Clinton Sees Link to Qaeda Offshoot in Deadly Libya Attack

Sep 26, 2012 Issues: Counterterrorism

New York Times - By Steven Lee Myers and Michael S. Schmidt

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton indicated for the first time on Wednesday that there was an explicit link between the Qaeda franchise in North Africa and the attack at the American diplomatic mission in Libya that killed four Americans, including the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens.

She also said American intelligence and law enforcement agencies were working not only with Libya but also with other nations in the region to investigate the attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11. That indicated that the attack’s planning and execution might not have been the local, spontaneous eruption of violence that the administration had initially described.

Mrs. Clinton made her remarks at a special United Nations meeting on the political and security crisis in the swath of North Africa known as the Maghreb and the Sahel, a crisis that is particularly affecting northern Mali, which has been overrun by Islamic extremists since a military coup divided that country earlier this year.

She said Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which originated in Algeria, was now using the region as a haven to support extremism and terrorist violence in countries like Libya.

“Now, with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions,” Mrs. Clinton told world leaders assembled at the United Nations meeting. “And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions under way in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.”

She did not detail any new evidence of the linkage. Some Republican critics in Washington have argued that the administration played down the possibility of any connection to Al Qaeda, especially with President Obama in the midst of a re-election campaign in which the killing of Osama bin Laden is a major talking point.

“The United States is stepping up our counterterrorism efforts across the Maghreb and the Sahel,” Mrs. Clinton added, “and we’re working with the Libyan government and other partners to find those responsible for the attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi and bring them to justice.”

Libya’s president, Mohamed Magariaf, who met with Mrs. Clinton and other American officials on Monday, also attributed the attack to what he called “Al Qaeda elements who are hiding in Libya,” citing the sophistication of the attack on the mission in Benghazi and the date, Sept. 11, the anniversary of the attacks in New York and near Washington in 2001.

He also did not disclose any evidence, saying he did not want to interfere with the investigations under way. From the start, however, Libyan officials have sought to shift the blame to foreigners, even as they move to crack down on extremist militias that took part in the armed uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi last year and clearly had a role in the attack.

“It was a preplanned act of terrorism directed against American citizens,” Mr. Magariaf said in remarks broadcast on NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday.

Mrs. Clinton’s remarks appeared to go beyond comments made last week by Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who said intelligence analysts were investigating ties between local Libyan militias and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but had not yet come to any conclusions.

“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,” Mr. Olsen told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Sept. 19.

When asked which group or groups were involved in the attack, Mr. Olsen said, “The picture that is emerging is one where a number of different individuals were involved, so it’s not necessarily an either/or proposition.”

At that same hearing, Mr. Olsen said the assault on the American mission and a nearby annex in Benghazi was a “terrorist attack,” the first time the administration had ascribed the attack to terrorists. The next day, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said on Air Force One, “It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.” He added, “Our embassy was attacked violently, and the result was four deaths of American officials.”

A senior administration official said on Wednesday that Mrs. Clinton intended to underscore the rising threat that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups posed to the emerging democratic governments in countries like Tunisia and Libya, adding that the group clearly intended to make contacts with extremists in Benghazi and elsewhere. The final determination of the group’s role, the official said, would await the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mrs. Clinton has also ordered a review of diplomatic security that is being led by a veteran diplomat and former under secretary of state, Thomas R. Pickering.

Mrs. Clinton’s comments caught intelligence and other administration officials off guard, with some saying there was not yet conclusive evidence that the operatives from the Qaeda affiliate were involved in the attacks.

A spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment on Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.

Eight House chairmen on Wednesday wrote Mr. Obama seeking information on the intelligence American officials had before the Libyan attack. In the letter, circulated by Representative Howard P. McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, they suggested that the  Obama administration had “a pre-9/11 mind-set — treating an act of war solely as a criminal matter, rather than also prioritizing the gathering of intelligence to prevent future attacks.”

Representative Peter T. King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that in the days after the attack he and many others on Capitol Hill believed that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was probably behind the attack because it has such a stronghold in eastern Libya.

“Understandably, there was a lot of uncertainty in the days immediately following the attacks in Benghazi,” he said. “And while the administration was saying definitively it wasn’t a terrorist attack, those of us who believed there had to be significant terrorist involvement believed it was almost certainly A.Q.I.M. because they are such a major force, the major force, in that part of Libya. If it was terrorism, which we believed had to have played a role, it almost certainly had to be them.”

Mr. King, a New York Republican, said some reports had indicated that smaller elements of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan rebel brigade, played a role in the attack, although he described the group as a “grab bag of jihadists” that is far less organized and sophisticated than the Al Qaeda affiliate.

“It was very irresponsible for the administration to say in the days after the attack that it wasn’t a terrorist attack when all the information was not in,” he said.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.