U.S. officials have told the Washington Post that they believe that former Guantanamo Bay detainee and al-Qaeda-linked militant Abu Sufian bin Qumu was involved in the September 11 terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya — a claim specifically denied in the New York Times’ report last week about the tragedy. Rumors have flown about bin Qumu’s involvement in the attack for a long time: Fox News reported the connection just a week after the attack in 2012, and 60 Minutes’ ridiculously thinly sourced report this winter about the attacks repeated the claim, though without any evidence of further sourcing. Back at the time of Fox’s original report, the Obama administration denied the connection, and this was reasonable enough — it honestly seemed like a few too many connections a little too quickly.
The group that we knew at the time had played a large part in the attack on the diplomatic facility is called Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi, and as the Times reported last week, it’s led by a man named Abu Khattala, who’s been indicted for the attack, and who professes a great deal of admiration for al-Qaeda but denies that he’s connected to the group. Meanwhile, there is a group of the same name, Ansar al Sharia, in Derna, a relatively nearby town, and that’s the militia led by bin Qumu.
So it’s understandable how the connection may have been made erroneously — but now we know it’s about as reliable as can be: Bin Qumu’s group is about to be listed as a terrorist organization by the United States for their role in the Benghazi attack. There’s a semi-understandable reason why Fox’s report seemed like a stretch back then, but doesn’t now: At the time, the consensus of observers was that the two Ansar al Sharias in eastern Libya were actually pretty much separate organizations, so one group’s involvement in the Benghazi attack didn’t imply the other’s. But as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Tom Joscelyn explained to me last week, over the last year, it’s become increasingly clear this distinction was a false one, and the two probably are pretty much part of the same organization (he explains more about the issue at The Weekly Standard). It’s therefore unsurprising now to find out that the two groups were both somehow involved in perpetrating the attack — and that the al-Qaeda connections are undeniable.
Why is bin Qumu’s involvement important? Well, superficially, his links go straight to the heart of al-Qaeda — “core al-Qaeda,” the Arabs based in Afghanistan and Pakistan who perpetrated 9/11 and whose organization the Obama administration has repeatedly claimed to have effectively eliminated. Bin Qumu traveled to Afghanistan in the 1990s to train with bin Laden, fought the U.S. there in the 2000s, and then was captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay. When he was released from Guantanamo Bay, he was turned over to the Libyan government, who held him for a while and then released him (Qaddafi wasn’t a bad counterterrorism partner, but he wasn’t the best). And these connections could go further: The Post also reports that Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia will be listed as a terrorist group; some maintain that that group and al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate can all be closely connected to the operations in Libya. It also confirms that they would like to question a man named Faraj al Chalabi, whom they describe as “a Libyan extremist who may have fled the country” — but who may also be a direct connection between Libyan militias and al-Qaeda in Pakistan, as Tom Joscelyn explains this evening. That may suggest the terrorist networks that the Arab Spring has seen thrive in North Africa are stronger and more interconnected than thought.
Of course, while these distinctions have proven to be a touchy topic of political debate, it’s an important question how important all these al-Qaeda and “al-Qaeda core” connections are as a matter of substance. A group like Ansar al Sharia is either capable of threatening the national-security interests of the United States or it’s not, and it’s an Islamist group capable of spreading their hateful ideology or it’s not. Whether it has an Afghanistan-trained leader and substantial connections to al-Qaeda affiliates is far from dispositive on those questions.
To clear up two more tangential questions: Why are there two groups within 100 miles of each other called Ansar al Sharia that people thought may not be related? The name is used all over the Arab world for Islamist militias (it means “supporters of Islamic law,” roughly); some have claimed it was originally suggested by Osama bin Laden himself, but it more likely came from a global jihadist imam favored by al-Qaeda. Tonight’s report says that U.S. is also designating Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia a terrorist organization, and blacklisting its leader, a jihadist who attacked the U.S. embassy in Tunisia days before the Benghazi assault, and who spent time in Afghanistan himself. The Ansar al Sharia vary widely in their influence and their intent — some, like bin Qumu’s buddies, seemed like seriously dangerous terrorists (which is why they were, in theory, being watched very closely by U.S. security services in 2012), while others seem like more docile militias, some of which are extremely popular for the services they provide in their communities. (Forgetting that groups like that also can turn on Westerners is the key mistake the Times’ report blames fro Ambassador Stevens’s death.)
And second, why did the Times report just a week ago that “neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission,” based on reporting from “officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence,” just a week before the U.S. makes it pretty clear they do think Qumu played a role? A few of the possibilities: The Times’ reporting was stale, and the reporter, David Kirkpatrick, didn’t ensure that the bin Qumu story hadn’t changed; the officials he spoke to simply didn’t know that bin Qumu was now a suspect again, which would seem careless (for him to relate such a denial from officials who didn’t know the whole the situation); Kirkpatrick was relaying a narrowly tailored denial that somehow hinged on the word “significant” (doing, if he understood as much, his readers a big disservice); or maybe even suspicion about bin Qumu has surged back only very recently.