US intelligence agencies have officially described the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11 that killed four Americans as a planned terrorist attack carried out by militants friendly to Al Qaeda. That’s distinct from it being an Al Qaeda attack, though the decentralized (and also battered) nature of the organization means that such a thing doesn’t exist anymore.
This completes a slow evolution of US thinking about the attack, which initially was described as a spontaneous uprising based on an anti-Islam YouTube video, linked to other protests and riots outside US embassies and missions in other parts of the Muslim world. Over time, and with the aid of eyewitness reports that revealed no protest presence before the attack, the US determined that the Benghazi attack stood apart from those other incidents.
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 think that two or three fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda connections to the attack.
The Libyan government has also labeled Ansar al Sharia as the culprit. For their part, that group has not taken responsibility for the attack, but said a splinter group of Ansar al Sharia members might have carried it out.