Republican and Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee on Sunday questioned a central assertion in a major New York Times investigative report, that neither al-Qaeda nor “other international terrorist groups” were involved in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
The Times report by David Kirkpatrick focuses on Ansar al-Shariah – a group that has long been implicated as having played a key role in the deadly attack – but disputes that it has links to al-Qaeda.
“Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with al-Qaeda’s international terrorist network,” he wrote.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told “Fox News Sunday” that the assertion Ansar al-Shariah does not have links to al-Qaeda was wrong – disputed by “the intelligence, to a large volume.”
“Now, did they have differences of opinion with al-Qaeda core? Yes. Do they have affiliations with al-Qaeda core? Definitely,” he said. (“Core” al-Qaeda is the Pakistan-based, Ayman al-Zawahiri-led part of the terrorist network, which has affiliates in Yemen, Iraq/Syria and north and east Africa.)
Rogers pointed out that the committee he chairs had carried out an in-depth investigation into the attack, which cost the lives of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
“We have gone through some 4,000 different classified cables leading up to the event, talked to people on the ground during the event, done the postmortem on the event through the committee investigation.”
Appearing on the same program, a Democratic member of the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, also hinted that intercepted intelligence contradicted some of the Times assertions.
“They didn’t have the same access to people who were not aware that they were being listened to,” he said. “They were heavily reliant, obviously, on people that they interviewed who had a reason to provide the story that they did.”
(The Times said its investigation “centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context.”)
Schiff did add that there were times secret intercepts could also be problematic.
“Sometimes, though, the intelligence which has the advantage of hearing what people say when they don’t know they are being listened to, that could be misleading as well, when people make claims, they boast of things that they were not involved in, for various purposes.”
Schiff said he agreed with Rogers that “the intelligence indicates that al-Qaeda was involved, but there were also plenty of people and militias that were unaffiliated with al-Qaeda that were involved.”
He concluded that the Times report “does add some insights, but I don’t think it’s complete.”
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), another member and former chairman of the Intelligence Committee, also disputed the newspaper’s assertion that al-Qaeda was not involved.
“Ansar al-Shariah,” he told Fox News earlier, “is considered part of the al-Qaeda network, supporters of al-Qaeda, and they have a training camp right out near Benghazi. So I’ve known all along it was Ansar al-Shariah, and I consider that to be an al-Qaeda affiliate.”
“This is an academic debate,” King continued. “The fact is, this is an al-Qaeda-supporting organization, and there’s certainly links between al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Shariah. And that’s the new world we face, where you’re going to have these start-up organizations around the world.”
‘Affiliated with Islamic terrorists’
Among documentation released by the Obama administration to Congress during its probes into Benghazi was an unclassified email in which then-acting assistant secretary of state for the Near East Beth Jones wrote on Sept. 12, 2012 that she had told the Libyan ambassador “that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Shariah, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”
Although Jones did not specifically say “al-Qaeda,” her use of the term “Islamic terrorists” rather than, say, “local militias” is of note. The email was made public during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committeehearing last May.
Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, who has reported extensively on Benghazi, recalled Sunday that about six weeks after the attack, the Times published a report in which it said that “American officials” named three groups as having participated in the assault – “Ansar al-Shariah, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Muhammad Jamal network, a militant group in Egypt.”
The new Times investigation does touch briefly on the claim of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) involvement but suggests it’s not credible (because in an internal letter three weeks after the Benghazi attack AQIM leaders had listed acts of terrorism the group had carried out in the region but “made no mention of Benghazi or any other attacks in Libya.”)
The Times investigation is silent, however, on the third group named in that earlier report, the Muhammad Jamal network (MJN).
Muhammad Jamal is an Egyptian militant whose involvement with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri dates back to the 1990s when Zawahiri led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and Jamal headed its operational wing. (Zawahiri later folded EIJ into the nascent al-Qaeda and was a signatory of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 infamous fatwa declaring war on America.)
According to the State Department, Jamal also has links to both AQIM and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, AQAP.
Last October the United Nations Security Council added Jamal to its al-Qaeda sanctions list. The entry states in part, “Muhammad Jamal set up a training camp in Libya where Libyan and foreign violent extremists were trained. Some of the attackers of the U.S. Mission in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 have been identified as associates of Muhammad Jamal, and some of the Benghazi attackers reportedly trained at MJN camps in Libya.”
Joscelyn says that “the Jamal network’s part in the Benghazi story is enough alone to undermine” the claims made by Kirkpatrick in the Times report that the attackers were exclusively locals.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Kirkpatrick declared, “There’s just no chance that this was an al-Qaeda attack – if by al-Qaeda you mean the organization founded by bin Laden.”
The only way that lawmakers’ insistence that al-Qaeda was involved made sense to him, Kirkpatrick continued, was “if you’re using the term ‘al-Qaeda’ to describe even a local group of Islamist militants who may dislike democracy or have a grudge against the United States – if you’re going to call anybody like that al-Qaeda, then okay.”