The Obama administration acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that last week’s assault on the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead was a “terrorist attack” apparently launched by local Islamic militants and foreigners linked to al Qaida’s leadership or regional allies.
“I would say they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack,” said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
It was the first time that a senior administration official had said the attack was not the result of a demonstration over an anti-Islam video that has been cited as the spark for protests in dozens of countries over the past week. “The picture that is emerging is one where a number of different individuals were involved,” Olsen said.
His comments came as significant questions persisted about the consulate’s security: The attack took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S.; Americans were known to be under threat, and Benghazi had experienced a string of attacks on foreign targets during the summer. Moreover, Libya remains plagued by armed groups nearly a year after the U.S.-backed ouster of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Yet the facility was primarily defended by local guards who may have been complicit.
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“We are relying on foreign nationals, perhaps on a British security firm that has been told to be unarmed, and other more questionable and less secure means of protecting our American personnel,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said during the hearing. “I’m just stunned and appalled that there wasn’t better security . . . given the high threat environment.”
Collins’ office did not immediately respond to a request for an elaboration on her statement.
In Libya, a third top security official quit amid charges that the Interior Ministry – which oversees the security of foreign diplomats – has failed to rebuild national security forces to replace militias formed during the war against Gadhafi, leaving Libya without a functioning army or police service and dependent on Islamist militants for security.
Questions about the consulate’s security – and whether the attack was spontaneous or planned in advance by al Qaida or an allied group without being detected by U.S. intelligence – are sensitive ones for President Barack Obama. His claims that his policies have made Americans safer and devastated the core of al Qaida are key planks of his campaign for re-election in November.
His administration has insisted that the assault was spontaneous and grew from a protest inspired by a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against the shoddy online video that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith, and was made in the United States.
The head of Libya’s interim government, key U.S. lawmakers and experts contend that the attack appeared long-planned, complex and well-coordinated, matching descriptions given to McClatchy last week by the consulate’s landlord and a wounded security guard, who denied there was a protest at the time and said the attackers carried the banner of Ansar al Shariah, an Islamist militia.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and an information specialist, Sean Smith, apparently succumbed to smoke from fires ignited when scores of armed extremists stormed the consulate compound, firing assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Two U.S. security personnel, Glen A. Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods, both former Navy SEALs, later were shot dead protecting up to 30 other Americans at a nearby annex.
“The best information we have now, the facts that we have now, indicate that this was an opportunistic attack,” Olsen said. “It evolved and escalated over several hours.
“A number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area,” Olsen said. “We are looking as well at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al Qaida or al Qaida’s affiliates, including al Qaida in the Maghreb.” Al Qaida in the Maghreb, which evolved from an Algerian extremist organization, has spread across North Africa and recently seized the northern half of Mali, bolstered by arms from Libya’s civil war.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Collins disputed the administration’s assertion that the attack was spontaneous.
“I will tell you based on the briefings I have had, I have come to the opposite conclusion and agree with the president of Libya that this was a premeditated, planned attack that was associated with the . . . anniversary of 9/11. I just don’t think people come to protest equipped with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and other heavy weapons,” Collins said. “The reports of complicity, and they are many, with the Libyan guards who were assigned to guard the consulate also suggests to me that this was premeditated.”
Collins added that the consulate’s security “continues to trouble me. It is clear that the security situation in Benghazi was deteriorating” following at least four attacks on foreign targets.
An improvised bomb was thrown at the U.S. consulate June 6 by an assailant who scattered pamphlets promising more attacks. Five days later, grenades were hurled at the British ambassador’s motorcade, and on June 18 gunmen struck the Tunisian consulate. On Aug. 5, RPGs slammed into the local headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Collins also referred to a video posted online the evening before the attack in which Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, called for attacks against Americans to avenge the killing of his Libyan No. 2 by a missile-firing CIA drone in June.
“I would agree with your characterization of the threat,” Olsen told Collins. He insisted, however, that there “was no specific intelligence regarding an imminent attack.”
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney was peppered with questions about whether adequate precautions were taken to protect the consulate, including why no U.S. Marines were posted at the facility or the embassy in Tripoli.
He also reiterated the assertion that the attack was spontaneous.
"Our assessment of what happened has been based on the best available information that we’ve had. There is an ongoing investigation led by the FBI . . . and we await the results of that investigation,” said Carney, who repeated Obama’s vow to bring those responsible “to justice.”
Meanwhile, the fallout continued in Libya over the assault amid allegations that the Interior Ministry may have close ties to extremist elements implicated in the violence.
The country’s incoming prime minister, Mustafa Abushagur, denounced a threat from a leader of Ansar al Shariah that the group would consider Americans fair game in a holy war if the United States retaliates for the group’s alleged involvement in the Benghazi attack.
“Clearly we are not allowing them to take control of the country and to threaten other people living in Libya,” Abushagur told the Libya Herald in an interview, the news website said. “This is not acceptable. We are going to use whatever it takes to stop them taking this action.”
The country’s interior minister, Fawzi Abdel Al, also appointed a new deputy to oversee security in Bengahzi and eastern Libya after the dismissal of the official who had been responsible for security at the time of the attack. Also fired was the head in Benghazi of the country’s nascent military force, the Supreme Security Committee.
Since the fall of Gadhafi last year, Libya’s security has been dependent on a group of armed militias, including Ansar al Shariah, that represent a wide variety of political strains and interests and remain heavily armed with weapons looted from Gadhafi storehouses. Interior Ministry forces and the Supreme Security Committee have been accused of complicity in recent attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on mosques and shrines affiliated with the moderate Sufi strain of Islam.
Abdel Al resigned last month, then rescinded his resignation, after Libya’s top elected official, congress president Mohammed Magarief, accused him of possible involvement in the mosque attacks.
Anita Kumar in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Mel Frykberg in Cairo contributed to this report.