Bengazhi Attack Wasn't Al-Qaeda, it was Local Militia, Report Claims

Reigniting last year's heated debate, a new in-depth New York Times report suggests that neither Al-Qaeda nor any other international terrorist groups were behind the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, claiming instead that the assault was carried out by a local militia leader, and fueled to a large extent by an American-made anti-Islam video. The investigation's findings, released late Saturday, validate the Obama administration's initial description of the events, but have already sparked an outcry among Republicans, who maintain that the President misled Americans about the realities of the attack to ensure his reelection.

The attack, which of course took place on Sept. 11, 2012, and ended with the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, has sparked contentious (and confusing) debate since it occured. While the Obama administration originally presented the events as a spontaneous reaction to an inflammatory video called the "Innocence of Muslims," the GOP repeatedly accused the administration of intentionally downplaying the event, which they said was a well-planned Al-Qaeda terrorist attack. Eventually, the administration changed its tune, admitting that Al-Qaeda really was behind the assault and that the film actually wasn't a factor — which, of course, not only made the administration look pretty untrustworthy, it also fueled Republican criticism.

"I will tell you this, by witness testimony and a year and a half of interviewing everyone that was on the ground by the way, either by an FBI investigator or the committee: It was very clear to the individuals on the ground that this was an Al Qaeda-led event. And they had pretty fairly descriptive events early on that lead those folks on the ground, doing the fighting, to the conclusion that this was a pre-planned, organized terrorist event," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. told Fox News back in November. "I can tell you we know the participants of the event were clearly Al Qaeda affiliates, had strong interest and desire to communicate with Al Qaeda core and others, in the process — we believe before and after the event."

So Saturday's report, which describes the prime suspect in the assault, Ahmed Abu Khattala, as an "erratic extremist" with no known ties to Al-Qaeda, comes as a quasi- Aha! moment for the Obama administration.

The report reads:

"Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam."

Moreover, the only link to Al-Qaeda, the report claims, comes from a single phone call:

The only intelligence connecting al-Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of al-Qaeda, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker’s boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.

Republicans were quick to slam the NYT's findings, though, with Fox News immediately publishing its own report to undermine the Times' investigation. They write, conclusively:

"The 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya was an "Al Qaeda-led event" according to multiple, on the record, interviews with the head of the House intelligence committee who receives regular classified briefings and has access to the raw intelligence to make independent assessments."

New York Rep. Peter King (R-LI) took issue with the report's conclusion that local milita “had no known ­affiliations with terrorist groups,” claiming that one of Khattala's allies, Ansar al-Shariah, was in fact part of Al-Qaeda. “They are saying that ­al-Shariah is involved, but al-Shariah is a part of the Al- Qaeda umbrella, the Al- Qaeda network,” said King. “Al-Shariah is a pro- Al-Qaeda terrorist organization."

When a tragedy occurs, we look for blame. It's natural enough; we like to find a place, a location, for our grief. Add to that our innate suspicion of the unknown, and it's easy to slip into angry finger-pointing, especially within Congress. As the report says, "the investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests." A refusal to acknowledge ambiguity, murkiness, levels of grey, is naive. And playing a partisan blame-game is counter-productive.

It was a terrorist attack, whether it was carried out by Al-Qaeda or by local militia. It was a tragedy, whether it was in response to the video or because of a corrupted fundamentalism. Members of congress should have more to worry about — such as the 1.3 million Americans who just lost their unemployment benefits, such as the legality of domestic surveillance — than whether or not the Obama administration downplayed, purposefully or otherwise, the Benghazi attack over a year ago. Let's not let partisan politics dominate the conversation.