October 29, 2012

Witnesses: Benghazi attack was planned

But they also say young people were told to chant against an anti-Islam film as a cover for the assault.

By MAGGIE MICHAEL The Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya - It began around nightfall on Sept. 11 with about 150 bearded gunmen, some wearing the Afghan-style tunics favored by Islamic militants, sealing off the streets leading to the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. They set up roadblocks with pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, according to witnesses.

click image to enlarge

In this Sept. 12, 2012, photo, a man looks at documents at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Witness accounts gathered by The Associated Press give a from-the-ground perspective for the sharply partisan debate in the U.S. over the deadly incident. They corroborate the conclusion largely reached by American officials that it was a planned militant assault. But they also suggest the militants may have used a film controversy as a cover for the attack.

AP

The trucks bore the logo of Ansar al-Shariah, a powerful local group of Islamist militants who worked with the municipal government to manage security in Benghazi, the main city in eastern Libya and birthplace of the uprising last year that ousted Moammar Gadhafi after a 42-year dictatorship.

There was no sign of a spontaneous protest against an American-made movie denigrating Islam's Prophet Muhammad. But a lawyer passing by the scene said he saw the militants gathering around 20 youths from nearby to chant against the film. Within an hour or so, the assault began, guns blazing as the militants blasted into the compound.

The witness accounts gathered by The Associated Press give a from-the-ground perspective for the sharply partisan debate in the United States over the attack that left U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. They corroborate the conclusion largely reached by American officials that it was a planned militant assault. But they also suggest the militants may have used the film controversy as a cover for the attack.

The ambiguity has helped fuel the election-time bickering in the United States ever since.

The Obama administration has sent out muddled messages about whether it was a planned attack or a mob protest that got out of control. A day after the attack, President Obama referred to "acts of terror." He told CBS' "60 Minutes" in an interview aired the following Sunday that he believed those involved "were looking to target Americans from the start."

Within 24 hours of the attack, both the embassy in Tripoli and the CIA station chief sent word to Washington that it was a planned militant attack. Still, days later, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said the attack began as a spontaneous protest over the film.

Republicans, embroiled in a heated presidential campaign, seized on the confusion. They have accused the Obama administration of being hesitant to call it a "terrorist attack" linked to al-Qaida because that would weaken one of Obama's key campaign selling points -- that under his watch, al-Qaida had been weakened and Osama bin Laden had been killed..

As that debate roiled, the events became somewhat skewed in the mouths of politicians. One assumption is that if the attack was planned, then it must have been linked to al-Qaida.

Ansar al-Shariah is made up of militants with an al-Qaida-like ideology, but it is not clear whether it has any true ties to the terror organization. Made up mainly of veterans of last year's civil war, it is one of the many powerful, heavily armed militias that operate freely in Libya and in Benghazi, while government control remains weak.

U.S. officials say they are still investigating whether there is an al-Qaida connection. They say members of Ansar al-Shariah called members of al-Qaida's branch in North Africa outside of Libya and boasted of the attack. But the officials acknowledge the calls alone do not yet prove the branch, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, was involved.

A day after the Benghazi attack, an unidentified Ansar al-Shariah spokesman said the militia was not involved "as an organization" -- leaving open the possibility members were involved. He praised the attack as a popular "uprising" sparked by the anti-Islam film, further propagating the image of a mob attack against the consulate.

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