The Senate’s 88-page report on the Benghazi assault provides a new detail about the role of an al-Qaida-linked organization that provided external security to the fated U.S. special mission.
According to the report, the Libyan 17th of February Brigade militia refused to “provide cover” for the U.S. security team that was trapped inside the compound.
The detail was not mentioned in the State Department-sanctioned Accountability Review Board, or ARB, investigating the Benghazi attack. The ARB paints a picture of the 17th of February Brigade as largely aiding in the evacuation of the U.S. personnel at the mission.
The 17th of February Brigade, which was hired by the State Department to protect the U.S. facility in Benghazi, operates under the Ansar-Al-Sharia banner.
Ansar al-Sharia, tied to al-Qaida, has been implicated in carrying out the attack.
Senate report contradicts State Department
The Senate report states “there were three armed members of the Libyan 17th of February Brigade militia” present and working as part of the mission’s security external detail during the attack.
“Outside the compound, the security team asked 17th of February Brigade members to ‘provide cover’ for them to advance to the gate of the Temporary Mission Facility with gun trucks,” the report says. “The February Brigade members refused, saying they preferred to negotiate with the attackers instead.
“Eventually,” states the report, “the security team initiated their plan of assault on the Mission compound. Some members of the 17th of February Brigade ‘jump[ed] into the vehicle’ and ‘a few 17 Feb members follow[ed] behind on foot to support the team’ according to the informal CIA notes provided to the Committee.”
The Senate picture of 17th of February Brigade members refusing to “provide cover” contrasts sharply with the image of the brigade painted in the State Department’s ARB.
The ARB claims the 17th of February Brigade helped American personnel escape a roadblock while fleeing the compound.
“The driver, ARSO 1, reversed direction to avoid a crowd farther down the street, then reverted back to the original easterly route towards the crowd after a man whom the DS agents believed to be with February 17 signaled them to do so.”
The ARB recounted how the 17th of February Brigade complained to the local Libyan government on the U.S. special mission’s behalf after a uniformed Libyan police officer was caught taking pictures of the compound prior to the attack.
The ARB states that as soon as the attack began, the 17th of February Brigade guards advanced “towards the Villa B area.”
Continued the ARB: “At the urging of the Annex security team and friendly militia members, who warned that the compound was at risk of being overrun, the TDY RSO and four ARSOs departed for the Annex without having found Ambassador Stevens.”
It’s all about spreading Islam
The Ansar al-Sharia group promotes strict Shariah, or Islamic law, implementation and the creation of an Islamic empire, or caliphate. It was first to take responsibility for the attack in social media. The group later claimed it “didn’t participate [in the attack] as a sole entity,” stating the assault “was a spontaneous popular uprising” in response to the anti-Muhammad film.
Witnesses told media they saw vehicles at the scene of the attack bearing Ansar al-Sharia’s logo and said gunmen taking part boasted of belonging to the group.
The role of Ansar al-Sharia’s 17th of February Brigade in providing security at the compound may prompt more questions following the naming last week of senior Ansar leader Abu Sufian bin Qumu as a ringleader in the Benghazi attack.
The Washington Post reported gunmen under the command of Qumu, participated in the Benghazi attack, according to a U.S. official.
The Post identified Qumu as “leader of Ansar al-Sharia in the Libyan city of Darnah,” while the extensive, 54-page Library of Congress document said Qumu in 2012 was “the leader of Ansar Al-Sharia” in Libya and not just in Darnah.
The Post reported witnesses told American officials that Qumu’s militia arrived in Benghazi before the attack and that the State Department was set to implicate him in the deadly assault.
The information will be used in part to designate Qumu’s branch of Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist group, along with two other al-Sharia branches, reported the Post.
Qumu, formerly a driver for Osama bin Laden, was released by the U.S. from Guantanamo Bay in 2007 and was transferred to a Libyan prison where he remained until he was freed in a 2010 amnesty deal.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.