TEL AVIV – A Library of Congress report that received almost no media attention detailed – one month before the deadly Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi – how al-Qaida established a major base of operations in Libya in the aftermath of the U.S.-NATO campaign that deposed Muammar Gadhafi and his secular regime.
The report documented al-Qaida and affiliated organizations were establishing terrorist training camps and pushing Taliban-style Islamic law in Libya while the new, Western-backed Libyan government incorporated jihadists into its militias.
The document named Benghazi as a new central headquarters for al-Qaida activities.
“Al-Qaeda adherents in Libya used the 2011 Revolution to establish well-armed, well-trained, and combat-experienced militias,” stated the report.
The report also said a terrorist released from the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba became the leader of the al-Qaida-affiliate Ansar Al-Sharia in Libya, which espoused anti-Western ideology.
The Martyrs of 17 February Brigade, which was hired by the State Department to protect the U.S. facility in Benghazi, operates under the Ansar-Al-Sharia banner.
The document said scores of Islamic extremists were freed from Libyan prison after the U.S.-supported revolution in Libya.
The August 2012 document was prepared by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress under an inter-agency agreement with the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office’s Irregular Warfare Support Program. It may shed new light on the terrorism threat in Libya leading up to the assaults on the U.S. facility and CIA annex in Benghazi.
Despite the growing al-Qaida activity, the U.S. facilities in Benghazi remained poorly protected.
While al-Qaida and other extremist groups were establishing their new headquarters in Libya, the Obama administration reportedly was eager to declare the U.S.-NATO campaign there a victory.
According to testimony by the No. 2 U.S. official in Tripoli, who served under murdered Ambassador Christopher Stevens, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wanted the Benghazi facility turned into a permanent post ahead of her scheduled December 2012 visit to the country. A looming funding deadline may have been the reason that Stevens went to the compound the day of the attacks, the whistleblower charged.
Terrorist training camps
The report shows how various al-Qaida groups, including Al-Qaida Senior Leadership (AQSL) and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have sought to take advantage of the downfall of Gadhafi to “create a safe haven and possibly to extend their area of operations to Libya.”
AQSL in Pakistan issued strategic guidance to followers in Libya and elsewhere to take advantage of the Libyan rebellion. Specifically, instructions were given to gather weapons, establish training camps, establish an Islamic state, and institute Shariah, the document relates.
At the time of the report’s release, al-Qaida’s clandestine network in Libya was “in an expansion phase, running training camps and media campaigns on social-media platforms.”
The Libyan revolution “may have created an environment conducive to jihad and empowered the large and active community of Libyan jihadists, which is known to be well connected to international jihad,” the document stated.
The Library of Congress report said Ansar al-Sharia, led by Sufian Ben Qhumu, a former Guantanamo detainee, has increasingly embodied al-Qaida’s presence in Libya.
Qhumu, formerly a driver for Osama bin Laden, was released by the U.S. in 2007 and was transferred to a Libyan prison where he remained until being freed in a 2010 amnesty deal.
The report noted AQSL’s strategic goals remain “restoration of the caliphate, instituting sharia, and ending the Western presence in Muslim lands.”
“Al-Qaeda’s primary goal in Libya is to establish an Islamic emirate as part of its overall objective to reestablish the caliphate,” the report said.
“The al-Qaeda clandestine network in Libya is most likely espousing a Taliban-like religious orientation that calls for strict adherence to the practice and principles of Islam as interpreted by radical clerics.”
From June 7 to 8, 2012, there was a gathering of groups supporting Shariah openly held at Liberation Square in Benghazi. The event was hosted by Ansar al-Sharia and reportedly attended by at least 15 militias, including al-Qaida-affiliated organizations.
Libyan government and al-Qaida
The report noted the July 2012 elections in Libya “failed to generate a strong and unified national leadership that could address the chronic insecurity posed by the multiplicity of local militias, which al-Qaeda’s clandestine network has probably infiltrated.”
Further, the Western-backed National Transitional Council in Libya “never fully controlled the rebel movement.”
Following the 2012 elections, the Libyan army and police have reconstituted their ranks “by incorporating whole militias regardless of the militants’ background.”
Hillary eager to declare victory
While al-Qaida and other Islamic groups gained major ground in Libya following U.S. intervention there, Clinton worked plans for a symbolic victory in Benghazi, according to congressional testimony by Gregory Hicks, the former State Department deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affairs who was in Libya at the time of the attack.
Under questioning from Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., Hicks explained: “According to [Ambassador] Chris [Stevens], Secretary Clinton wanted Benghazi converted into a permanent constituent post. Timing for this decision was important. Chris needed to report before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, on the physical and the political and security environment in Benghazi to support an action memo to convert Benghazi from a temporary facility to a permanent facility.”
Hicks revealed the directive came from the State Department Office of Near Eastern Affairs, headed by Acting Assistant Secretary Beth Jones. Money was available to be transferred to Benghazi from a State Department fund set aside for Iraq available, provided the funds transfer had been done by Sept. 30.
He further testified that in May 2012, during a meeting Clinton, Stevens promised he would give priority to making sure the U.S. facility at Benghazi was transformed into a permanent constituent post.
Hicks also explained Stevens wanted to make a symbolic gesture to the people of Benghazi that the United States “stood behind their dream of establishing a new democracy.”
Additionally, he wanted to have the Benghazi complex upgraded to a permanent constituent post, so Clinton could make the announcement in her planned visit to Libya before the end of 2012.
Toward the end of the hearing, the chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked Hicks to summarize his testimony on why Stevens went to Benghazi.
“At least one of the reasons Ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi was to further the secretary’s wish that that post become a permanent constituent post and that he was also there because we understood the secretary intended to visit Tripoli later in the year,” Hicks reiterated. “We hoped that she would be able to announce to the Libyan people the establishment of a permanent constituent post in Benghazi at that time.”
Clinton and the U.S. diplomatic staff in Libya reportedly were aware of the terrorist camps in Benghazi. Fox News reported last year the U.S. mission in Benghazi convened an “emergency meeting” in August 2012 to discuss the training camps.
The news network obtained a government cable addressed to Clinton’s office stating the U.S. diplomats in Libya were briefed “on the location of approximately ten Islamist militias and AQ training camps within Benghazi … these groups ran the spectrum from Islamist militias, such as the QRF Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia, to ‘Takfirist thugs.’”
With additional research by Joshua Klein.