Benghazi Consulate Massacre: a word of caution about those emails

October 25, 2012

Yesterday I wrote about emails sent from Libya to the State Department and the White House, among others, indicating that an al Qaeda subsidiary, Ansar al Sharia, had taken credit for the assault on our consulate that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. These emails seemed to confirm what many have suspected all along: that the White House knew quickly the attack had nothing to do with an obscure video, that they knew who had really perpetrated it, and that they were lying to the American people to cover up their incompetence and to protect Obama’s reelection chances.

While I still think that’s largely true, last night Daveed Gartenstein-Ross pointed followers to an article containing an observation by Anthony Zelin that makes the “the White House knew within two hours” narrative much less certain:

However, an examination of the known Facebook and Twitter accounts of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi reveals no such claim of responsibility. Aaron Zelin, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tracks dozens of jihadist websites and archives much of what they say. He told CNN he was unaware of any such claim having been posted on the official Facebook page or Twitter feed of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi.

Zelin, who said his RSS feed sends him any new statement from the group, provided CNN with a copy of that feed. It shows no Facebook update between September 8 and September 12, when a posting late that afternoon first referenced the attack. Zelin notes that the posting referred to a news conference the group had held earlier that day in Benghazi in which it denied any role in the assault on the consulate, while sympathizing with the attackers.

This is an important point: these groups are not shy about claiming credit when they strike at the infidels (that’s us); not only is attacking us an act of religious piety that, in their view, is something to be proud of, but bragging about it also boosts the prestige of their group. Yet they first said nothing, then denied involvement.

The article continues by describing the difficulties of obtaining solid information in a place as chaotic as Libya:

In the hours following such incidents, it is not unusual for “spot reports” from agencies and overseas posts to pour in to the State Department. They typically include intercepts, what’s picked up on social media, witness accounts and what’s being said by local officials. They often contain raw, unfiltered information that is then analyzed for clues, patterns and contradictions.

In the case of the Benghazi attack, there were plenty of contradictions. Such situations are frequently chaotic, with claim and counter-claim by witnesses unsure of what happened when, according to U.S. officials. Building a complete picture without access to first-hand-accounts and little visual evidence can be a major challenge to government experts working from thousands of miles away.

So too have been the attempts to pin down who represents Ansar al-Shariah and their movements on the night of the attack.

Wings of Ansar al-Sharia, which means “partisans” or “supporters of Islamic law,” are based not only in Benghazi but in the Libyan town of Derna, east of Benghazi. The group’s leaders in Derna are thought to include Abu Sufyan bin Qumu, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee.

A different Ansar al-Sharia is affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, and budding franchises are said to exist in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

In other words, with groups as decentralized as al Qaeda and its affiliates, the leadership in one place might take false credit, while that in another might deny  it altogether, while a third, wholly unrelated group that happens to have the same name might (or might not) be the real perpetrators. (In fact, there is some indication al Qaeda jihadis from Iraq were part of the attack.) Thus the emails from Tripoli are not necessarily as damning as they may seem.

So, while I’m reasonably certain that this was an organized al Qaeda hit and not just a “flash mob with mortars,” I’m withdrawing my specific contention from yesterday that Obama had to have known within two hours that this was a terrorist hit and who did it — for now, until we get better information.

I am not, however, withdrawing or walking-back or wavering in my belief that the administration knew at some point early on that there was no anti-video demonstration and that this might well have been an al Qaeda attack. The evidence is too strong to believe otherwise (such as from drone surveillance during the fight). It appears much more likely, indeed probable, that they desperately latched onto any rumor that would allow them to claim it was someone else’s fault — an obscure film producer in California, for example. And then they stuck with it and lied to us for weeks afterward.

Forget about exactly when they knew: that they knew at all -and Obama and company had to have known- and continued to blow smoke in our faces in order to avoid responsibility is what we need to remember on Election Day.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


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