U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that the attack on the U.S. mission in Libya involved a small number of militants with ties to al-Qaida in North Africa but see no indication that the terrorist group directed the assault, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The determination reflects an emerging consensus among analysts at the CIA and other agencies that has contributed to a shift among senior Obama administration officials toward describing the siege of U.S. facilities in Benghazi as a terrorist attack.
U.S. intelligence officials said the composition of the militant forces involved in the assault has become clearer over the past week and that analysts now believe that two or three fighters affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb were involved.
There are people who at least have some association with AQIM, said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who added that it’s not so direct that you would say AQIM as an organization planned and carried this out.
Instead, U.S. officials said a lesser-known Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, played a much larger role in sending fighters and providing weapons for the attack, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. U.S. officials have previously cited suspicion of al-Qaida connections to the attack.
Further, U.S. intelligence officials said they think the attack was not timed to coincide with the Sept. 11, 2001, anniversary. Instead, the officials said, the assault was set in motion after protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo as part of a protest of an amateur anti-Islamic YouTube video.
There’s never been any intelligence, nor any I’m aware of now, that indicated this was a plot planned months in advance to get turned on on 9/11, said an Obama administration official.
The emerging scenario, the official said, is that extremists in the region had cased out and hoped to target U.S. facilities in Benghazi for some time. When they saw what was happening in Cairo, that influenced their timing.