Lawmakers believe that the deadly attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Libya may have been coordinated by al Qaeda cells in possible retaliation for U.S. forces killing a leader within the terror group.
Lawmakers said that the brazen raid on the American consulate in Benghazi bore all the hallmarks of an al Qaeda attack, though some cautioned that al Qaeda might try to claim credit for the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.
“It’s obvious to any student of warfare … this was not a protest,” McCain said. “It [was] a planned enemy attack, and we all know who the enemy is.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement Wednesday that “these murders have the markings of revenge by al Qaeda.”
Senior administration officials said only that Wednesday night’s raid involved “unidentified Libyan extremists” who assaulted the U.S. consulate with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades for nearly four hours.
The assault ended with the deaths of four Americans, including Stevens. At least three other U.S. citizens were wounded in the attack, according to the officials.
The Benghazi attack also coincided with a violent protest against the American embassy in Cairo. No U.S. citizens, however, were killed in that incident, and officials questioned whether the protests in Benghazi were connected to the Cairo attack.
All U.S. personnel have been withdrawn from Benghazi and the American embassy in Triopli has been reduced to emergency staff, administration officials said.
The Pentagon has also sent Marine Corps units from the U.S. military’s Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) to Tripoli to provide additional protection for American diplomats still in country.
On Wednesday, Sen. Roy Blunt declined to weigh in specifically on whether the consulate attack was the work of al Qaeda or its affiliates.
But the Missouri Republican emphasized the need to determine if the incidents in Cairo and Benghazi were “isolated incidents” or indications of a larger al Qaeda campaign in the region.
Nelson is calling for congressional hearings “to immediately investigate what role al Qaeda or its affiliates may have played in the attacks ... and to urge appropriate action.”
House Homeland Security Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) said the U.S. response to the terror group’s alleged role in the attack needed to be swift and decisive.
“I’ve had a concern for some time about the potential of an al Qaeda or jihad threat, a movement within Libya,” King told The Hill on Wednesday.
“It’s important to send a signal to any [extremist] group in the Middle East who is thinking of taking action against the U.S. or our personnel,” he added.
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said, however, that he was skeptical about al Qaeda’s role in the attack.
“Al Qaeda — they’re always looking to take credit for any attack,” he said Wednesday. “The issue about whether or not they were behind this — they’re going to say they were. We want to get the facts and data before we make that decision.”
While the embassy attack in Cairo “looked more like it was” a spontaneous protest, the consulate raid in Libya was admittedly “more suspicious,” former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden told The Hill on Wednesday.
That raid was “more planned, more intentional” than the attack in Egypt, according to Hayden.
He also noted that Benghazi, where the U.S consulate was headquartered, is home to the al Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
Senior administration officials said the Benghazi strike “clearly was a complex attack” but could not confirm whether the fighters were affiliated with any terror group.
Anthony Cordesman, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed with Hayden’s assessment. However, he remained hesitant to pin the blame on al Qaeda or the LIFG.
“Looking at it, it’s becoming more and more likely some kind of deliberate attack,” he told The Hill. Assigning attribution to an attack like one in Libya is “extremely difficult,” he added.
“I suspect it won’t be al Qaeda in Libya, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a group that shares almost all the same values,” Cordesman added.
If the attack against the American consulate in Benghazi was carried out by the LIFG, it would be akin to “playing basketball on [their] home court,” the former CIA chief said.
“This [would be] really a home game” for them, Hayden said, given the group’s ability to quickly organize operations in the region. “And lord knows they’re extremely motivated.”
Revenge for the death of al Qaeda’s second-in-command at the hands of U.S. forces could have been the spark that led to the Benghazi raid, according to Nelson.
Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group’s No. 2 commander, was reportedly one of 15 militants killed in an airstrike against suspected al Qaeda targets in North Waziristan along the Afghan-Pakistan border in June.
On Monday, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri circulated an Internet video urging Libyans to take action against American positions inside the country as revenge for al-Libi’s death, according to Nelson.
However, Hayden was doubtful that if LIFG fighters led the attack on the U.S. consulate, they were acting in response to al-Zawahiri’s call to arms.
While it was “not impossible” for al Qaeda fighters in Libya to coordinate the consulate attack two to three days after hearing al-Zawahiri’s message, the window would be extremely small, Hayden said.