Intel official: Libya attack was terrorism, but not pre-planned

A senior counterterrorism official told senators Wednesday that last week’s attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was definitely a terrorist attack.

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“Yes, they were killed in a terrorist attack on our embassy,” said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Olsen stressed that the current intelligence U.S. investigators have gathered does not suggest the attack was pre-planned to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

“The best information we have now, the facts that we have now, indicates an opportunistic attack on our embassy,” Olsen said at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on threats and agency responses. 

“The attack began and evolved and escalated. It appears that individuals who were certainly well-armed seized on the opportunity presented as the events unfolded.

“What we don’t have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a 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.”

Olsen's testimony echoes statements given last Sunday by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Rice told ABC's "This Week" that the initial protest in Benghazi was spontaneous but that it was "hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons."

Many Republicans have vehemently disagreed with Democrats, including the White House, that the attack last Tuesday was a protest that grew out of control when a group of people gathered outside the embassy to express their anger over a low-grade Internet film that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.

The GOP lawmakers, including the committee’s ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), hold that the attack was a premeditated terrorist plot that took advantage of the protest. 

Four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens, were killed in the barrage of bullets, bombs and fire that ensued.

“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 grenade’s] 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 film. 

Immediately after the attack on the embassy in Libya, Napolitano said DHS 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.