By Clare M. Lopez
The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) released its Review of the Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Facilities in Benghazi, Libya, September 11-12, 2012 on January 15, 2014.
One of the most disturbing sections in the entire report comes on page 42, where the report cites then-FBI Director Robert Mueller in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies telling Congress that "as many as 15 individuals supporting the investigation or otherwise helpful to the United States have been killed in Benghazi since the attacks [of September 11, 2012]."
While Director Mueller rightly noted the "lawless and chaotic circumstances in eastern Libya," the SSCI report also added that "It is unclear whether their killings were related to the Benghazi investigation."
While calling post-Qaddafi Libya "lawless and chaotic" is something of an understatement, the SSCI's suspicions about these particular killings and the possibility that they could be connected to the Benghazi investigation should be noted and noted carefully.
The identity of these individuals has not been revealed publicly, but it is certain that the SSCI and the Intelligence Community for which it holds oversight responsibility know who they were. And while it is certainly possible that each and every one of these 15 killings can be explained by the continuing battles among the Al Qaeda militias that led the uprising against former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the possibility that these are targeted killings – assassinations – must also be considered, even as the SSCI seems to hint that it has thought of this, too.
In an insightful early report about the Benghazi attacks, the Wall Street Journal reported on November 1, 2012 that "…the day after the attack…the CIA appears to have dispatched local Libyan agents to the annex to destroy any sensitive documents and equipment there."
The WSJ use of the term "agents" would seem to indicate that these local Libyans were CIA recruited assets, who either were trusted enough for this assignment or perhaps were all they had to turn to at that point. They may have been Libyan officials, whether uniformed police or others such as intelligence and security officials.
Sensitive Documents Left Behind
We do not know and the SSCI report does not tell us. In any case, what that short section of the SSCI report does tell us, at a minimum, is that sensitive documents and equipment were believed by the CIA to have remained in the CIA Annex the day after the attack, that they had not been destroyed or removed by the fleeing Americans and were of sufficient concern to the CIA that it was willing to take a chance on tasking local Libyans to retrieve whatever was there.
What became of any such materials and whether they were successfully recovered or not is not noted in the SSCI report. Tom Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), writing in the Weekly Standard on January 7, 2014 about the Obama administration's belated admission about the role that Abu Sufian Ben Qumu (a former GITMO detainee) and his group -- the Derna, Libya branch of Ansar al-Shariah -- played in the Benghazi attack provides a possible follow-up, however.
In the very last line of his piece, "Obama Administration's Benghazi Bombshell," Joscelyn writes that two U.S. intelligence officials say that Faraj al Chalabi, an identified Libyan jihadi, "is suspected of bringing materials from the compound in Benghazi to senior al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan."
This report begs the question: How is it possible for U.S. intelligence officials to so specifically name al-Chalabi as someone who may have taken materials from Benghazi to al-Qa'eda leadership in Pakistan?
What materials have they identified as having been removed from the CIA Annex and how do they know (or why would they suspect) such materials have been taken to Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan in the first place? In fact, it doesn't seem possible – unless U.S. intelligence officials themselves perhaps were the ones who dispatched al-Chalabi or an associate to the compound to recover those "documents and equipment."
When the materials likely later were confirmed to be missing from the compound but hadn't been delivered as expected, the panic would have begun to build.
Ties to AQ's "Inner Core"
Both Joscelyn and Fox News have reported that al-Chalabi is a known associate of the Al-Qaeda "inner core" with ties that go back to the late 1990s. He has been identified as a former bodyguard for Osama bin-Laden.
Without naming anyone specifically, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) confirmed that individuals under investigation for connections to the Benghazi attack indeed had "strong al Qaeda ties." Further, according to Bill Gertz, writing in the Free Beacon on June 27, 2013, al-Chalabi—who'd already been identified as being "involved in planning" the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi – had been detained by Libyan officials in March 2013 and then let go in June 2013, ostensibly for lack of evidence.
Yet, according to Gertz, the U.S. government "has evidence al Chalabi was linked to the Benghazi attack."
Note that neither Gertz nor the U.S. government claims that al-Chalabi was physically present on site the night of the attack, but only that he was known (somehow) to have been "involved in planning."
Adding to the chain of evidence, the Gertz article was the first to note that al-Chalabi went to Pakistan right after the September 11, 2012 attack and then returned to Libya (which is when he was arrested).
It must be wondered at this point why al-Chalabi isn't sitting in a cell in Guantanamo Bay, if U.S. intelligence officials are, and apparently very shortly after the attack, were aware that he was not only involved in planning the Benghazi attack, but also likely had couriered highly sensitive materials from the CIA Annex to Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
"Local Libyan Agents"
If CCTV video footage from inside the CIA Annex during the night of the attack had identified al-Chalabi (with his known Al Qaeda links) on the scene, it would also have recorded whether he or anyone else removed sensitive materials that night. There is no public information that either of these is the case.
Rather, the fact that the CIA dispatched "local Libyan agents" "the day after the attack" suggests that U.S. intelligence had at least some reason to believe such materials were still there and could be recovered. It also would seem to indicate that al-Chalabi did not depart for Pakistan until sometime after September 12, 2012 as well as after the sensitive materials were understood to be missing.
Given the size of that CIA Annex operation (which the WSJ puts at around two dozen operatives), there would have been quite a bit of reporting flowing to multiple recipients in and around Washington, D.C. on a daily basis. Some of that reporting very well may have provided at least indications of the identities of various Libyans who may have been working with those operatives.
It is easy to imagine that Ayman al-Zawahiri and the rest of the Al Qaeda top leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area might have considered this to be extremely valuable—and desirable—information.
Connecting these dots in this way may or may not yield an accurate assessment of exactly what happened at that Benghazi compound or even exactly who eventually removed whatever sensitive documents and materials may have been there.
But the deaths under undisclosed circumstances of 15 individuals who had been at some point "supporting the investigation" in the months following the attack, after a known Al Qaeda jihadi (al-Chalabi) personally couriered materials from the CIA Annex to Al Qaeda core leadership, would at least suggest that maybe Al Qaeda has gotten its hands on some names—names belonging to people they do not want speaking with U.S. authorities.