January 2, 2014 | The Weekly Standard

Politico Jumps in the Benghazi Debate

Blake Hounshell of Politico takes a look at the latest back and forth over Benghazi sparked by David Kirkpatrick’s 7,000-plus word piece for the New York Times.

Much of Hounshell’s piece deals with the politics of Benghazi, which isn’t the focus of my reporting.  However, Hounshell does refer to my response to the Times in a few passages and this leads me to make some additional points.

But first, Hounshell’s concluding point is an important one. He writes that while we are likely to keep talking about the Benghazi terrorist attack, Libya will not receive the attention it deserves. “What we’re not likely to argue much about: Libya itself, a deeply troubled country that Americans once thought was important enough to liberate—and then, scarred by a mysterious attack, left to its fate,” he writes.

Hounshell is right. The terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 is just part of the overall story. The U.S. and NATO helped free Libya from Muammar Qaddafi and then did little to help the fledgling country. Interestingly, his view of U.S. policy towards Libya is precisely the opposite of Kirkpatrick’s. In the first chapter of his lengthy Times piece, Kirkpatrick writes that the U.S. “waded deeply into post-Qaddafi Libya, hoping to build a beachhead against extremists, especially Al Qaeda.” Hounshell’s view is much closer to the truth.

Hounshell is also correct in saying there is little agreement “on what al Qaeda is.” This is a point I made in Congressional testimony earlier this year. It is directly relevant to the public debate over Benghazi.

The Times’s Kirkpatrick offers a specific view of Ansar al Sharia, one of the key groups responsible for the attack, and al Qaeda. Kirkpatrick portrays his view as fact and seeks to dismiss alternative explanations, arguing that Republicans are “conflat[ing]” distinct extremist threats. Kirkpatrick and others have declared that Ansar al Sharia in Libya is merely a “local” jihadist group, unaffiliated with al Qaeda’s “global” jihad. I think this is wrong for a lot of reasons, many of which I have set forth previously.

But here I’ll address two other points in Hounshell’s piece.

First, Hounshell writes that “there are at least two Ansar al-Sharia groups in Libya—one in Benghazi and one in Derna, a city to the east—and dozens of other extremist groups.”

The two Ansar al Sharia groups in Libya, however, are almost certainly one. The Ansar al Sharia chapter in Libya (like chapters elsewhere) does not publish an organizational chart, making it difficult for outsiders to figure out how the group is structured. But the Ansar al Sharia groups in Derna and Benghazi publish their propaganda through the same front, the Al Raya Media Foundation. Ansar al Sharia in Sirte, Libya also publishes its propaganda through Al Raya. All of the Ansar al Sharia groups in Libya use the same branding.

These groups all operate as Ansar al Sharia Libya, which maintains a Twitter feed to distribute their messages.

Examples of the coordination between Derna and Benghazi could be seen during recent fighting. Ansar al Sharia has been battling Libyan security forces in ferocious firefights. During one battle, Ansar al Sharia reportedly tried to send reinforcements from Derna to Benghazi, but the convoys were “blocked” by government-allied forces.  

Second, and more importantly, Hounshell writes that the connection between Muhammad Jamal’s network and the Benghazi attack may be “murky” and this might explain why Kirkpatrick left any mention of Jamal out of his piece. Jamal’s ties to al Qaeda are well-known and the involvement of his trained terrorists undermines Kirkpatrick’s entire thesis.

I have spoken with more than a dozen officials and others with knowledge of the U.S. government’s investigation into the Benghazi attack. No one disputes that members of Jamal’s network took part.

Jamal has been designated a terrorist organization by both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations because of his well-established ties to al Qaeda’s senior leadership, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Jamal colluded with parties throughout Africa, the Middle East and into South Asia prior to his re-arrest in November 2012. He also established ties to terrorists in Europe, according to the State Department.

Hounshell notes, as I reported, that the State Department did not mention Jamal’s connection to Benghazi in its designation. But he does not report that the UN did. Twice in its designation, the UN included this language: “Reported to be involved in the attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 Sep. 2012.”

The UN included this language once in its description of Jamal and again in its description of Jamal’s network. This is highly significant as the UN needs good reasons to make such an allegation in its formal designations.

Hounshell points to this account by the Wall Street Journal as a possible reason for the confusion over Jamal’s role in the Benghazi attack. But I think he is misreading the WSJ article, which, in any event, predates the UN designation by almost one year.

The opening sentence of the article, citing “U.S. officials,” describes Jamal as “the alleged ringleader of an Egyptian terrorist network whose members are suspected of participating in the September attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.”

Later in the same account, the WSJ reports: “U.S. interest in Mr. Ahmad [Jamal] intensified after U.S. intelligence officials identified operatives from his network at the scene of the fatal attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, officials say.”

Hounshell cites a single sentence from the WSJ account dealing with the Nasr City Cell, which was broken up by Egyptian authorities in October 2012. It was in reference to five arrested members of this Cell that the WSJ reported: “U.S. officials have said they can't confirm connections between the five men detained in the raid and the Benghazi attacks.”

This did not refer to members of the Jamal network, in general, but instead to five specific members of the Nasr City Cell. The Jamal network is much broader than the Nasr City Cell, which Jamal also led. Initially there was confusion in the Egyptian press’s reporting on the Nasr City Cell’s ties to Benghazi. The Egyptians even confused the nationality of one of the key suspects, who was identified as either a Libyan or an Egyptian.    

In any event, the WSJ article cited by Hounshell confirmed, once again, that U.S. intelligence officials tracked members of Jamal’s network to the scene of the attack in Benghazi.

Hounshell argues that even if Jamal’s network was involved in Benghazi this “wouldn’t prove that al Qaeda planned the assault.” While true, Hounshell misses the broader point. Kirkpatrick goes well beyond arguing that al Qaeda didn’t plan the Benghazi assault. Kirkpatrick argues that his investigation (emphasis added) “turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.”

Moreover, Kirkpatrick makes no mention of Jamal even though his own newspaper reported on the Jamal network and Benghazi. If Kirkpatrick believes that these ties have been debunked, then he needs to explain why. The Jamal network’s role in Benghazi is enough, by itself, to disprove Kirkpatrick’s theory of the events – that only “local” actors were responsible for the deaths of four Americans, including a brave ambassador.

In the end, Hounshell’s discussion of Benghazi is a welcome sign. It shows that some are still willing to weigh and discuss the actual evidence about what happened in Benghazi – not just the politics of its aftermath.

Hounshell says that “there will always be some who wonder if we simply haven’t looked hard enough” for evidence of al Qaeda’s ties to the Benghazi attack.


Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense Democracies.


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