'Times' Report Finds No al-Qaida Involvement In Benghazi Attack

In a 7,000-word investigative report published by The New York Times on Sunday, David Kirkpatrick revisits last year's assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Kirkpatrick finds that — contrary to much commentary from mostly Republican members of Congress — al-Qaida was not involved. He joins Robert Siegel to talk about his reporting and the backlash against his conclusions.

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More now on what has been said and reported about last year's assault on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. Yesterday, The New York Times published reporter David Kirkpatrick's 7,000-word investigative story on Benghazi. Kirkpatrick found that, contrary to much commentary from mostly Republican members of Congress, al-Qaida was not involved. Local Islamist militias were.

In fact, the Times' story maintains that the CIA's preoccupation with the potential al-Qaida threat in Benghazi may have led them to take their eye off the ball, to underestimate the threats from Islamist groups with no al-Qaida ties. And despite much complaint from Congress that the administration exaggerated the effect of an inflammatory, anti-Muslim video, Kirkpatrick found that the video did account for many of the Libyans turning up to attack the compound.

David Kirkpatrick joins us now from Vermont. Welcome to the program.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: It's good to be here.

SIEGEL: And, first, let's start with the issue of the involvement of al-Qaida. You report that there's very little evidence in support of that - perhaps one phone call at most - and more evidence that argues against it. Tell us about the al-Qaida evidence, pro and con.

KIRKPATRICK: First of all, let's be clear. I'm not actually out on a limb here. I don't think there are many people in the intelligence business in the United States government who believe that there is evidence of an al-Qaida link. As far as I know, the only real connection is an intercepted phone call the night of the attack in which a participant boasts to a friend in another north African country about what they've done, attacking the consulate. The friend is an associate of al-Qaida. But the friend on the other end of the line is also surprised, as in, you don't say, you did that? So it's not someone who had a prior knowledge or role in planning the attack. And that's it. That's the main connection.

On the other hand, just a few weeks after the attack, the leaders of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the regional affiliate, wrote an internal letter to one of their own and they recounted their successes around the region. And in that list of successes, there was no mention whatsoever of any spectacular attack inside Libya and no mention whatsoever of Benghazi.

So from a couple different directions, there's so far no reason to believe that al-Qaida felt any authorship over that attack or played any role in making it happen.

SIEGEL: You cite witnesses of the attack as saying that members of a Libyan militia called Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi were involved in the attack on the American compound. This is what Representative Peter King, the New York Republican, told Harris Faulkner of Fox News about that over the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS)

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING: This was an organized attack by Ansar al-Sharia, which is an al-Qaida affiliate, in actual practice.

HARRIS FAULKNER: Congressman, in one word, what would you say about this New York Times report?

KING: Of what I've seen so far, it's misleading because it's making a distinction without a difference.

SIEGEL: A distinction without a difference. Is there a difference between Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaida?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, there certainly is. You know, if you want to use the word al-Qaida so that it means any anti-democratic, anti-Western Islamist group, then go ahead and be my guest. But to most people, that is not going to help illuminate the question of whether the group founded by Osama bin Laden and now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri is actually responsible for this attack. And it's not.

You know, if you're going to call Ansar al-Sharia, which is a local group formed out of a group of people who left a larger militia because they disputed its support for elections in 2012 - they're all well-known Benghazinos. We know lots of their friends. They're plugged in. They work with the local council. They do good works in the neighborhood. They're just a local group. They're not al-Qaida. I'm not saying they're saints.

They are definitely an anti-democratic and anti-Western group. They are obvious extremists that certainly I would've expected that the United States government to be keeping close tabs on. But to call them al-Qaida depends on the stretching of the definition of al-Qaida that I think most Americans would be confused by.

SIEGEL: Congressman King also said, in addition to making the al-Qaida connection or that it's six of one, half dozen of the other, he described this as an organized attack by Ansar al-Sharia. Was it organized at all? And was it organized by them?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, it does seem that in ways this was an organized attack. There's some evidence that the compound was under surveillance that morning by people who were actually in a police uniform. When the attack started, it started quite suddenly by a group of men with guns bombarding through the door. So that's an organized attack. That is not a street protest. At the same time, it's clear that the attack was motivated in part by the video. And then after it had begun, it clearly quickly devolved into bedlam, into chaos.

The people who have watched the security camera footage describe just total mayhem. Looters running into buildings and carrying out a suit of clothes on a hanger, Hershey's syrup that one of them is squirting into his mouth, television sets. They're just running wild, you know? This is not, finally, at last, we've cracked the compound, let's carry out our meticulous plan. It's just, hey, what have you got here, you know?

SIEGEL: Now, you've mentioned the video. This was this notorious video that mocked the Prophet Muhammad. Congressman Darrell Issa, the California Republican, said this on "Meet the Press" about your conclusion that the video did drive some protestors to the U.S. compound.

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: The fact is people from this administration, career professionals, have said under oath there was no evidence of any kind of reaction to a video and, in fact, this was a planned attack that came quickly. That's the evidence we have by people who work for the U.S. government and were under oath.

SIEGEL: How do you reconcile those accounts that it had nothing to do with it with what you found?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, it doesn't surprise me at all that American diplomats in Tripoli were quite uninformed about the events of the attack. On the other hand, we had a Libyan journalist working for us the night of the attack who came to the scene of the attack and the attackers lectured him about the video. They told him at the time, we're doing this because of this offensive video. We're defending the prophet. So this is not something that was made up after the fact and told to us.

We had a reporter there on the ground as it happened, hearing from the attackers while they're attacking that they were doing so because of the video. Now that's not to say it was a street protest. It was definitely a planned attack. But it was a planned attack motivated or at least pegged to this video.

SIEGEL: Now, David Kirkpatrick, your report introduces us to a man named Ahmed Abu Khattala, the commander, I gather, of a small Benghazi militia. And he emerges, from your reporting, as a central figure in the attack on the American compound. This doesn't seem like a terrorist mastermind you're describing.

KIRKPATRICK: No, he certainly doesn't. And I really - to be frank, I struggled with that for a long time because he doesn't really seem like a leader of men. He seems kind of like a dimwit. And to be honest, a lot of his Islamist, even jihadi, friends think of him as kind of erratic and a little bit unstable.

But, you know, when you look at the way the attack unfolded, you know, it was a relatively small group that spearheaded the attack that broke their way into the compound and then it just sort of catches fire, literally and figuratively, and becomes this kind of scene of chaos. It's not inconceivable that even someone who was not a giant or even an Osama bin Laden could actually get this thing going.

SIEGEL: David Kirkpatrick, who is the Cairo bureau chief of The New York Times, thanks for talking with us about your story on what happened in Benghazi.

KIRKPATRICK: Thanks for having me.

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