CAIRO — The terrorist-group designation the United States handed Friday to three Islamist extremist groups that call themselves Ansar al-Shariah does little to answer who was involved in and what the motives were for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
In assigning the three Ansar al-Shariah groups labels as foreign terrorist organizations — one each in the Libyan cities of Derna and Benghazi and the third in Tunisia — the State Department went out of its way to make certain they were seen as separate groups, founded separately and at different times. If they work with one another, there’s no hint of it in the announcement.
The White House also made it clear that it doesn’t suspect the Libyan groups of ties to al-Qaida, a point of contention with Republicans in Congress, who say the Obama administration has tried to cover up al-Qaida’s role in the Benghazi attack.
“I’m telling you what our determination is — our view, the intelligence community in the United States and our allies — that these are not affiliates of core al-Qaida,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.
The designation, however, does tie the Ansar al-Shariah branch in Tunisia to al-Qaida, saying Ansar al-Shariah Tunisia is “ideologically aligned with al-Qaida and tied to its affiliates,” including al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb.
The State Department also designated one member from each of the Ansar al-Shariah branches as global terrorists, though again it was unclear whether those individuals are thought to have played a role in the Benghazi attack.
The designations, made in consultation with the departments of justice and treasury, allow the United States to freeze any assets that belong to the organizations and the individuals and bar any financial transactions with them and to prohibit the individuals from traveling to the United States.
According to the designation, the Ansar al-Shariah branches in Derna and Benghazi were created independently of each other after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed in October 2011. The Tunisian branch, the designation said, was created in early 2011, months before the Libyan branches.
The State Department didn’t describe what role it thinks that the individuals it named as global terrorists played in the attacks in Benghazi, which left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead, and a Sept. 14, 2012, assault on the U.S. Embassy and American school in Tunisia.
The announcement, oddly, didn’t designate the leader of Ansar al-Shariah in Benghazi, Mohammed Zawhawi, as a terrorist but rather singled out Ahmed Abu Khattalah, a senior figure in the group whose name has been floated for months as being someone affiliated with the attack. That seemed to raise questions about whether the United States thinks the group ordered the attack or that its members were present at their own initiative. In an Internet post the day after the assault, Ansar al-Shariah Benghazi suggested that some of its members may have been involved but that it hadn’t ordered the attack.
Since then, the Benghazi branch has renamed itself to recognize its spread across Libya, something the U.S. designation did not note. The group now refers to itself as Ansar al-Shariah Libya. While its headquarters are in Benghazi, it also operates in Ajdabiya and Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown.
The designation also does nothing to clarify what, if any, role a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and onetime rebel commander had in the attack. The State Department named Abu Sufian bin Qumu, 54, as the leader of Ansar al-Shariah in Derna, but it offered no indication that he was involved in the Benghazi attack. Derna is 180 miles east of Benghazi.
Qumu, who reportedly trained in al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden’s Torkham camp in Afghanistan, was released from the U.S. detention center for terrorism suspects in 2007 and sent him back to Libya. He was held in Bin Saleem prison until 2010, when Gadhafi released him along with 36 others to celebrate his 41st year in power.
Qumu returned to Derna, his hometown, a conservative eastern city that had the distinction of sending more fighters to attack U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as a proportion of its roughly 80,000 residents than any other city in the Middle East.
Derna has long been a concern of U.S. officials — something that Stevens had investigated before the anti-Gadhafi revolt when he was the No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. In a cable sent to the U.S. State Department in February 2008, Stevens recounted an interview with a Libyan-American from Derna, seeking reasons for why the city sent so many fighters to battle U.S. troops. The Libyan-American said the city was proud of its role, Stevens wrote.
“The reported ability of radical imams to propagate messages urging support for and participation in jihad despite GOL security organizations’ efforts suggests that claims by senior GOL officials that the east is under control may be overstated,” Stevens concluded, referring to the government of Libya.
As the 2011 uprising against Gadhafi unfolded, Qumu joined the rebellion. Derna residents said they favored democracy when Gadhafi fell, even painting graffiti around the city that read “Yes to democracy.” But within months of Gadhafi’s death, Ansar al-Shariah in Derna emerged, with Qumu as its leader.
Today, Qumu’s group controls the city, which has become so conservative and insulated that even Libyans fear traveling there, as they’re quickly made to feel unwelcome. Within minutes of visitors arriving in the city, residents take notice.
In the last year, a number of security officials who work for the nascent Libyan government have been killed in Derna. In December, Benghazi’s newly named head of intelligence, Col. Fathallah Abdel Raheem al-Gazeeri, was assassinated in Derna as he left a mosque after a family ceremony.
Qumu has always presented himself as separate from Ansar al-Shariah in Benghazi, saying his goal was to overthrow the current government and transform Libya into an Islamist state. But within days of the attack in Benghazi, some U.S. officials were trying to link him to the assault.
Qumu repeatedly has denied involvement, though he’s also said he didn’t object to the attack. He recently declined an interview with McClatchy, saying he doesn’t meet with American news outlets.
“I have no relations with Ansar al-Shariah Benghazi,” Qumu said in a November telephone interview with Libya’s al-Assema’s television station. “I have no relations to any group.”
Those who follow the Internet postings and messages of Ansar al-Shariah say Qumu has never indicated he was part of the attack and that his aims have been focused on Derna.
Still, suspicion remains. Qumu “might not have personally been in the attack. He could have sent operatives,” said Aaron Y. Zelin, the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who studies insurgent activity in northern Africa.