One U.S. intelligence contractor working on the investigation into the Benghazi attacks said, “We were not focused on these guys.” Militias like Ansar al-Sharia, this person said, might be analyzed and monitored, but they weren’t the focus of the analysts who were maintaining kill lists and monitoring the broader war against al Qaeda.
Today, the intelligence community has begun to reassess its view of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, in part because the attacks there included not only that group’s members but two other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Jamal network.
Unraveling Ansar al-Sharia, however, is one of the harder jobs today for U.S. intelligence analysts. The group itself has offered conflicting messages about its role in the Benghazi assault. On Sept. 12, a spokesman for the group said members of the organization participated in the attack, but also said it wasn’t sanctioned by the group’s leadership. In an interview from Sept. 18 with the BBC, Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, said his group was not involved in the attack. Then in mid-October, Ahmed Abu Khattala, a leader of an Islamist brigade affiliated at times with Ansar al-Sharia, said he was at the scene of the attack, though he denied participating in it.