Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


This week, the FBI finally visited the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Agents have been working with Libyan authorities to find those responsible. Two men believed to be connected to the attack have been detained at the airport in Istanbul. U.S. officials say they have an interest in interviewing the two but wouldn't say whether they were significant actors in the attack. Intelligence officials are also looking at what role al-Qaida played. As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, the attack in Benghazi may signal a change in al-Qaida's tactics.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: For the past decade, al-Qaida has been a very top-down organization. Letters seized at Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan showed that he was a very hands-on manager, approving everything from operations to leadership changes in affiliate groups. The Libya attack, if the early intelligence in al-Qaida's small role is true, may signal al-Qaida has changed.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: What we saw in Benghazi was something that was much more atomized, much more disparate, much more opportunistic.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: And I think it raises potential challenges for how we go about counterterrorism in the next decade of this new al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This new al-Qaida, an al-Qaida without bin Laden, has been battered as an organization. But the group may have found a new role: inspiring local militias. U.S. intelligence officials intercepted a number of telephone calls between members of a local Libyan group - Ansar al-Sharia - and al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa. One call in particular is under scrutiny. It came on the afternoon of September 11, shortly after protesters in Egypt had stormed America's embassy in Cairo; this was about six hours before the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Officials believe al-Qaida told members of the Libyan militia that they should take a cue from Cairo protests and launch immediately any attack they had been planning for the future. Hoffman says that's the new al-Qaida.

HOFFMAN: You have now almost multiple layers of al-Qaida. You see even the al-Qaida affiliates actually interfacing with locals on the ground and taking advantage of their capabilities to deploy them, you know, on very short notice.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Africa appears to be ground zero for al-Qaida to test this new tactic. Over the past 18 months, Islamists who subscribe to some of al-Qaida's ideas have appeared in Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and now Libya.

CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: What we see in Libya right now is a set of individuals who've migrated from North Africa to conflict zones like Iraq and Syria are migrating back.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Christopher Swift is a fellow at the University of Virginia Law School, and who used to track terrorist financial networks at the Treasury Department.

SWIFT: Some of those individuals have drunk the Kool-Aid. They believe in the al-Qaida ideology, but they may not share the same short-term political objectives, and they may also be operationally distinct.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, they often agree with al-Qaida, but they have their own agenda. And what intelligence officials are sorting out after Benghazi is whether a militia like Ansar al-Sharia - the group suspected in the attack - is effectively a local arm of al-Qaida or something more distinct. Christopher Swift thinks what happened in Libya could be the future of al-Qaida.

SWIFT: I think you're also going to see, you know, a relocalization process within al-Qaida. So, what does that mean? It means the future of global jihad is going to be built through local insurgencies.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That it will make it much harder to prevent attacks, because every local extremist group could provide foot soldiers for al-Qaida. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.