By Jordy Yager - 09/19/12 11:46 PM EDT
A senior counterterrorism official told senators Wednesday that the assault on a U.S. consulate in Libya — which left four Americans dead — was definitely a terrorist attack and that some of those involved might be connected to al Qaeda.
“Yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy,” said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
“A number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area,” Olsen said.
“As well, we are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al Qaeda or al Qaeda’s affiliates, in particular al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb.”
Olsen’s comments provided fresh insight into the investigation of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three others were killed. The consulate was consumed with fire after being hit with a barrage of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
Last week, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, blamed the armed assault on “opportunistic extremist elements” who “hijacked” a spontaneous protest against an American-made Internet video that disparaged the Prophet Muhammad.
Olsen went a step further — branding the attack an act of terrorism.
Terrorism is defined under U.S. law as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”
Olsen, echoing statements made by Rice, stressed that the current intelligence U.S. investigators have gathered does not suggest the assault was planned in advance to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“The best information we have now, the facts that we have now, indicates this was an opportunistic attack on our embassy,” Olsen said during a hearing on threats and agency responses.
“The attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours. ... It appears that individuals who were certainly well-armed seized on the opportunity presented as the events unfolded,” he added.
“What we don’t have at this point is specific intelligence that there was significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack. We’re still looking for any indications of substantial advanced planning. We just haven’t seen that at this point.”
Libya’s interim president, Mohammed Magarief, has insisted the Benghazi assault was premeditated — to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary — by foreigners who had entered Libya a few months earlier.
Many Republicans have rejected the Obama administration’s conclusion that the Benghazi incident began as a street protest among people who gathered outside the consulate to express their anger over the video.
The GOP lawmakers, including the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), hold that the attack was a premeditated terrorist plot that took advantage of the protest.
“This was a premeditated, planned attack that was associated with the anniversary of 9/11,” said Collins. “I just don’t think that people come to protest equipped with [rocket-propelled grenades] and other heavy weapons. And the reports of complicity — and they are many — with the Libyan guards who were assigned to guard the consulate also suggests to me that this was premeditated.”
Intelligence officials are planning to give lawmakers on Capitol Hill a classified briefing on Thursday with the latest information on where the FBI’s investigation stands.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers on Wednesday at the committee hearing that her agency was not aware of any plots to violently attack the U.S. in the wake of the controversial video.
Immediately after the attack on the consulate in Libya, Napolitano said, the department reached out to a bevy of religious and faith-based groups in the U.S. with steps they should take to guard against the possibility of retaliatory attacks.