Libyans Blame Al Qaeda for Embassy Attacks
(Wall Street Journal) BENGHAZI—The head of Libya’s new national congress has blamed al Qaeda-linked militants for planning Tuesday’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, raising further questions about the motive behind the mayhem that killed four Americans.
U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal on Friday that they are investigating indications that a local group of Libyan militants, Ansar al Sharia, held a series of conversations Tuesday with al Qaeda extremists about the assault that day on the consulate, in the first sign of possible coordination in the attack between local fighters and the global terrorist movement.
The statement from Mohamed Al-Magarief, broadcast Friday during an interview the Arabic broadcaster al-Jazeera, is the first time that a Libyan official has implicated the global terrorist organization in the chaotic events that raised tensions throughout the Middle East.
Mr. Magarief didn’t say how far in advance the attack had been planned. He said, however, that he believes the militants went to the consulate with violence in mind.
“I think this was al Qaeda,” Mr. Magarief said in the interview. “If you take into account the weapons used, like RPGs and other heavy weapons, it proves that it was preplanned. It’s a dirty act of revenge that has nothing to do with religion.”
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Libyan security officials in Benghazi who are heading the investigation into the bloody incident have cautioned against rushing to judgment about the nature or cause of the deaths. They have said they suspect members of Ansar al Sharia, among others, of participating in the armed mob that marched on the diplomatic compound. However, there is no evidence that the local militant organization ordered a specific attack against U.S. diplomatic personnel, some of the Libyan security officials have said.
Local Libyan officials have also been hesitant to blame the violence on militant Islamic jihadis, and some have even suggested that a cell of Gadhafi loyalists may have been responsible for instigating the bloodshed.
U.S. officials said they saw no intelligence before the attack to suggest militants—either the local group or al Qaeda—wanted to hit the consulate. Officials said they also didn’t believe the militants targeted the ambassador.
Despite indications of the communications between the local group and the al Qaeda affiliate, officials said it wasn’t known whether the leadership of either group directed the militants executing the attack, or whether members may have acted on their own accord, officials said.
The crowd of several hundred Libyans overran the consulate Tuesday night, shooting a hail of bullets and grenades and overwhelming the lightly guarded compound before allegedly setting fire to the main buildings where American staff lived and worked. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and a second diplomat, Sean Smith, died in the fire.
The majority of the Americans managed to evacuate from the compound during this initial attack and reach a nearby safe house. A couple of hours later, militants launched a second wave of attacks at that site, killing the other two Americans, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, U.S. and Libyan officials said.
However, in the chaos of the initial fight, Ambassador Stevens was left behind in the consulate after the evacuation. He apparently had been trapped inside the main house in the center of the spacious compound and died of smoke inhalation, according to doctors who received his body at Benghazi’s central hospital.
A group of suspected Libyan looters who came to the consulate after the fighting had ended early Wednesday morning found his body and delivered it to the hospital, according to Libyan security officials, who later brought his body to a U.S. rescue team that helped airlift the Americans out of Benghazi Wednesday morning.
The bodies of all four Americans were repatriated on Friday.
Several current and former U.S. officials said extremist leaders linked with al Qaeda were communicating with members of Ansar al Sharia, the Libyan militia, after seeing violent anti-U.S. protests breaking out in Cairo. These officials identified the leaders as members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an al Qaeda branch in North Africa known as AQIM.
U.S. officials cautioned Friday that the investigation was still under way, and their understanding of the attack remained incomplete. Officials stressed they hadn’t yet drawn firm conclusions about who is responsible.
But the officials have zeroed in on involvement of AQIM, which may have intended to encourage the attack. “The way AQIM has been discussing this strongly suggests they were involved in the plotting,” said a former U.S. official.
Libya has organized a joint task force along with the Americans and is conducting a manhunt for the suspected organizers of the attack. So far, four people have been arrested. As of Saturday, their interrogation was still under way, according to Fawzi Waniss, the head of the Supreme Security Council branch in Benghazi.
Mr. Magarief flew to Benghazi on Friday and laid a wreath on the consulate grounds in remembrance of the four dead Americans. He told al-Jazeera that he considered the attack the work of “experienced masterminds” who were seeking revenge against the United States.
Until now, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been seen largely as a regional threat. “If al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is implicated in the Benghazi attack, it would suggest the group is a greater threat to the United States than was previously believed,” said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism specialist at Rand Corp. who recently wrote a book on al Qaeda.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions against the group but hasn’t directly ordered airstrikes against its leaders, as it has against al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, East Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan and the central al Qaeda operation in Pakistan. The group’s growing foothold in Mali has fueled debate within the Obama administration over whether the U.S. should continue to rely on local partners to combat the group or to take direct action.
In the days following the attack, there has been considerable debate over whether it was premeditated. The latest information suggested Friday that while the attack was loosely organized, it was done as a last-minute response to events unfolding in Cairo.
“The current available information indicates that the attacks were spontaneously inspired by the protests in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the consulate,” a U.S. official said.
Officials believe that quick response may have been possible because there are active terrorist cells in Benghazi that have carried out five attacks since April—three against diplomatic targets, including the U.S. Consulate. One higher-profile assault in June targeted the convoy carrying the British ambassador to Libya and used sophisticated techniques that suggested it was well-planned.
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