Last week’s deadly assault on a US diplomatic mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi was a “terrorist attack,” but probably not a pre-planned operation, a senior US official said.
The attack, which left four Americans dead, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, was carried out on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and amid protests in the Muslim world against an anti-Islamic film.
In Washington, where US President Barack Obama’s election rival Mitt Romney has criticized the response to the attack, there has been keen interest in whether the attackers were simply an angry mob or an organized gang.
On Wednesday, the director of the US government’s National Counterterrorism Center told lawmakers that, while many questions remain to be answered, he was prepared to describe the killings as “a terrorist attack.”
However, the director, Matthew Olsen, immediately qualified that statement.
“The best information we have now, the facts that we have now indicate that this was an opportunistic attack on our embassy,” he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee, under questioning from Senator Joe Lieberman.
“The attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours at our embassy — our diplomatic post in Benghazi,” he said, emphasizing that a US investigation was continuing.
Meanwhile, Fox News cited “intelligence sources” as saying that former Guantanamo detainee Sufyan Ben Qumu — transferred to his native Libya in 2007 and released the following year — was involved in the attack.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was due to address lawmakers yesterday at a closed door secret intelligence briefing, but in the meantime, Olsen confirmed that al-Qaeda was among the suspects.
“At this point, what I would say is that 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,” he said.
“We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s affiliates, in particular, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” the global network’s North Africa franchise, Olsen said.
Benghazi was the cradle of last year’s Libyan revolt that ousted former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and the region is still prey to several loosely organized militia groups with varying degrees of ties to the interim government.
Initial reports into the attack on the US consulate suggested that it had been assaulted by protesters angered by an amateur video produced by private US Christian groups deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed.
However, the militants who stormed the compound and torched the consulate were heavily armed, and Libyan officials have said that an armed group took advantage of the protest to launch a pre-planned attack.