State Dept Won’t Say If Benghazi Attacker Had Ties To Al Qaeda

January 8, 2014

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was unable to tell reporters how the Obama administration determines which groups are official al Qaeda affiliates at a briefing on Wednesday.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that U.S. officials suspect former Guantanamo Bay detainee Abu Sufian bin Qumu, leader of the group Ansar al-Sharia in the Libyan city of Darnah, was involved in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi. Psaki confirmed that Ansar al-Sharia’s two branches in Libya—which will be designated by the State Department as foreign terrorist organizations in the coming days—were involved in past terrorist attacks and the one in Benghazi.

However, Psaki said there is no indication that the branches of Ansar al-Sharia were "official affiliates of core al Qaeda" or that the attacks were preplanned. The Benghazi assault resulted in the deaths of four Americans. The Post report, citing U.S. military files disclosed by WikiLeaks, said Qumu trained in 1993 at one of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan, worked for a bin Laden company in Sudan, and then fought with the Taliban against the U.S. in Afghanistan. Qumu was later captured and held at Guantanamo Bay until 2007, when he was turned over to the Libyan government and subsequently released in 2008.

When pressed by reporters on what criteria the Obama administration uses t classify groups as official affiliates of al Qaeda, Psaki said she didn’t "have any criteria to outline for you":

Q: I don't think it's an irrelevant question as what makes one an official affiliate --

MS. PSAKI: I don't have any --

Q: -- as opposed to an unofficial or a wannabe affiliate. (Laughter.)

MS. PSAKI: I don't have any criteria to outline for you. I'm happy to check with our counterterrorism team and see if that's something that's probably available.

Q: OK, because if you don't have -- OK, because if you don't have criteria for what an official affiliate is, then I'm not sure how you can say that one isn't an official affiliate.

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think I can say one isn't by the fact that they were not directed by the -- so it's a -- there is a difference.

Reporters also peppered Psaki with questions about Qumu’s training by al Qaeda:

Q: Right, but if you're a Guantanamo Bay prisoner freed, you go to Libya and a year later you're freed from the Libyan government and you attack the Benghazi compound, and you've been known to have ties with al-Qaida that go back to 1993, doesn't that present enough evidence to say that he has some times and so does his organization?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Lucas, there's a very talented FBI team that has an ongoing investigation that we're all committed to. We're not going to draw conclusions at this point. And what I'm providing to you is what has been determined and what is publicly available at this time.

Q: And is there any update with that investigation?

MS. PSAKI: There is not.

A controversial report by the New York Times last month said that, after months of investigation by the paper, there was no evidence that al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the Benghazi assault. The Times said the attacks were "fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam."