July 29, 2013 | War on the Rocks

Rumor Busting: Benghazi, the Brotherhood, and Interpretation of Data

A couple of weeks ago, I testified at a House hearing on the terrorist threat in North Africa. The hearing closed with a line of questions from one legislator about whether the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi might have been responsible for the notorious September 11th attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The major source that precipitated these questions was a report written by Walid Shoebat and two co-authors that claims to provide “ironclad” proof that both the Brotherhood and Morsi were involved. Since then, Shoebat has occasionally taken to his blog to attack me and another witness, Aaron Zelin, for expressing skepticism about his conclusion. In one truly memorable turn of phrase, Shoebat explains that “the problem with the likes of Gartenstein-Ross and Zelin … is that confusion seems to run amok.”

Since the hearing, I have spent time carefully reviewing Shoebat’s report. I decided it was worth analyzing in this forum for three reasons. First, since Shoebat’s claim managed to catch the attention of legislators, it has seemingly reached an audience broad and influential enough to warrant further public scrutiny. Second, Arabic-language media outlets have recently featured reports that are in line with Shoebat’s claim (and about which I will have more to say later), so it’s possible that this theory will receive more attention soon. And finally, one of my longstanding concerns related to the study of violent non-state actors has been epistemological issues, and Shoebat’s report provides a case study in how to evaluate intriguing data points in areas where there is a dearth of publicly available evidence.

Overall, Shoebat’s report fails to persuade me that the Egyptian state was involved in the Benghazi attack. Indeed, it does not present a sufficient case for discarding pre-existing theories about Egyptian involvement.

Information previously known about Egyptian involvement in Benghazi

Shoebat’s case hinges on the confessions made to Libyan intelligence by six suspected attackers of Egyptian origin. It is worth noting that the claim that Egyptians were involved in the attack is not a new revelation: in fact, Egyptian involvement was reported within three weeks of the tragic incident, notably in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal detailed the role played by fighters connected to an Egyptian militant named Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, who has established a base of operations in Libya. Jamal was part of Egyptian Islamic Jihad at the time al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri commanded that group, and may even have been its chief of operations. Today, the “Jamal network” operates camps in Libya that provide training for suicide missions and other militant activities, and—unsurprisingly, given Jamal’s national origin and background—the network has especially close ties to Egyptian jihadists.

Two of these connections are Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of al-Qaeda’s emir, who had been imprisoned with Jamal prior to the uprising against Hosni Mubarak; and Marjan Salim, a militant who also was released from prison following Mubarak’s fall, and had served as the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s sharia committee when Ayman al-Zawahiri led the group. Further, Egyptians are known to train in the Jamal network’s camps; and the Wall Street Journal reported that “U.S. officials working with Libyans to investigate the consulate assault in Benghazi have identified some of the attackers and believe some are associates of [Jamal].”

Thus, Egyptian involvement in the Benghazi affair had been known long before Shoebat’s report through the incident’s connection to the Jamal network. Further, the likely involvement of attackers of Egyptian national origin was reported less than two months after the attack. CNN noted on October 24th that some of the attackers “are suspected of having ties to the Libyan group Ansar al-Sharia, and many of them are believed to be Egyptian jihadis.” Other media outlets have subsequently reported the involvement of Egyptian fighters.

So Shoebat’s claim that Egyptian militants were involved is not new—and all available evidence suggests that this claim is correct. What is new, and controvertible, is his contention that the attack was executed (in whole or part) by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and that Morsi himself had dispatched the attackers. This claim—improbable on its face because of how little strategic sense it would make for the actors involved—relies, essentially, on two pieces of evidence: a cell phone video allegedly taken at the scene of the Benghazi attack and a Libyan intelligence document detailing the confessions of the six accused perpetrators during interrogations. Neither of these data points establishes that either Morsi or the Brotherhood had a role in Benghazi in the conclusive manner that Shoebat claims.

