Almost sixteen months after the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, we still have held no one accountable — but the roster of terrorists is expanding in familiar directions. The Washington Post reported overnight that Obama administration officials now suspect a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay as being one of the leaders. Abu Sufian bin Qumu has connections to al-Qaeda as well, despite a recent report from the New York Times asserting that AQ had no involvement in the attack:
U.S. officials suspect that a former Guantanamo Bay detainee played a role in the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and are planning to designate the group he leads as a foreign terrorist organization, according to officials familiar with the plans.
Militiamen under the command of Abu Sufian bin Qumu, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in the Libyan city of Darnah, participated in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, U.S. officials said.
Witnesses have told American officials that Qumu’s men were in Benghazi before the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, according to the officials. It’s unclear whether they were there as part of a planned attack or out of happenstance. The drive from Darnah to Benghazi takes several hours.
The State Department is expected to tie Qumu’s group to the Benghazi attack when it designates three branches of Ansar al-Sharia, in Darnah, Benghazi and Tunisia, as foreign terrorist organizations in the coming days.
The Bush administration freed Qumu in 2007 and sent him back to Libya. At the time, the US government was under pressure at home and internationally to close Gitmo and release all of the prisoners detained there. Qumu isn’t the first Gitmo alumnus to return to terrorism, but he may have made himself the most successful at it, at least in relation to terror attacks on Americans.
The Post gives a long description of Qumu’s affiliation with AQ, which started in 1993, and included links to Abu Zubayda, who is still in Gitmo. Qumu got a monthly salary from AQ, discovered in captured files. Thomas Joscelyn has more at the Weekly Standard:
Ben Qumu is one of the original “Arab Afghans” who traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. In the years that followed the end of the anti-Soviet jihad, Ben Qumu followed al Qaeda to the Sudan and then, in the mid-to-late 1990s, back to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was eventually arrested in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks and transferred to the American detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.
A leaked Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment describes Ben Qumu as an “associate” of Osama bin Laden. JTF-GTMO found that Ben Qumu worked as a driver for a company owned by bin Laden in the Sudan, fought alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and maintained ties to several other well-known al Qaeda leaders. Ben Qumu’s alias was found on the laptop of an al Qaeda operative responsible for overseeing the finances for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The information on the laptop indicated that Ben Qumu was an al Qaeda “member receiving family support.”
Fast forward to the present:
An August 2012 report published by the Library of Congress in conjunction with the Defense Department, titled “Al Qaeda in Libya: a Profile,” identified Ben Qumu as the possible “new face of al Qaeda in Libya despite” his denial of an ongoing al Qaeda role. The report also noted that Ben Qumu and his Ansar al Sharia fighters are “believed to be close to the al Qaeda clandestine network” in Libya. According to the report’s authors, that same network is headed by al Qaeda operatives who report to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al Zawahiri.
The reporting on Ben Qumu’s ties to the Benghazi attack directly refutes an account by David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times. Kirkpatrick reported that “neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.”
August 2012 was just a month before the Benghazi attack — which, not coincidentally, took place on the eleventh anniversary of AQ’s greatest triumph, the 9/11 attacks. That makes AQ involvement hard to deny, unless one is really, really committed to ignoring it.
Update: David Kirkpatrick’s report flatly stated that the US did not think Qumu took part in the attack. How did he get it so wrong? Patrick Brennan wonders about that, too:
And second, why did the Times report just a week ago that “neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission,” based on reporting from “officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence,” just a week before the U.S. makes it pretty clear they do think Qumu played a role? A few of the possibilities: The Times’ reporting was stale, and the reporter, David Kirkpatrick, didn’t ensure that the bin Qumu story hadn’t changed; the officials he spoke to simply didn’t know that bin Qumu was now a suspect again, which would seem careless (for him to relate such a denial from officials who didn’t know the whole the situation); Kirkpatrick was relaying a narrowly tailored denial that somehow hinged on the word “significant” (doing, if he understood as much, his readers a big disservice); or maybe even suspicion about bin Qumu has surged back only very recently.
Shouldn’t the suggestion that al-Qaeda didn’t take part in an attack on the anniversary of 9/11 in an area rife with its affiliates have generated a wee bit more journalistic skepticism?