The U.S. government is trying to apprehend an al Qaeda terrorist wanted for his role in the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack that killed four Americans.
The suspect, Muhammad Jamal, was imprisoned in Egypt last fall and in September was being held by the Egyptian government. His current whereabouts could not be confirmed, said U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. One official said Jamal remains in Egyptian custody, contrary to reports that he was in Yemen.
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Jamal was labeled a designated terrorist by the United Nations Oct. 18, identifying him and the group he formed, the Muhammad Jamal Network, as linked to the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, were killed during an assault on a diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA facility in the Libyan port city.
The identification of Jamal as an al Qaeda member linked to the Benghazi attack contradicts a recent New York Times investigative report that concluded there was no evidence al Qaeda or foreign terrorists were behind the Benghazi attack that is currently the subject of several congressional inquiries.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment when asked if al Qaeda is linked to the Benghazi attack.
A FBI spokesman declined to comment. An Egyptian Embassy spokesman declined to comment on whether Jamal remained in Egyptian government custody and referred to a State Department press release of Oct. 7 that said that Jamal had been arrested by Egyptian authorities in November 2012.
The Benghazi attack was carried out by dozens of jihadists on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Investigators said the attack involved planning by terrorists who were observed photographing the diplomatic compound shortly before the attack. The attackers were armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars.
The Obama administration for several weeks claimed the attack was the result of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video posted on the Internet.
Jamal has a Yemeni wife and U.S. and Egyptian authorities recently contacted the Sanaa government seeking information about him, according to a Yemeni newspaper report.
Unidentified Yemeni security sources disclosed to the Aden-based Al Umana newspaper on Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies recently intercepted communications between Jamal and al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.
The report said that Jamal was wanted for his role in killing Stevens.
Details of Jamal’s role in the Benghazi attack are being kept secret, said one U.S. official. Jamal is not listed on the FBI website as one of the most wanted terrorists or among suspects listed on the FBI’s "seeking terror information" page.
Yemen has emerged as a front line in the war against al Qaeda. U.S. and allied military forces conducted on Tuesday a drone strike in southern Yemen that killed two members of the group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to Yemen’s Interior Ministry. The ministry said in a statement that the drone strike had "targeted al Qaeda-owned cars in the Sahara area of Al-Mahfad district."
The Obama administration is considering the transfer to Yemen of dozens of Yemeni terrorists currently held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The possible transfer is raising concerns that the terrorists would be freed, or allowed to escape, as has occurred in the past.
Several al Qaeda terrorists imprisoned in Yemen for their role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor escaped during the 2000s.
The Times in its controversial Dec. 28 report stated that "months" of investigation and interviews with people with direct knowledge of the attack "turned up no evidence that al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault."
The Times report quoted Libyan jihadist Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was described as mentally unstable, as a prime suspect in the Benghazi attack. Abu Khattala was quoted as denying involvement in the attack and asserting he had no connection to al Qaeda.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Sunday that the Times report was wrong in dismissing al Qaeda links to the attack.
"There was some level of preplanning. We know that," Rogers said on Fox News Sunday. "There was aspiration to conduct an attack by al Qaeda and their affiliates in Libya. We know that."
Rogers said Ansar al-Sharia is affiliated with al Qaeda, although it has differences with central al Qaeda leaders.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) also said intelligence information "indicates that al Qaeda was involved" in the Benghazi attack, along with other Islamist militias.
The United Nations al Qaeda sanctions committee identified Jamal as an Egyptian, age 49, who was born in Cairo, is married to a Yemeni, and holds a Yemeni passport.
He was trained as an explosives expert by al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the late 1980s and is a former senior military commander of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group.
Jamal set up the Muhammad Jamal Network around 2011 and the group operates "terrorist training camps in Egypt and Libya," the U.N. said in its designation.
Jamal and the network conducted terrorist activities "with support from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," and is "reported to be involved in the attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 Sept. 2012," the U.N. said.
Jamal headed a terrorist cell in Nasr City in Egypt in 2012 and has been linked to al Qaeda leader Zawahiri.
He is also connected to the North African al Qaeda affiliate known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Jamal has been arrested and imprisoned several times by Egyptian authorities since 2000. He was released in 2011 and rearrested in November 2012.
His current whereabouts are not known and it could not be confirmed that he was released by the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last fall. The United Nations, in its statement on Jamal, said as of September he was awaiting trial in Egypt.
The U.N. designation, largely symbolic, requires all U.N. members to freeze financial assets and ban travel and arms sales to designated al Qaeda members and affiliates.
Along with Jamal, the U.N. designated the Muhammad Jamal Network as a sanctioned entity.
The MJN was described as a "terrorist and paramilitary group" operating in Egypt, Libya, and Mali.
The group is "linked to al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the leadership of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Organization of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb."
The network is funded and backed by the Arabian Peninsula group and has multiple terrorist training camps in Egypt and Libya.
The group is said to be "acquiring weapons, conducting training, and establishing terrorist groups in the Sinai, Egypt."
It is also "training suicide bombers, foreign fighters and planning terrorist attacks in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere as of Sept. 2013."
"MJN members were reported to be involved in the attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 Sept. 2012," the U.N. said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked Thursday if the al Qaeda threat is increasing in the Middle East.
In response, she said that in several locations, al Qaeda affiliates or groups that share its ideology "have taken advantage of the security situation to perpetrate terrorist attacks."
"That's certainly what we've seen in Iraq," she said. "We've seen it in Lebanon. It's a theme we're concerned about. I think it's not as simple as saying ‘al Qaeda.’ Each of these groups is a little bit different. And that's important because when you're trying to figure out how to combat them and fight them, it actually matters who they take guidance from and who's giving them orders and who's planning these attacks."
Syria’s ongoing civil war is fueling the terrorist violence that has spilled over into Iraq, she said, adding, "We are very concerned about it."
CNN reported Dec. 28 that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a key element of al Qaeda’s resurgence in the region.
The cable outlet said recently that intercepted messages between senior al Qaeda operatives in Yemen revealed the group was engaged in active plotting for attacks.
"There are multiple indications that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is plotting attacks both within Yemen, against U.S. and Western structures, and overseas," Rand Corp. analyst Seth Jones told the network.
U.S. officials disclosed to the Washington Free Beacon in August that al Qaeda-linked terrorists behind the Benghazi attack were involved in training terrorists for the Syrian conflict in camps in Benghazi and Darnah, Libya.
The group Ansar al-Sharia, the al Qaeda-affiliated militia that U.S. officials say took part in Benghazi attack, operates several training camps that were set up since May and are part of a network that funnels jihadists to Syria’s Islamist rebels.
The camps were cited by U.S. officials as another sign that Libya, following the ouster Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, has rapidly become a major base for al Qaeda terrorist activity in North Africa.