The cell phone video

Shoebat explains his first piece of evidence: “EXHIBIT A is a video shot from a cell phone at the scene of the attacks. In this video, gunmen are seen running toward the camera, toward other gunmen. At one point—in Arabic which we have confirmed—one approaching gunman says, ‘Don’t Shoot us! We were sent by Mursi!’. Even though the video is in Arabic, you can discern the word ‘Mursi’.”

Assuming the video is authentic, there are two problems with Shoebat’s analysis. First, the translation is questionable. Though the audio quality is poor, the individual speaking appears to say: “I said nobody run, Dr. Morsi sent a car. It just arrived.” There is obviously a large, and extremely consequential, distinction between saying We were sent by Morsi and Dr. Morsi sent a car. It just arrived. Reviewing the audio, the spoken Arabic for this phrase (it is repeated several times starting at 1:33 of the video) appears to be:

سيارة دكتور مرسى بعتها تو واصلة

sayara doktor mursi ba-at-ha taw waslah

Even though the audio is difficult to understand, even non-Arabic speakers should be able to discern the word sayara (car) before the phrase doktor mursi. Shoebat failed to note the mention of a car in his translation; and the fact that a car is the object of the sentence clearly has significant implications for its meaning.

Second, it is not clear that the “Dr. Morsi” referred to in the cell phone video is in fact Mohamed Morsi. Because Morsi is a common surname in Egypt this could be (and the odds are that it is) a reference to somebody else.

The Libyan intelligence document

The Libyan intelligence document is more interesting than the cell phone video, and appears at first blush to do far more to advance Shoebat’s case. I believe that the document (unlike the cell phone video) is translated accurately; and it provides reason for a reader to be interested in the allegations within it. However, the document falls far short of being conclusive proof, especially when one considers how it was produced, the other reams of evidence that Libyan intelligence uncovered at the time, and the fact that the U.S. intelligence community almost certainly has had the document in its possession. Shoebat explains this document:

A Libyan Intelligence document (EXHIBIT B) has now been brought forward by credible Arabic translator Raymond Ibrahim. This document discusses the confessions of six members of an Egyptian Ansar al-Sharia cell who were arrested and found to be involved in the Benghazi attacks. Ibrahim reported the following about this document:

It discusses the preliminary findings of the investigation, specifically concerning an “Egyptian cell” which was involved in the consulate attack. “Based on confessions derived from some of those arrested at the scene” six people, “all of them Egyptians” from the jihad group Ansar al-Sharia (“Supporters of Islamic Law), were arrested.

According to the report, during interrogations, these Egyptian jihadi cell members “confessed to very serious and important information concerning the financial sources of the group and the planners of the event and the storming and burning of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi…. And among the more prominent figures whose names were mentioned by cell members during confessions were: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi…” [emphasis Shoebat’s]

I should note that the authenticity of this leaked report is not firmly established. It is possible, for example, that the document represents a draft rather than a finished version of the preliminary report; but, although that possibility exists, there is no specific reason to believe that this document is fraudulent.

Ibrahim’s translation correctly notes that the Libyan intelligence document provides only preliminary findings of an investigation. It represents a set of conclusions drawn from the initial interrogations of alleged attackers. The interrogation transcripts themselves are not publicly available. What did the suspects actually say? What were their specific allegations concerning Morsi? A small error can easily be magnified if we cannot read the actual transcripts from the interrogations. For example, what if Morsi and other Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders were mentioned as some sort of “gateway drug” to Salafi jihadist militancy, but those statements became transmogrified during the process of drafting the document into “the financial sources of the group and the planners of the event”? What if these attackers were Salafi jihadists traveling under Ikhwan cover? This document is a summary, and without access to the original interrogation transcripts, we can neither rule out a variance between the primary source and secondary conclusion, nor the possibility that the conclusions in the report do represent statements made during the interrogation, but the statements themselves are unreliable.

The former possibility, that Libyan analysts may have misinterpreted the interrogation evidence, is bolstered by the fact that the Libyan intelligence services are extremely disorganized. Libya’s civil war was quite bloody: not only were the old institutions of the state significantly degraded, but also the intelligence services had to be specifically rebuilt (former members would be distrusted in this new environment given the arbitrariness and brutality of Qaddafi’s services). Many people now in intelligence positions previously served the same role in militias. Some of them are quite good at their jobs, but others are not. Since the intelligence services are being rebuilt out of necessity, Libyan intelligence does not display the kind of professionalization that might give us confidence in the accuracy of the preliminary intelligence report. (Though the report purports to be prepared by Mahmoud Ibrahim al-Sharif, Director of National Security for Libya, his imprimatur represents something of a rubber stamp, telling us nothing of the analyst who actually prepared the document.) And the latter possibility—that if the statements were in fact made, they may have been unreliable—would be bolstered if the interrogators used torture, a technique that (to put it mildly) can bias the subjects of interrogation toward accepting their interrogators’ conclusions.

A second problem with relying on this document as conclusive is that other kinds of evidence would also be uncovered or generated at the same time by Libyan intelligence. What kind of external evidence could be gleaned from the attackers’ possessions? What kind of contacts were on their cell phones? Did their personal networks match those of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members, or members of another network (such as the Jamal network)? Further, it is standard practice for suspects to be re-interrogated, which would generate follow-up reports. Such reports are also not available in the public domain.

But this points to a third problem with Shoebat’s argument: some Americans almost certainly do have access to the other kinds of evidence I just outlined, specifically members of the U.S. intelligence community, with whom Libya has shared information collected during the Benghazi investigation. Thus, the odds are that either a) the U.S. intelligence community is engaged in a massive cover-up designed to protect Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood, or else b) in their estimation, the other data points that are not publicly available undercut the conclusion Shoebat is drawing from this document.

Conclusion

Shoebat’s report does not significantly move the dial on this issue. The cell phone video is not particularly probative; the Libyan intelligence document is interesting, but extreme caution is in order before concluding that it actually answers any questions about who bears the ultimate responsibility for the Benghazi attack.

As previously noted, the Arabic-language media have recently further publicized claims of Egyptian Brotherhood involvement in Benghazi. Specifically, Libya’s Al-Dawliyah TV reported on July 26th that Libyan intelligence chief Salim al-Hasi had arrived in Cairo “carrying documents and evidence implicating leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau, Mohamed Morsi, Deputy Supreme Guide Mahmud Izzat, and Isam and Jihad al-Haddad, in the assassination of the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi.” Though Shoebat will doubtless take reports like this as vindication of his theory, trumpeting secondary sources that match one’s conclusion is no way to prove an analytic point. For now, I regard this report (which fails to cite a single source for its conclusion) as RUMINT; and even if al-Hasi were in fact bound for Cairo with such a dossier, what matters is not the fact that an allegation has been made, but rather what evidence supports it. It is possible that solid evidence of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s culpability will at some point emerge. If so, it will be appropriate at that point to revisit what may have happened. But, currently we do not have compelling proof that the Ikhwan was involved.

Indeed, one lesson of the past dozen years, and the Iraq war in particular, is that it is dangerous to over-interpret a limited set of data points. For example, on June 27th, Shoebat urged the U.S. Congress to declare war on Egypt on the basis of the two data points I have analyzed. Had politicians heeded Shoebat’s advice, it would have easily constituted the gravest mistake that the U.S. has made in the past dozen years—and indeed, one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in American history. Unfortunately, Shoebat displays a recurring tendency to over-interpret data in reaching his conclusions. On July 10th, he penned a blog entry that claimed: “If you’re a Democrat, you belong to the Party of Satan.” Yet the data points he deployed fall short of establishing this conclusion.

Many negative things can be said about the Egyptian Brotherhood and Morsi, and the Brotherhood’s actions in September 2012 can be singled out for particular condemnation. But that does not mean the Brotherhood was involved in the Benghazi attack. The alternative hypothesis, that the Egyptian attackers were connected to the Jamal network, still appears to be the most plausible explanation.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror.

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Issues:

Egypt Libya