The Sept. 11 attack in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three colleagues wasn’t coordinated in advance, according to Matthew Olsen, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center.
U.S. and Libyan officials differ publicly on whether the attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya, was planned in advance by radical Islamists or whether extremists took advantage of a peaceful protest to attack the U.S. consulate in the country’s second-largest city.
Olsen said the U.S. is “looking at indications” that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaeda or its North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
“The best information we have now indicates that this was an opportunistic attack,” Olsen, who cautioned that the investigation isn’t finished, said at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing today in Washington.
“What we don’t have at this point is specific intelligence that there was significant advance planning or coordination for this attack,” he said.
Attorney General Eric Holder said last week the Federal Bureau of Investigation had opened an investigation into the Sept. 11 attack.
FBI officials are due to arrive in Benghazi by Sept. 21 to work alongside Libyan officials, Benghazi’s chief prosecutor, Saleh Adem Mohammad, said today in the eastern Libyan city.
Mohammad declined to comment on details of the Libyan investigation so far or on whether four detained men -- who the Interior Minister Fawzi Abdulal said are being held in Benghazi -- are members of a radical Islamist brigade, Ansar al-Sharia.
The alleged role of Ansar al-Sharia brigade members in the attack on the U.S. compound was stated this week by Libya’s head of state, Mohammed Magariaf, and the chief of the Benghazi branch of the Supreme Security Committee.
Magariaf, the recently elected head of the General National Congress, said the attack was “a deliberate, calculated action by a group working in collaboration with non-Libya extremists.”
Magariaf said in a Sept. 15 interview in Benghazi that communications intercepted by the U.S. at some point before the attack linked al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to the Ansar al-Sharia brigade.
In the interview, Magariaf described the attack as “preplanned,” in contrast to U.S. officials such as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who said Sept. 16 that a spontaneous demonstration was “hijacked” by extremists.
“We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned,” she said, speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Today, Olsen said individuals who were “certainly well-armed seized on the opportunity” of the growing protests over an anti-Islam film that also sparked protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and Yemen.
Olsen and Kevin Perkins, the FBI’s associate deputy director, testified as Republican lawmakers called for their own investigation into the attack in Libya and a group of House Republicans considered legislation to cut foreign aid to the country.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the committee, told Olsen she that after her briefings she had come to “the opposite conclusion” from the administration. She said she agrees with the Libyan leader that the attack was preplanned, noting the attackers’ use of heavy weapons including rocket-propelled grenades.
“This was a premeditated, planned attack that was associated with the date of 9/11,” Collins said. “I just don’t think people come to protest equipped with RPGs and other heavy weapons.”
Separately, Senator John McCain of Arizona told reporters in Washington that President Barack Obama’s administration hasn’t done enough to answer lawmakers’ questions about the security measures in place at the U.S. consulate compound before the attack.
Initial information indicated there were just two security guards outside the compound as well as reports of previous threats, said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In Libya, “there are armed militias that they still haven’t gotten under control,” he said. “Some are jihadist-related people and they obviously posed a security threat that obviously was not met.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to lead a classified briefing for lawmakers tomorrow on the events of the past week, according to a notice sent to lawmakers. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Admiral James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are also scheduled to attend, according to the notice.
Clinton said yesterday the U.S. had no “actionable intelligence” that indicated an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent.
Tomorrow, top Libyan government officials plan to participate in a memorial service for the four Americans in the capital, Tripoli.