The terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia was immediately associated with the Benghazi tragedy and reliable reports of their involvement were confirmed within days; this is often cited in accusations that the administration was remiss in their early appraisals presented to the media. How is this not compelling evidence of a terrorist plot? And how could this same militia gravitate back to Benghazi and assume their previous security role after such a blatant act?
The answer may provide some insight into the conditions in Benghazi at the time of the attack and help further our understanding of what actually happened that resulted in the death of our US ambassador and the apparent abandonment of CIA operations in Benghazi. There seems no question that Ansar al-Sharia militiamen, and their motor pool, were involved:
The trucks bore the logo of Ansar al-Shariah, a powerful local group of Islamist militants who worked with the municipal government to manage security in Benghazi…
Paul Schemm and Maggie Michael – Libyan witnesses recount organized Benghazi attack AP 27 Oct 13
So we have ample evidence of their involvement, and reports they took credit for the attack on 12 September 2012, yet their leadership lived freely in Benghazi and even gave interviews with Western media in the aftermath. What gives?
While we assume that Ansar al-Sharia is an international terrorist group, with members, leaders and coherent objectives it isn’t that simple:
Ansar al Sharia is more a label than an organization, one that’s been adopted by conservative Salafist groups across the Arab world. The name means, simply, “Partisans of Islamic Law.”
Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank – What is Ansar al Sharia, and was it behind the consulate attack in Benghazi? CNN 16 Nov 12
The terrorist connection is understandable, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) established their group Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen in April 2011. However the suspected attackers’ group Katibat Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (ASB) has no confirmed al-Qaeda affiliation. Yet it clearly participated in the attack on the Special Mission compound of the State Department in Benghazi:
The group itself has offered conflicting messages about its role in the Benghazi assault. On Sept. 12, a spokesman for the group said members of the organization participated in the attack, but also said it wasn’t sanctioned by the group’s leadership. In an interview from Sept. 18 with the BBC, Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, said his group was not involved in the attack. Then in mid-October, Ahmed Abu Khattala, a leader of an Islamist brigade affiliated at times with Ansar al-Sharia, said he was at the scene of the attack, though he denied participating in it.
Eli Lake – Ansar al-Sharia’s Role in Benghazi Attacks Still a Mystery Daily Beast 5 Nov 2012
One can understand, almost, both the outrage of the Republicans and the ambivalence of the administration in their characterisation of the attacks. Reading the eyewitness accounts of the attack one is struck by inconsistencies; hectoring of the attackers at the Special Mission compound (SMC), Libyan rent-a-guards roughed up but surviving, the Annex rescue team reaching “a chaotic intersection” of armed militia a few blocks from the SMC where, in spite of rallying three volunteers, it is unclear if the rest are friendly, enemy or indifferent. As recently as last week there were reports of a more sinister presence:
One senior U.S. law enforcement official told CNN that “three or four members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” or AQAP, took part in the attack.
Another source briefed on the Benghazi investigation said Western intelligence services suspect the men may have been sent by the group specifically to carry out the attack. But it’s not been ruled out that they were already in the city and participated as the opportunity arose.
Paul Cruickshank, Tim Lister, Nic Robertson and Fran Townsend – Sources: 3 al Qaeda operatives took part in Benghazi attack CNN 3 May 13
It is entirely consistent with the evidence to consider that a small, dedicated group of conspirators could have agitated the existing Islamist militias to action. Which brings us back to the influence of the controversy surrounding the Innocence of Muslims and the call to vengeance of Ayman al-Zawahiri on the anniversary of 9/11; these plausibly remain part of the circumstances that led to the torching of the Special Mission and the tragic deaths of four Americans.
Cross-posted at Booman Tribune