CAIRO — The attackers who killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans last September in Benghazi, Libya, represented a variety of Islamist groups and were motivated by a myriad of factors, the top Libyan official investigating the case has told McClatchy Newspapers.
They almost certainly included members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the North Africa affiliate of al-Qaida, which the French now are confronting in northern Mali, Army Gen. Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. military's Africa Command, said in a separate interview.
The two descriptions of what took place underscore the complexity of the threat posed by restive Islamist groups that suddenly found space to grow and expand after the collapse of the government of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whom Libyan rebels killed in October 2011 after a months-long NATO-led bombing campaign.
"I believe there are individuals who participated in the attacks in Benghazi who had at least some affiliation with AQIM," Ham told McClatchy. "I don't interpret from that that this was AQIM-directed or even an AQIM-inspired or -supported effort. But the connection is there. And I think that what I am wrestling with is: What is the connection with all these various individuals or groups?"
Col. Abdel Salem Ashour, who heads the Libyan Interior Ministry's criminal investigations department, said he now thought the attack was hastily planned by smaller groups whose membership comprised different nationalities. He said the attack wasn't well organized but that with the Libyan government essentially without forces in eastern Libya, it didn't need to be.
"Islamist groups have their own agendas, and they have the ability to gather and mobilize. They exploit the lack of security," he said.
Ashour said the case had been turned over to a judge in Tripoli, suggesting that suspects have been identified. But he emphasized that nearly five months after the attack, no arrests have been made.
The assault has spurred several U.S. congressional investigations into why the two American compounds in Benghazi, one of which generally is referred to as the consulate and the other of which housed the CIA station in eastern Libya, were so poorly defended. Stevens and State Department computer expert Sean Smith died when the consulate was overrun and set on fire. Two former Navy SEALs who were working as security contractors for the CIA, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died hours later when the attackers fired mortar rounds at the CIA compound.
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify Thursday before the Senate Armed Services committee about security measures leading up to the attack and the military response immediately afterward.
How to anticipate attacks when so many groups may be involved is a challenge, Ham said. It's unclear how many groups exist in the ungoverned reaches of eastern Libya and in other parts of North Africa, including northern Mali. The links between the groups are also unclear, though it's certain that weapons are being passed from Libya to northern Mali and Egypt, Ham said.
Determining what motivated the Benghazi attack is one issue that Ham and Libyan investigators are still struggling with.
Ham and Ashour said they thought that anger over the killing of a top al-Qaida official, Abu Yahya al-Libi, by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan was one factor. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had confirmed al-Libi's death in a video aired the day before the Benghazi attack.
"There are some indications that was part of the motivation for some of those who participated in the attack. Whether it was the compelling reason or not, I think, is hard to say," Ham said.
At the same time, protests had broken out in Egypt hours before the assault over an inflammatory video produced by Egyptian exiles living in the United States that insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Ashour said that was the motivation for smaller groups that planned the attack on the consulate.
"Each group used (the assault) for its own interests," Ashour said. "One used it for the film and another used it for the leader that was killed. And there were other thieves who used it for the sake of stealing."
Ham acknowledged that the fall of Gadhafi played a role in creating space for many Islamist groups to thrive.
"When the Gadhafi regime collapsed, and there was, essentially, for a period of time no governmental control, it was in that environment that extremist organizations and criminal organizations took advantage of that situation to establish themselves and in some cases re-establish themselves," Ham said.
He said he was optimistic that the Libyan government would be able to exert control eventually.
"It's probably premature to say the expansion of extremist groups has been arrested," he said. "I think it is a matter of time before Libya is able to reverse the trend. But this is going to be difficult."
McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.