U.S. intelligence told President Barack Obama and senior administration officials within 72 hours of the Benghazi tragedy that the attack was likely carried out by local militia and other armed extremists sympathetic to al-Qaida in the region, officials directly familiar with the information told the Washington Guardian on Friday.
Based on electronic intercepts and human intelligence on the ground, the early briefings after the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya identified possible organizers and participants. Most were believed to be from a local Libyan militia group called Ansar al-Sharia that is sympathetic to al-Qaida, the official said, while a handful of others was linked to a direct al-Qaida affiliate in North Africa known as AQIM.
Those briefings also raised the possibility that the attackers may have been inspired both by spontaneous protests across the globe on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and by a desire to seek vengeance for the U.S. killing last summer of a Libyan-born leader of al-Qaida named Abu Yaya al-Libi, the officials said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence matters.
The details from the CIA and Pentagon assessments of the killing of Ambassador Chris Stephens were far more specific, more detailed and more current than the unclassified talking points that UN Ambassador Susan Rice and other officials used five days after the attack to suggest to Americans that an unruly mob angry over an anti-Islamic video was to blame, officials said.
Most of the details affirming al-Qaida links were edited or excluded from the unclassified talking points used by Rice in appearances on news programs the weekend after the attack, officials confirmed Friday. Multiple agencies were involved in excising information, doing so because it revealed sources and methods, dealt with classified intercepts or involved information that was not yet fully confirmed, the officials said.
"There were multiple agencies involved, not for political reasons, but because of intelligence concerns," one official explained.
Rice's performance on the Sunday talk shows has become a source of controversy between Congress and the White House. Lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have questioned whether the administration was trying to mislead the country by suggesting the Benghazi attack was like the spontaneous protests that had occurred elsewhere on Sept. 11, in places like Egypt.
Obama has defended Rice, and he and his top aides have insisted politics was not involved. They argue the administration's shifting story was the result of changing intelligence.
U.S. intelligence officials said Friday, however, the assessment that the tragedy was an attack by extremists with al-Qaida links was well defined within 48 to 72 hours.
"We knew this was an attack by extremists, a terror attack, and that this was more violent than the embassy protests we saw that day," one official said. "But it also had an element of spontaneous opportunity and disorganization."
The Washington Guardian was first to report just 48 hours after the attack that U.S. officials believed the attack was linked to al-Qaida sympathizers and may have evolved from spontaneous early attacks to a more organized mortar shelling.
Among the early evidence cited in the briefings to the preisdent and other senior officials were intercepts showing some of the participants were known members or supporters of Ansar al-Sharia -- the al-Qaida-sympathizing militia in Libya --and the AQIM, which is a direct affiliate of al-Qaida in northern Africa, the officials said.
The use of rocket propelled grenades and mortars also indicated the players were engaged in more than a spontaneous uprising, though ground reports also showed some of the attackers were somewhat disorganized during the early waves of attacks, the officials said.
Senior officials were briefed within 72 hours of the attack that the attackers may have staged or used a spontaneous crowd that formed outside the consulate in Benghazi to launch the first wave of attacks with gunfire and rocket-fired grenades, and that they may have been aided by sympathesizers inside Libyan security forces who were supposed to protect the consulate, the officials said. Stephens is believed to have been killed in the first attacks, most likely from smoke from related fires, officials have said.
Officials were also told a second-wave attack -- about four hours after the first evacuations of the consulate -- focused on an annex where the CIA and others had significant assets. It was more sophisticated and lethal in force, though only 11 minutes in length. Two mortars missed, while three struck the building, killing two former Navy SEALs who worked for the CIA and were trying to fend off that attack, the officials said.
The Washington Guardian was among the first to report that the Navy SEALs were not part of the official State Department embassy security team but nonetheless stepped into the breach to protect the diplomatic staff.
U.S. officials acknowledge that annex housed an American intelligence operation that was buying back weapons from Libyan rebels that had been provided by the West during the effort to overthrow Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadafi.
The president and other officials were also told during the early briefings about other attempted acts of violence that had occurred in Benghazi and around the consulate before the deadly attack. They were also told that there was at least some intelligence indicating some efforts to surveil U.S. assets in Benghazi had occurred in the days and weeks before.
Fragmentary intelligence briefed to the president also offered several possible motives for the attack, including a desire to join other Sept. 11 uprisings at embassies around the globe, and a videotaped call by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for LIbyans to avenge the death of al-Libi, who was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in June. The videotape was released early on Sept. 11, just hours before the attack on the consulate.
"By that first Friday, we already knew the al-Qaida signatures and players, specifically Ansar al-Sharia, and the senior-most leadership was briefed," one official said.
Officials also provided the Washington Guardian a detailed timeline of the CIA's response the night of Sept. 11 and morning of Sept. 12 as the waves of attacks pounded the compound and annex, showing:
- Around 9:40 p.m. (local), the first call comes in to the Annex that the Mission is coming under attack.
- Fewer than 25 minutes later, a security team leaves the Annex for the Mission.
- Over the next 25 minutes, team members approach the compound, attempt to secure heavy weapons, and make their way onto the compound itself in the face of enemy fire.
- At 11:11 p.m., the requested drone arrives over the Mission compound.
- By 11:30 p.m., all U.S. personnel, except for the missing Ambassador Stephens, depart the Mission. The exiting vehicles come under fire.
- Over the next roughly 90 minutes, the Annex receives sporadic small arms fire and RPG rounds; the security team returns fire, and the attackers disperse around 1 a.m. local time.
- At about the same time, a team of additional security personnel lands at the Benghazi airport, negotiates for transport into town, and upon learning the Ambassador was missing and that the situation at the Annex had calmed, focused on locating the Ambassador and trying to secure information on the security situation at the hospital.
- Still pre-dawn timeframe, that team at the airport finally manages to secure transportation and armed escort and -- having learned that the Ambassador was almost certainly dead and that the security situation at the hospital was uncertain -- heads to the Annex to assist with the evacuation.
- They arrive with Libyan support at the Annex by 5:15 a.m., just before the mortar rounds begin to hit the Annex. The two security officers were killed when they took direct mortar fire as they engaged the enemy. That attack lasted only 11 minutes.
- Less than an hour later, a heavily-armed Libyan military unit arrived to help evacuate the compound of all U.S. personnel.