering the bruising investigations into the attack from Republicans in Congress. The piece was trumpeted by the progressive non-profit, Media Matters in a blast email as “bad news for Benghazi Hoaxers.”

But two members of the House intelligence committee, Republican Mike Rogers and Democrat Adam Schiff, told Fox News on Sunday that U.S. intelligence assessments concluded al Qaeda did play a role in the attack. While no Republicans have asserted the Benghazi attacks were planned in a manner similar to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, evidence has emerged in the last year that does show the participation of militias and fighters with known ties to al Qaeda.

Abu Khattala: The Times focuses its reporting on Ahmed Abu Khattala, a militia leader who spoke to reporter David Kirkpatrick, last year and claimed to be at the scene of the Benghazi assault with no apparent worry that he would be abducted or killed by U.S. authorities.  In his piece Sunday, Kirkpatrick fills in the rest of Abu Khattala’s story, revealing that he was a part-time construction worker who was publicly associated with the abduction and murder of a rival militia commander supported by NATO. In interviews with the Times, Abu Khattala denies any connection to al Qaeda. He does however say he admires the group’s vision.  The Times also discloses that Abu Khattala was close to a leader of the militia the U.S. had entrusted to protect its facilities in Benghazi in light of an attack.  But Abu Khattala was by no means the only person who participated in the attack.

The Jamal network:  Some fighters who attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi are believed to be from a group headed by a former top lieutenant to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda. When Egyptian authorities raided the home of Mohammed al-Jamal, who was an operational commander under al-Zawahiri’s terrorist group in the 1990s known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, it found messages to al Qaeda leadership asking for support and plans to establish training camps and cells in the Sinai, creating a group now known as the Jamal Network. In October, the State Department designated Jamal Network as a terrorist group tied to al Qaeda. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the participation of the network in the Benghazi attacks, and the group’s participation in the attacks has also been acknowledged in the TimesThe New York Times Benghazi investigation makes no mention of the Jamal Network in their piece.

What militants say when they think no one is listening. On Fox News Sunday, Schiff, a Democratic member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the intelligence indicated that al Qaeda did play a role in the attack. The intelligence community knows this, he said, from insights gleaned from eavesdropping on the night of the attack. Speaking of the Times report, Schiff said “they did not have the same access to people who were not aware they were being listened to. They were heavily reliant obviously on people they interviewed who had a reason to provide the story they did.” But Schiff also said sometimes eavesdropping has its limits as well. “Sometimes though the intelligence which has the advantage of hearing to people when they don’t know they are being listening to, that can be misleading as well, when people make claims, they boast of things they were not involved in for various purposes,” he said. The Daily Beast first reported that an intercepted phone conversation from one of the attackers to a person connected to al Qaeda’s north Africa affiliates boasting of the attack. The Times says this intercept was the “only intelligence connecting al Qaeda to the attack,” a claim disputed this weekend by two U.S. intelligence officials. The Times reports the phone call showed the person connected to al Qaeda sounded “astonished,” suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.

Ansar al-Sharia: No one has disputed the participation of a local Islamist militia known as Ansar al-Sharia. The Times describes Ansar al-Sharia in Libya as a group formed in 2012 to protest the support other militias had for elections but an organization separate and distinct from al Qaeda. An August 2012 report commissioned by a Pentagon terrorism research organization found that Ansar al-Sharia “has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States.” Not everyone however agreed. As The Daily Beast reported last year, Ansar al-Sharia was not a priority for U.S. intelligence collection in Libya  The Times also drew a distinction between the Benghazi branch of Ansar al-Sharia and the Dernaa branch of the group that was led by a former Guantanamo detainee Sufian Ben Qhumu. Others however see Ansar al-Sharia’s activities in Libya more coordinated with al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates. In October, Tunisia’s Prime Minister told Reuters that “there is a relation between leaders of Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya.” The Times also states, “the Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with al Qaeda’s international terrorist network.” On Fox News Sunday Rogers stuck to his guns. “Do they have differences of opinions with al Qaeda core? Yes,” he said. “Do they have affiliations with al Qaeda core? Definitely.”