The State Department confirmed Wednesday that two Libyan groups reportedly set to be designated as terrorists took part in the Benghazi 9-11 anniversary attacks of 2012. But the Obama administration insists there is no evidence linking the attack to al Qaeda's central leadership.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki chose her words carefully saying the branches of Ansar al-Sharia, a militia that claimed credit for the Benghazi attack in the first hours after the incident on social media were not "official affiliates" of al Qaeda.
“Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi and Ansar al-Sharia in Derna have been involved in terrorist attacks in the past, of course, against civilian targets, frequent assassinations, and attempted assassinations of security officials and political actors in eastern Libya," Jen Psaki said. She added that these attacks "include the September 11th attack against the special mission and annex in Benghazi, Libya.”
Psaki was responding to a report in the Washington Post that the Obama administration would soon designate the Derna and Benghazi branches of Ansar al-Shariah as terrorist organizations.
Her contention that the United States had no indication that "core al Qaeda" planned the Benghazi attacks was more careful that the conclusion in a controversial Dec. 28 New York Times report on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, which stated that the newspaper’s investigation “turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.”
But the Washington Post's story Wednesday undermined the New York Times investigation. It disclosed that fighters under the command of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Abu Sufian bin Qumu participated in the attacks on the U.S. special mission in Benghazi and the CIA annex. l Bin Qummu, according to a U.S. government dossier made public by Wikileaks attended an al Qaeda training camp and worked as a truck driver for one of bin Laden's companies in Sudan in the 1990s. He later traveled to Kabul where he fought along side the Taliban and then fled to Peshawar after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks in 2001.
Reporters at Wednesday’s State Department press briefing repeatedly but unsuccessfully pressed Spokeswoman Jen Psaki to say how the State Department determined that Ansar al-Sharia's branches in Derna and Benghazi are not “official affiliates” of al Qaeda and what criteria would make an extremist group an “official affiliate.”
Several pointed out Bin Qumu's connection to al Qaeda. “But Jen, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Bin Qumu, he has ties to bin Ladin, he trained with him in camps in Pakistan in 1993. Doesn’t that give him ties to al-Qaida?” asked Fox News reporter Lucas Tomlinson.
“Well again, Lucas, there’s no indication at this point that core al-Qaida was involved or planned these attacks, and these are not official affiliates of al-Qaida,” Psaki responded
“If you’re an alumnus of al-Qaida, doesn’t that give you ties to al-Qaida?” Tomlinson shot back.
The State Department press corps erupted in laughter. The questioning continued.
“What does it take to have ties to al-Qaida? Is it an email? Is it a certificate of completed training? I’m just curious what it takes to have ties to al-Qaida,” Tomlinson asked.
“They don’t give out t-shirts or membership cards, as you know,” Psaki said.
After several more rounds of back and forth, Psaki declined to state any specific criteria for what would make a group an official al Qaeda affiliate. She said that “core al Qaeda,” a term often used to refer to al Qaeda’s Pakistan based leadership headed by Ayman al-Zawahari, did not direct the Benghazi attack.
As The Daily Beast reported last month, there were several participants in the Benghazi attack that had links to al Qaeda. Some attackers were part of the Jamal network, run by Mohammed al-Jamal, a former top lieutenant to Zawahiri.
In 2012 a Pentagon terrorism research organization reported 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.” Last 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.”
Senior Congressional Republicans, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrel Issa, have stood by their assertions that al Qaeda was involved in the deadly Benghazi attacks.
"It was accurate," Issa said on NBC's Meet the Press. "There was a group that was involved that claims an affiliation with al-Qaeda."