The same week that the State Department blacklisted three different but identically-named armed groups in North Africa as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, two conflicting reports—a Washington Post story and a New York Times article one day apart—resurrected a related, highly charged debate: who was responsible for the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans that eerie night in Benghazi in September 2012?
The Benghazi mystery is a classic “whodunit?” A year and a half after armed attackers pillaged and set fire to the U.S. consulate in Libya’s second largest city, there is still no clear universally-agreed upon account of who did what, how they did it, and why.
Libya’s most wanted: Sufian bin Qumu and Ahmed Abu Khattala
The latest source of head-scratching involves a shady character named Sufian bin Qumu, believed to be the head of the Ansar al-Sharia militia in Derna—a four hour drive east of Benghazi. Qumu’s pedigree reflects that of an experienced Islamist terrorist, earning him tremendous scrutiny from the CIA and others. He fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s as one of the original “core” members of the Al Qaeda franchise, trained at Osama bin Laden’s camps, and worked for a Sudanese company owned by bin Laden in the 1990s. Qumu was captured and held at Guantanamo Bay until 2007, when he was transferred to Libyan custody and subsequently released three years later. He went on to establish Ansar al-Sharia in Derna during Libya’s 2011 revolution. (To label Qumu’s group today as “Al Qaeda” requires a considerably broad definition, however, despite Congressional Republicans’ claims to the contrary…but that is a topic for another day.)
While a primary suspect immediately after the Sep. 2012 attacks, media attention on Qumu seemed to subside over the course of the last year. That is, until last Wednesday, when Adam Goldman reported for the Washington Post that the “former Guantanamo Bay detainee played a role” in the assault that killed four Americans and “militiamen under the command of Abu Sufian bin Qumu…participated in the attack.” This information comes from anonymous “U.S. officials” who in turn were informed by presumably Libyan “witnesses.”Contrast this characterization with New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick’s account a day later. Though not dismissing Ansar al-Sharia Derna’s likely role in the attack (“Many people from Derna, including Islamist fighters, are in Benghazi on any given day,” Kirkpatrick writes, “and there is no evidence that the fighters from Ansar al-Shariah of Derna who were involved in the attack came to Benghazi for that reason.”), he casts doubt on Qumu’s involvement. Sufian bin Qumu, he writes:
“…is identified as a leader of Ansar al-Shariah in Derna, but officials briefed on the designations and the intelligence reports said that there was no evidence linking him to the attack.”
David Kirkpatrick also reached a similar conclusion in his fuller account of the Benghazi attacks on December 28. In that report, Kirkpatrick reported that:
“Neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.”
Though it depends on how one defines “significant,” it appears the Washington Post’s reveal that Qumu’s men did indeed participate in the attack calls this claim into question.
Instead of Qumu, the New York Times pins the blame for the attack largely on Ahmed Abu Khattala, a senior leader (though not the brigade’s overall leader) of Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi, an entity separate from (though identically-named) Qumu’s Derna branch.* An FBI investigation identified Abu Khattala in July 2013 as a primary suspect. (U.S. Special Forces’ bold capture of Al Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Liby off the streets of Tripoli in October 2013 has almost certainly driven Abu Khattala, another proposed target in that raid, into hiding.)
The Washington Post report does not dismiss Abu Khattala’s role. The picture it paints of the Benghazi attack is of a joint operation consisting primarily of fighters from Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi and Ansar al-Sharia Derna. This is slightly different from the New York Times account, which downplays Ansar al-Sharia Derna’s significance, especially Qumu’s role in the attack.
What accounts for the difference in reporting?
There follows a handful of potential reasons for the differences between the New York Times and Washington Post reports:
- Kirkpatrick and Goldman may have interviewed different “U.S. officials” from separate divisions of the U.S. government, perhaps with access to different evidence, yielding slightly divergent conclusions.
- Kirkpatrick and Goldman may have interviewed the same U.S. officials, but at different times, suggesting the U.S. government had slightly altered its views in the interim. A gradient of this explanation could be that U.S. intelligence remains ambiguous, explaining the mixed messages sent by American sources.
- The two reporters may have misconstrued what their sources were saying or reached alternative conclusions, even if based on largely the same group of U.S. officials.
- Kirkpatrick and/or Goldman may have intentionally written general and somewhat cryptic descriptions due to gaps in information or a careful effort not to admit contradictions with their respective news organizations’ earlier assessments (e.g., the claim about Qumu in Kirkpatrick’s Dec. 28 report).
- Goldman’s characterization of Qumu as having “played a role” in the Benghazi attack, the starkest difference from the New York Times’ reporting, may have been an exaggeration. While both suggest Qumu’s men may have participated, neither story links Qumu directly in either the planning or execution of the Benghazi attack.
“Fog of war”
Perhaps the safest way to characterize the confusion is to admit the limitations of accurate reporting in a scenario clouded by what former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called the “fog of war.” (Washington Post columnist David Ignatius riffs on McNamara’s apt description in several posts on Benghazi.) Those looking for a cookie-cutter label for the attacks that night in September 2012 are asking too much.
Was it Al Qaeda? Well, yes and no. Was the attack in Benghazi improvised or planned in advance? Well, yes and no. The question of Qumu’s involvement yields a similar answer. Yes, his fighters seem to have been involved, though perhaps not at Qumu’s behest. But also no, there is no evidence (yet) that suggests Qumu was calling the shots.
Until a slew of new evidence emerges, the answers will likely remain elusive. This is an unsatisfying state of limbo for both the Obama administration and its fierce critics, but perhaps the fairest conclusion at this point in time.
*For excellent analysis on the various groups calling themselves “Ansar al-Sharia”—including their origins, evolution, and differences—follow researchers Aaron Zelin and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. For a good primer, though slightly outdated, check Aaron Zelin’s “Know Your Ansar al-Sharia.”