U.S. To Designate Benghazi Attackers as Terrorist Groups

The designation is unlikely to settle the debate over al-Qaeda's role in the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens.

  • Share
  • Read Later

The United States is expected to officially label groups linked to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya as terrorist organizations, effectively marking the first public accusations of responsibility for the September 2012 assault that left four Americans dead.

The New York Times and CNN, citing unnamed officials, report that the State Department will designate Ansar al-Shariah of Benghazi and Ansar al-Sharia of Derna — a city in eastern Libyan — as terrorist organizations, asserting that members of both militant groups were involved in the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. The terrorist designation will also apply to suspected leaders of the groups, including Sufian bin Qumu, who is connected to the group from Derna and spent time in Guantanamo Bay.

The designations, first reported by the Washington Post, empower the U.S. to freeze the groups’ assets and prohibit Americans from providing material support.

The labels are unlikely to settle the debate over al-Qaeda’s role in the attack, which escalated into a political brawl after Republicans questioned initial assertions from the White House that the attack was locally spawned and relatively spontaneous. The State Department designation has been applied to groups around the world, though members like Qumu do have links to al-Qaeda.

The State Department is also expected to apply the terrorist label to Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia, which the U.S has linked to violent protests at an American school near the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and which has been linked to attacks against security forces in the country.



"There’s no doubt the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action," President Obama declared on "The View" in September of 2012.

On "Letterman" that September, referring to the anti-Islam propaganda video that had been translated to Arabic and widely televised in the region just before the attacks, President Obama clearly stated that "extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack" U.S. facilities in the region, including the outpost in Libya.

In her remarks the very day after the attack on the Benghazi outpost, Secretary Clinton told the American people that, "Heavily armed militants assaulted the compound and set fire to our buildings."

Just days later, Ambassador Susan Rice told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, “Whether they were al-Qaida affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al-Qaida itself I think is one of the things we’ll have to determine.”

And just days after that, the Obama Administration's Director of National Intelligence released a statement stating, “It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qa’ida.”

The Washington Post quoted Administration intelligence officials explaining that the attackers included "members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia, about four members of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, and members of the Egypt-based Muhammad Jamal network, along with other unarmed looters."

A senior Obama Administration intelligence official confirmed to the Washington Post at the time, that the initial CIA report used in the September 15 talking points linked the Benghazi attacks to the Cairo protests over the video. The "analysts’ judgment was based in part on monitoring of some of the Benghazi attackers, which showed they had been watching the Cairo protests live on television and talking about them before they assaulted the [outpost]."

Multiple Libyan officials, including Wanis al-Sharif, the deputy Libyan interior minister who was actually in Benghazi and responsible for security there, described the militants as taking action in response to the Cairo protests over the anti-Islam propaganda video. The Cairo protest was originally planned to call for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. After the trailer for the film began circulating, Nader Bakkar, the Egyptian Salafist Nour Party's spokesman, and Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawihiri, called for Egyptians to assemble outside of the American embassy to "defend against the insults to the Prophet."

The anti-Islam propaganda video has been conclusively linked to protests, riots and attacks on more than 50 U.S. facilities in more than 20 nations. Multiple intelligence reports, eyewitness accounts, statements from Libyan officials, and news reports -- including interviews with the armed militants and unarmed protesters at the scene -- confirm that the attacking militants spoke not of the 9/11 anniversary, not of bin Laden, not of al Qaeda, but of "defending the Prophet" from the video.

As European-based journalist John Rosenthal wrote at the time:

"The anti-Islam video did indeed play a role. Examination of contemporaneous chatter on Libyan websites shows that locals really were in an uproar about the video in both the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack. This finding is all the more significant inasmuch as the chatter in question comes from precisely the same extremist milieu as the presumed assailants. In the hours immediately preceding the attack, local Islamists were calling on their brethren to “do something” in response to the video."

New York Times reporter, David Kilpatrick -- whose colleagues were actually on the ground in Benghazi -- stands by these reports. “In the tinderbox of Benghazi, it doesn’t take very much advanced planning or preparation to pull off an attack like this, because there are lots of well-organized, heavily armed brigades or battalions just sitting around, waiting to go. And some of them adhere to an ultra-conservative or extremist Islamist ideology."

"It’s a false dichotomy to say either this was an organized attack, or it was a response to the video,” Kirkpatrick said.