While more and more is known about the life and idealism of the late U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, the identities and actions of his killers still remain a mystery. As of today, the U.S. intelligence community suspects some combination of three militant groups of carrying out the siege on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi: The local extremist group Ansar al-Sharia and the al Qaeda affiliated-groups Jamal Network and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But while Ansar al-Sharia is believed to be the main player, The Daily Beast's Eli Lake reports that much is unknown about its activities seven weeks after the death of Stevens and three other Americans.
The main confusion about Ansar al-Sharia's actions is due to its muddling identity as one-part social-services organization and another part extremist ideological movement. As Lake reports, the group, which translates as "supporters of Islamic law," wears many hats in Libya, such as providing security for Benghazi's hospitals and spreading sharia law to eastern Libya. "Before the attacks, the U.S. intelligence community didn’t consider Ansar al-Sharia a threat to American interests, and the group wasn’t a priority target for the CIA officers monitoring jihadists in Libya," U.S. officials tell Lake. Now that U.S. intelligence officials believe the group was behind the attacks, it's still difficult to go after them because it isn't thought to have significant ties to al Qaeda, a legal pre-requisite to militarily pursuing its leaders under the war resolution Congress passed after the original 9/11 attacks, granting authority to kill or capture al Qaeda and its affiliated groups.
The Associated Press has reported that the man "strongly suspected" of involvement in the attack is Ali Harzi, a Tunisian arrested in Turkey after fleeing Libya. "Harzi is believed to have been a member of the Ansar al-Sharia," an official told the AP last week. But the issue remains that no one's sure if Ansar al-Sharia is a local group that got out of hand or has ambitions of global jihad. Two experts Lake speaks with come down on both sides. “They present themselves as a group with local concerns and only interested in Benghazi issues and not a global jihad like al Qaeda," says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Mary Habeck, a former National Security Council expert, says that doesn't mean it can't be just as dangerous as an al Qaeda group. “People are not paying enough attention to these so-called local groups,” she said, noting that other locally-focused group such as al Qaeda in Yemen have also carried out globally consequential missions such as the failed Christmas Day Bombing in 2009.
In any event, while finding justice for Stevens has been a painstakingly lengthy process, memory of his life's work is being well-served by a new GQ profile of him chronicling his days from the Peace Corps to the State Department. "A lanky Californian with gray hair and a smile made of teeth that seemed a half size too big for his mouth, he had a reputation for patience and calm and, as one colleague puts it, 'incessant optimism,'" writes GQ's Sean Flynn. Read the whole story here.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.