Clinton draws link between al Qaeda and Libya consulate attack

Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic debates are magnet for lobbyists NYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Sanders v. Warren is just for insiders MORE on Wednesday drew a link between al Qaeda and the attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that left the U.S. ambassador to that country dead.

Clinton is the highest-ranking U.S. official to make such a connection, which Republicans pounced on as undermining President Obama’s standing on the war on terrorism.

In comments on North Africa at the United Nations, Clinton said al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups had launched attacks and kidnappings from northern Mali into neighboring countries.

“Now, with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions,” she said. “And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions under way in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.”

Benghazi was home to the U.S. consulate where U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack two weeks ago. The New York Times first reported on Clinton’s remarks.

Republicans have criticized the Obama administration over the attack, arguing officials have over-emphasized the role protests over an anti-Islam video played in the attack. The video has led to protests against the U.S. in several Muslim countries.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMartha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Meghan McCain blasts NY Times: 'Everyone already knows how much you despise' conservative women GOP senator calls CNN reporter a 'liberal hack' when asked about Parnas materials MORE (R-Ariz.), in an appearance Thursday on CBS, said it was “unbelievable” and “disgraceful” that the administration would blame the video for the attack. He and other Republicans say the attack was a premeditated act of terror.

“It was obvious that this was a planned attack, where they carried heavy weapons, mortars, RPGs, and clearly, it was not a demonstration, nor was it a result of a hateful video,” McCain said.

He suggested the administration had blamed the attack on the video because linking it to terror groups would hurt the president politically.

“Some allege that maybe it’s because they’re trying to convey to the American people that al Qaeda is no longer a threat, and that when Osama bin Laden left that was the case, but the reality is that al Qaeda is well and thriving in some places,” he said.

The FBI is investigating the attack, and CBS News on Thursday said State Department officials said they still do not have evidence that would link al Qaeda to the attack.

The administration previously said there is no intelligence that suggests the attack was planned. It has said the attack appeared to be spontaneous, and that it is possible militants used the protests as cover.

Clinton’s comments on Monday offered no new evidence of a link to al Qaeda, and the secretary of State’s remarks were consistent with the administration’s previous account.

“The United States is stepping up our counterterrorism efforts across the Maghreb and Sahel, and we’re working with the Libyan government and other partners to find those responsible for the attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi and bring them to justice,” she said. “But we are also expanding our counterterrorism partnerships to help countries meet their own growing threats.”