Who Attacked Benghazi Depends on Who You Think Is in al-Qaeda

However, the responses to The New York Times' big Benghazi story seem to hinge on what your definition of al-Qaeda is.

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A blockbuster story published in The New York Times over the weekend, declared there to be "no evidence" that al-Qaeda played a role in the 2012 attack on the American compound in Benghazi. However, the responses to the piece — and perhaps the whole debate over Benghazi — seem to hinge on what your definition of al-Qaeda is.

The story by David Kirkpatrick, the Times' bureau chief in Cairo, attempted to bring some definitive clarity to the incident that left four Americans dead, but it only took a day for members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (specifically Mike Rogers and Adam Schiff) to say the story is wrong. 

According to the Times, the attack was likely orchestrated by militant leader Abu Khattala, "loner and a contrarian, even among fellow Islamists." The Times writes that Khattala was linked to the militant group Ansar al-Shariah, but not to al-Qaeda:

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.

The Times also found that the instigator for the attack was indeed the American-made, English-language trailer for Innocence of Muslims, a pseudo-film that sparked outrage (and some riots) across the Middle East, for its offensive portrayal of Mohammed. This aligns with initial analysis of the attack offered by then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who was U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. at the time, to the national media, that has been roundly mocked by her conservative opponents ever since. (That statement arguably cost her the job of Secretary of State.)

In response to Kirkpatrick's conclusions, Rogers told Fox News that "I dispute that, and the intelligence community, to a large volume, disputes that,” and added that the Times story was not accurate. Schiff also spoke to Fox, saying "intelligence indicates Al Qaeda was involved.”

Schiff gave Fox a pretty even-handed account on where the Times may have been tripped up:

Where the New York Times report both adds value and also is deficient is they didn't have the same access to people who were not aware that they were being listened to. They were heavily reliant, obviously, on people that they interviewed who had a reason to provide the story that they did. 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.

Fox News also offered more anonymous "on the ground" sources, who directly contradicted some of the assertions made in the Times piece.

However, the argument against Kirkpatrick's conclusion, really comes in the form of defining the scope of al Qaeda. If Ansar al-Shariah is more integrated into the al-Qaeda network than the Times says it is, then the report's conclusion falls apart. Unfortunately, who and what constitutes al-Qaeda remains a matter of some dispute.

Eli Lake of The Daily Beast notes that the Prime Minister of Turkey told Reuters in October that "there is a relation between leaders of Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya." Rogers also argued that the group is linked to al-Qaeda, saying "Did they have differences of opinion with al-Qaeda core? Yes. Do they have affiliations with al-Qaeda core? Definitely." Even if Ansar al-Shariah is not a part of al-Qaeda, another group that has been linked to the Benghazi strike is. According to Lake, the Times failed to mention involvement of the Jamal network, a group that the paper itself has previously reported as playing a role in the attack. The U.S. recently listed Jamal Network as a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaeda, which would seem to contradicts Kirkpatrick's assertion that no international terrorist outfits were involved.

In September of this year, the American Enterprise Institute Critical Threat Project issued a report arguing that al-Qaeda has only strengthened since the death of Osama bin Laden, in large part because of how the group has splintered. In other words, the thinness of the connections is what makes them so dangerous.

Affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) all expanded their area of operations and exploited openings caused by the Arab Spring’s unrest. Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s new emir, named two new affiliates: al Shabaab in Somalia, which had a robust, though covert, relationship with al Qaeda, and Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, established with the assistance of AQI. American strategy remained focused on degrading the capabilities of the core group in Pakistan even as the al Qaeda network expanded.

It adds that al-Qaeda's post-bin Laden flexibility contributes to threats from affiliate groups. It seems you don't really have to be a member of al-Qaeda, to be a part of al-Qaeda.

The decentralization of the al Qaeda network has not made it weaker. On the contrary, affiliate-to-affiliate relationships may have increased the overall network’s resiliency. These relationships may also ensure al Qaeda’s survival even if the core group is defeated completely.

Despite the complaints about who was or wasn't responsible, there seems to be agreement that Times report provides important details about the actual events of the attack, and how disastrous even a poorly planned attack can be. The Times suggests U.S. officials failed to avert the attack, because they were on the lookout for an elaborate plan by a stringently hierarchical network, while ignoring smaller rumblings on the ground: 

[Diplomat David] McFarland seemed most concerned about the big militia leaders. “'How do the revolutionaries feel about having relationships with Western countries? What is your opinion about the United States?'” the Americans asked, according to [Islamist militia leader] Mr. Gharabi. It was “an interrogation,” he said. “We told them that we hoped that the countries which helped us during the war would now help us in development,” he said. “And America was at the top of the pyramid.” But Mr. Gharabi and two other Libyan militia leaders present said separately that they tried to warn Mr. McFarland. “We told them, ‘Weapons are everywhere, in every home, and there is no real control,' ” Mr. Bin Hamid of Libya Shield said.

According to the Times, officials must take the proliferation of militant groups seriously, especially in deciding whether to arm such rebels — specifically in Syria, where the line between anti-government fighter and Islamist militant has all but disappeared.

Despite the impressive reporting and valuable new details, The New York Times has left us just where we started in terms of understanding the larger picture of what happened in Benghazi. We still have no clear answers about who started the assault, how much they planned it, what their connection is to larger terrorist networks, or what could have been done to stop. As Politico's Blake Hounshell explains, those questions will never be settled, in part because people don't want them settled. There are too many ideological questions at stake, and too much disagreement on the very terms of the debate. (Like "spontaneous" versus "planned" and "terrorist" versus "rebel.") And as Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast adds, "you can't prove a negative," so how can anyone say with any certainty that al-Qeada wasn't involved.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.