One of the first clues the intelligence community had about the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was when a Tunisian national posted an update on social media about the fighting shortly after it had begun.
The post from Ali Ani al-Harzi, who is now suspected of participating in the attacks, was what helped U.S. intelligence locate him and track him down after he fled Libya for Turkey, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the unfolding investigation.
These people say Turkish officials held al-Harzi for less than a week at the behest of the U.S. government, then sent him to Tunisia. There, he was kept in military custody until last week, when he was transferred to a jail in preparation for a court trial. It’s unclear what role he might have played in the attacks or what he might be charged with. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. intelligence community are working with Tunisian authorities, but there has been no deal yet on whether to send al-Harzi to the U.S. or keep him in Tunisia where he could be charged under the country’s own counterterrorism laws. The Tunisians have also not yet allowed U.S. officials direct access to the suspect.
Al-Harzi is a member of violent extremist networks in North Africa, one U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. This person added that he was also connected to jihadist organizations in the Middle East and was headed to Syria when he was detained in Turkey.
The investigation into what happened on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11 in Benghazi is complicated by a number of factors. It’s an election season, and Republicans have accused Democrats of trying to cover up a terrorist attack and misleading the public. Democrats have countered that Republicans and Mitt Romney have attempted to politicize a national tragedy.
The latest CIA view of the attack sent Friday to Congress says the attack on 9/11 was “opportunistic” rather than being planned days or weeks in advance. This assessment is based in part on a review of intercepts collected before 9/11 in and around Benghazi. A U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast that the review of collected intelligence found “there was nothing that would have given us some indication that an attack was being planned or imminent.”
This resonates with what James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said earlier this month at an intelligence conference in Orlando known as GEOINT: “If people do not emit or discuss their behavior, it's hard to find out what they are going to do.”
The CIA’s latest assessment also says once and for all that the assault didn’t start as a protest against an anti-Islam Internet video. In the first eight days following the attacks, the Obama administration cited that video as the primary cause of the assault.
Yet the FBI knew there was no protest as early as Sept. 14, according to U.S. officials familiar with the investigation. These people say that’s when FBI agents interviewed four of the five diplomatic security officers who were at the consulate during the attack. The officers were interviewed at Ramstein Airbase in Germany, where they had been evacuated. They told the FBI that there was no protest outside the consulate on 9/11 and that the men who showed up that evening were there to assault the compound.
Information like this “is ordinarily transferred back to Washington, given to John Brennan in the White House, so the president and White House would be aware of the progress in the investigation,” said Fran Townsend, a former White House homeland security and counterterrorism advisor to President George W. Bush who now serves on the CIA’s external advisory committee.
It’s unclear when the FBI related this information to the White House, and both the FBI and the White House National Security Council declined to comment for this story. Two U.S. intelligence officials, however, say the FBI’s information didn’t make it into the intelligence community databases used by analysts until Sept. 20.