JERUSALEM – A Libyan weapons dealer from a group hired to provide security to the U.S. mission in Benghazi told Reuters he has helped ship weapons from Benghazi to the rebels fighting in Syria.
The detailed account may provide more circumstantial evidence the U.S. Benghazi mission was secretly involved in procuring and shipping weapons to the Syrian opposition before the deadly attack last September that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
According to informed Middle Eastern security officials speaking to WND on multiple occasions, the Benghazi mission was a planning headquarters for coordinating aid, including weapons distribution, to the jihadist-led rebels.
After the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, the arming efforts shifted focus to aiding the insurgency targeting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack, WND broke the story that murdered U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens himself played a central role in arming rebels and recruiting jihadists to fight Assad, according to Egyptian security officials.
In November 2012, Middle Eastern security sources further described both the U.S. mission and nearby CIA annex in Benghazi as the main intelligence and planning center for U.S. aid to the rebels, which was being coordinated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Many rebel fighters are openly members of terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida.
The information may help determine what motivated the deadly attacks in Benghazi.
In an interview with Reuters published Tuesday, Libyan warlord Abdul Basit Haroun declared he is behind some of the biggest shipments of weapons from Libya to Syria. Most of the weapons were sent to Turkey, where they were then smuggled into neighboring Syria, he said.
Haroun explained he sent a massive weapons shipment from the port in Benghazi in August 2012, days before the attack on the U.S. compound. The weapons were smuggled into Syria aboard a Libyan ship that landed in Turkey purportedly to deliver humanitarian aid.
Ismail Salabi, a commander of the February 17 Brigade, told Reuters that Haroun was a member of the Brigade until he quit to form his own brigade.
The February 17 Brigade provided external security to the attacked Benghazi U.S. compound, including the villa where Stevens lived when he was in Benghazi. Stevens held his last meeting with a Turkish diplomat in the compound and ultimately died there in the attack.
The February 17 Brigade is part of the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Al-Sharia, a militia that advocates the strict implementation of Islamic law in Libya and elsewhere.
Ansar al-Sharia initially used Internet forums and social media to claim responsibility for the Benghazi attack. Later, a spokesman for the group denied it was behind the attack.
Witnesses told reporters they saw vehicles with the group’s logo at the scene of the Sept. 11 attack and that gunmen fighting at the compound had stated they were part of Ansar al-Sharia.
Some witnesses said they saw Ahmed Abu Khattala, a commander of Ansar al-Sharia, leading the attack. Contacted by news media, Khattala denied that he was at the scene.
Meanwhile, a Libyan official speaking to Reuters said he had allowed weapons to leave the port of Benghazi for Syria.
Haroun told Reuters he runs the weapons smuggling operation with an associate, who helps him coordinate about a dozen people in Libyan cities collecting weapons for Syria.
Last month, WND reported the U.S. Benghazi compound was involved in weapons collection efforts.
In a largely unnoticed speech to a think tank seven months before the Benghazi attack, a top State Department official described an unprecedented multi-million-dollar U.S. effort to secure anti-aircraft weapons in Libya after the fall of Gadhafi’s regime.
The official, Andrew J. Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said U.S. experts were fully coordinating the collection efforts with the Libyan opposition.
He said the efforts were taking place in Benghazi, where a leading U.S. expert was deployed.
In January, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed the efforts when she told Congress the CIA was leading a “concerted effort to try to track down and find and recover … MANPADS” looted from Gadhafi’s stockpiles.
Haroun did not mention any U.S. involvement in his weapons dealings.
Last year, Business Insider alleged a connection between Stevens and a reported September shipment of SA-7 MANPADS and rocket-propelled grenades from Benghazi to Syria through Turkey.
Syrian rebels then reportedly began shooting down Syrian military helicopters with SA-7s.
Stevens’ last meeting on the night of the Benghazi attack was with Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin.
One source told Fox News that Stevens was in Benghazi “to negotiate a weapons transfer in an effort to get SA-7 missiles out of the hands of Libya-based extremists.”
‘Largest weapons shipment’
Fox News may find another one of its exclusive reports vindicated.
In October 2012, Fox News reported the Libyan-flagged vessel Al Entisar, which means “The Victory,” was received in the Turkish port of Iskenderun, 35 miles from the Syrian border, just five days before Stevens was killed.
The shipment, disguised as humanitarian aid, was described as the largest consignment of weapons headed for Syria’s rebels.
Fox News reported the shipment “may have some link to the Sept. 11 terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.”
That shipment seems to be the one described by Haroun in his Reuters article.
Both Haroun and his associate described an August 2012 shipment with weapons hidden among about 460 metric tons of aid destined for Syrian refugees.
A recent U.N. report appears to confirm that weapons were hidden in the Al Entisar.
A U.N. Panel found that the loading port for the shipment was Benghazi, that the exporter was “a relief organization based in Benghazi” and the consignee was the same Islamic foundation based in Turkey that Haroun told Reuters had helped with documentation.
Meanwhile, earlier this month Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told CNN: “I’ve actually always suspected that, although I have no evidence, that maybe we were facilitating arms leaving Libya going through Turkey into Syria. … Were they trying to obscure that there was an arms operation going on at the CIA annex? I’m not sure exactly what was going on, but I think questions ought to be asked and answered.”
In January, in the Benghazi hearings, Paul asked Clinton about weapons shipments to Turkey, as WND reported.
Paul asked Clinton: “Is the U. S. involved with any procuring of weapons, transfer of weapons, buying, selling, anyhow transferring weapons to Turkey out of Libya?
“To Turkey?” Clinton asked. “I will have to take that question for the record. Nobody has ever raised that with me.”
Continued Paul: “It’s been in news reports that ships have been leaving from Libya and that may have weapons, and what I’d like to know is the annex that was close by, were they involved with procuring, buying, selling, obtaining weapons, and were any of these weapons being transferred to other countries, any countries, Turkey included?”
Clinton replied, “Well, senator, you’ll have to direct that question to the agency that ran the annex. I will see what information is available.”
“You’re saying you don’t know?” asked Paul.
“I do not know,” Clinton said. “I don’t have any information on that.”
With additional research by Joshua Klein.