The Obama administration said the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was a terrorist attack and some of those involved may have links to al-Qaeda.
“It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling yesterday with President Barack Obama.
The administration has come under criticism from Republicans who say the U.S. failed to adequately prepare for the possibility of violence on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Obama, speaking at a forum in Florida held by the Spanish-language network Univision, said the U.S. will continue building ties in the region following the Arab Spring upheaval.
“The one thing we can’t do is withdraw from the region,” Obama said. “They still want our leadership and they still look to us” for assistance in developing democratic governments.
Carney cited congressional testimony by Matthew Olsen, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, that the U.S. is looking at evidence that some of those involved in the attack, which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other U.S. personnel, may have ties to al-Qaeda or affiliated groups.
Olsen told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Sept. 19 that militants took advantage of unrest stoked by an amateur film made in the U.S. denigrating the Prophet Muhammad.
Initial information from the U.S. investigation is that “it was an opportunistic attack in which elements including, possibly, elements of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, participated,” Carney said yesterday.
FBI officials are due to arrive in Benghazi by today to work alongside Libyan officials. Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur said eight Libyan nationals have been arrested in connection with the Sept. 11 assault and that several suspects are being sought after crossing the border into Egypt.
Abushagur, who was named premier this month, said that Ansar al-Shariah, an Islamist militia, was one of the groups thought to be involved. In an interview in his office in Tripoli yesterday, he vowed that “these crimes will not go unpunished.”
More than a year after Muammar Qaddafi was toppled, Libya is still mired in political unrest. While the country has a “very specific” plan on how to secure the nation, the government currently is unable to force militias that played a key role in the uprising to disarm, Abushagur said.
“Security is a top priority for the next three to six months and 70 percent of our efforts are dedicated to stabilizing Libya,” he said.
Abushagur spoke a day before planned mass rallies in Benghazi against the armed groups. Ansar al-Shariah, which advocates the establishment of an Islamist state in Libya, has denied involvement in the attack.
“We are very sorry for the deaths of four American nationals on our soil,” Abushagur said. U.S. Ambassador “Chris Stevens was a great man and cared for our country.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday gave U.S. lawmakers a classified briefing in Washington on the events of last week.
Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said afterward that nothing in the briefing “changed my opinion” that the assault was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Obama administration has “a fundamental misunderstanding” of the situation in Libya because “they are still blaming the video” for spawning the attack, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said to reporters after the briefing.
“It’s not the video, it’s the Islamists who are pushing this video throughout the Internet” to spark demonstrations by fellow Muslims “so they can eventually take over these countries,” McCain said.
Clinton also announced yesterday that she is forming an Accountability Review Board to look into the attack. The review will be led by veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering, who has served as U.S. ambassador in Russia, India, Jordan and Israel.
In an appearance at the State Department, Clinton reiterated that the U.S. will keep supporting Libya and other governments in the Middle East and North Africa that are battling extremists.
“We continue to support those who are fighting for universal values,” she said.