Libya Fighters, Not al-Qaeda, Behind Benghazi, NYT Says

The deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was led by fighters who benefited from NATO’s support in the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, and not al-Qaeda terrorists, the New York Times reported.

The Times, citing extensive interviews with Libyans who had direct knowledge of the attack, said it found no evidence that al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups had a role in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The newspaper said the Sept. 11 assault was fueled by anger over an American-made video denigrating Islam, the argument made by U.S. officials at the time.

Two senior House Republicans took issue with the Times story in separate televised interviews today.

On the day of the attack, U.S. envoy David McFarland had sent a cable to Washington under Stevens’s name, describing a meeting with militia leaders in eastern Libya two days earlier. The meeting highlighted both “growing problems with security” and the fighters’ desire for investment by American companies in the city, according to the Times story.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, declined to comment on the Times story.

Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in television interviews five days after the 2012 attack, said the assault was a “spontaneous” protest against the anti-Islamic video that was “hijacked” by militants.

Republicans in Congress criticized Rice and the Obama administration’s handling of the attack, saying officials “willfully perpetuated a deliberately misleading and incomplete narrative.”

‘Talking Points’

In the days following the attack, White House and senior State Department officials “altered accurate talking points drafted by the intelligence community in order to protect the State Department,” according to the interim report on the assault issued in April by U.S. House Republicans.

Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said today on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he still believes the Obama administration hid al-Qaeda’s connection to the attack in a bid to bolster its record fighting organized terrorism. A group involved in the attack “claims an affiliation with al-Qaeda,” the California Republican said.

Issa also said he doubts the Times’s conclusion that the video “Innocence of Muslims,” made by an American and shared on YouTube, played a major role in spurring the violence. “We have seen no evidence that the video was widely seen in Benghazi, or that it was the leading cause,” he said.

‘Fighting and Shooting’

Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said today on Fox News Sunday the Times story is inaccurate in suggesting al-Qaeda was not involved. The newspaper’s account also wasn’t based on accounts from those directly involved in the “fighting and shooting and intelligence gathering,” he said.

“There was some level of pre-planning, we know that. There was aspiration to conduct an attack by al-Qaeda and their affiliates in Libya, we know that. The individuals on the ground talked about a planned tactical movement on the compound,” he said. “All of that would directly contradict what the New York Times definitely says was an exhaustive investigation.”

Benghazi is the largest city in Libya’s Cyrenaica region, where crude production has halted almost completely since the end of July on disruptions by militias and former petroleum facility guards demanding self-rule and a share of oil output.

Reward Program

The State Department’s Rewards for Justice program has offered up to $10 million since January for the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in the 2012 attack. The program was only disclosed in November amid “security issues and sensitivities surrounding the investigation,” the agency said at the time.

A central figure in the attack was Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Times reported, citing numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed on the U.S. criminal probe into the attack call him a prime suspect, the newspaper said.

The Times said Abu Khattala, 42, had “declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list of infidel enemies.”

Abu Khattala had “no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person CIA station in Benghazi,” according to the newspaper. He has also denied any involvement in the attack, it said.

The Times said Abu Khattala formed his own militia with about two dozen fighters as the uprising against Qaddafi built, helping to defend a rebel-held city as NATO weighed steps to support the rebels. Abu Khattala became notorious when a group of Islamist militia leaders decided to “arrest” the main rebel leader, who had become supported by NATO, the paper said.

Libya holds 48 billion barrels of crude reserves, Africa’s largest, according to BP Plc. The OPEC-member nation has struggled to restore production to levels reached before the civil war that toppled Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

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