More Benghazi: Was it al Qaeda or not? Who do you believe?

Fifteen months of relentless investigation into the death of U.S. Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 has turned up no discernible answer as to what happened that night.  One story was the attack occurred as a result of a protest over an insulting video that turned into an all out assault.  The other story claimed al Qaeda must have master-minded an intricate attack on the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Most Americans chose their story of choice long ago and waited on their respective media outlets to piece together the necessary facts to support specified political agendas. After Lara Logan broadcast a completely erroneous “al Qaeda did Bengahazi” story, I had hoped this whole episode would just go away.  But no, The New York Times  just published the results of their 15-month investigation and concluded:

“Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”

So, the NYTimes says that the attack in Benghazi was basically what was briefed by the Obama administration right after the attack occurred?  What? I don’t think we will ever really know all the details about what happened nor ever have a complete handle on who and or what was responsible for the attack.  More importantly, who should we believe?  But here is a quote from the article that really stuck with me:

“The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests……The fixation on Al Qaeda might have distracted experts from more imminent threats. Those now look like intelligence failures.”

Whether you like the NYTimes or hate the NYTimes, this article is an excellent read and the layout is well worth checking out.  Wow, Lara Logan, you outta check out how they do journalism.

  • Again, What is al Qaeda? – As I have pushed since the beginning of the post-Bin Laden era, we in the United States and in particular our members in Congress have no real sense of what al Qaeda is.  I wrote What if there is no al Qaeda? specifically for this reason noted in the NYTimes story.  There are lots of militant groups around the world which host members that fought in Iraq or Afghanistan or support jihadi ideology.  But that doesn’t mean they are all part of al Qaeda –

“But the Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with Al Qaeda’s international terrorist network. The only intelligence connecting Al Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of Al Qaeda, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker’s boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.”

I had discussed this as a possibility here in September 2012 immediately following the Benghazi attack, “Pundits Seeking al Qaeda Connection To Libya Violence”.  Here were my reasons on September 21, 2012 for why I didn’t think the Benghazi attack was an al Qaeda attack:

Here are my reasons for why I don’t believe this is a global al Qaeda plot nor a sign of a “rising al Qaeda”. Instead, I feel the attack in Libya represents the problems with a weak Libya security environment, the availability of soft American targets and the emergence of a new threat environment the U.S. has not properly assessed.  If this were a real al Qaeda plot typical of past events, I would have expected:

  • …a very public media announcement from al Qaeda coinciding with the attack.  If really planned far in advance, I’d expect all jihadi media outlets would have received a prepared announcement of considerable scale timed for release shortly after the attack.  The videos and announcements I’ve seen thus far and the alleged reprisal for the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi all seem haphazardly put together at the last minute trying to exploit the unexpected success of a meeting engagement.  Preparing and distributing these messages take weeks in preparation.  I imagine there will be AQ propaganda in the coming weeks taking credit for this.  If Zawahiri publishes a video in two weeks taking credit for the Consulate attack, you’ll know he wasn’t even in on it – he’s just reacting.  In fact, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya is trying to distance itself from the attacks.  It doesn’t mean they are innocent, but its not very like al Qaeda.

  • …the group would have tried to take the Ambassador alive, taken the body or staged a public execution.  I’m not convinced they even knew the Ambassador was there or that he had died.  It’s possible they did, but I’m not convinced yet. Hopefully the investigation will yield more clarity on this.  The kidnapping of a U.S. Ambassador would have been far more devastating to the U.S.  Sadly, this attack suggests that had they planned a kidnapping, they might have been able to pull it off.

  • …the attack to be quite a bit more sophisticated.  The reports I’ve read make it seem fairly straight forward – a rapid attack on known locations following a diversion.  Bigger, planned AQ attacks tend to hit public targets in high profile ways exploiting the media potential of the event.  While this was an unfortunate success for the perpetrators, I think a well planned AQ attack would have actually been much more successful from AQ’s perspective and more devastating to the West.

  • …they would have filmed the attack.  AQ attacks are often filmed by AQ members for their media value and then quickly posted online.  I’m sure this attack was filmed in parts but not in a pre-planned way to exploit it for media value.

Overall, we’ve really learned very little from Benghazi, because even today, we are approaching every threat abroad as if it is 9/11/2001 version of al Qaeda.  Things have changed.  A separate article today from CNN says the U.S. is sending drones and missiles to fight al Qaeda in Iraq.  But this is misleading, as al Qaeda in Iraq is now also known as ISIS and their leader al-Baghdadi has publicly rebutted al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Does that really make ISIS just “al Qaeda”?  What a mess?  How can we defeat our enemies when we don’t really know who we are fighting?  I’m sure some in government understand the distinction, but the general public is being misled.

  • al Qaeda is one of many jihadi threats, not the only jihadi threat – al Qaeda retains strength in certain locales around the world.  But these strong ties come from personal connections with their core foreign fighter leadership.  As I’ve discussed in other posts, there are “Old Guard” al Qaeda members and new upstarts and they don’t all get along.  Al Qaeda, despite what the U.S. media will try to convince you, is not all powerful, nor is it only one thing. Al Qaeda has struggled to corral the plurality of jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq and as noted in the NYT piece has struggled in Libya as well.

“Al Qaeda was having its own problems penetrating the Libyan chaos. Three weeks after the attack, on Oct. 3, 2012, leaders of the group’s regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, sent a letter to a lieutenant about efforts to crack the new territory. The leaders said they had sent four teams to try to establish footholds in Libya. But of the four, only two in the southern Sahara “were able to enter Libyan territory and lay the first practical bricks there,” the letter said.”

  • I still think we are missing something –  The NYTimes reporting is impressive, but I have a feeling we are missing something, probably at higher levels of classification and investigation. So when will the next rounds of leaks start – I assume the Republicans and “al Qaeda did Benghazi” folks are desperately scrambling around to get someone to leak some details supporting their side.  So in a few days, maybe we’ll know more.  But even when we get it, will we be able to believe it?  And will there just be more come out supporting the opposing argument later?

On September 13, 2012, I posted this survey question as a scenario of what might have been the threat that attacked the compound in Benghazi.  If interested, take the survey and see how your opinion compares to others.  Is this al Qaeda?

“In the hypothetical scenario described below, would you call the following group “al Qaeda” or an “al Qaeda affiliate”?  A simple yes or no answer.  After you vote, you’ll see the results of everyone that chimed in.
Would you consider the following hypothetical group of armed men to be “al Qaeda?”

  • A group of heavily armed men occupy a remote area in an African/Middle Eastern/South Asian country.
  • 95% or more of the groups’ members are local people from the country where the terror group resides.
  • The group publicly states their intent to institute governance by Sharia law.
  • 2-3% of the group’s members served as foreign fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 fighting in coordination with al Qaeda, the Taliban or al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • The group calls itself “Ansar al (fill in the blank)” or “Lashkar e (fill in the blank)” but don’t mention al Qaeda in their name.
  • Some of the groups’ spokesmen, at some point in the past, have publicly praised Osama Bin Laden.
  • It is completely unclear whether any of the group’s members have publicly declared bay’a (allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
  • The group records videos of its attacks.  At times, these videos show up on jihadi web forums.  At times, these videos randomly show up on YouTube.
  • The group’s funding streams remain unclear.  News reports of unknown reliability claim the group gets some funding from kidnapping & local extortion and some from Persian Gulf donations.


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