Sixteen months after the attacks on US diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, the State Department on Friday named two groups it says were involved in the attacks and designated them as terrorist organizations.
The State Department has placed Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi and Ansar al-Sharia in Derna (a port city in eastern Libya) on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, in part as a result of their involvement in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the US mission and annex in Benghazi.
Four American government personnel died in the attack, including Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya. The shocking events led to bitter and divisive congressional hearings, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of covering up its inaction on signs of trouble in Benghazi and offering inadequate emergency response to the attacks.
At one point, a frustrated Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of State, banged her fists on the hearing room table and fired back at Republican questioners who had suggested department malfeasance.
The designations had been rumored all week, and some Republicans jumped the gun on the State Department by offering statements before the designations were announced.
On Wednesday, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California, issued a statement welcoming reports of Ansar’s imminent designation, adding, “16 months after the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, the administration is confirming what it has long known – that Ansar al-Sharia carried out an attack against the United States that killed four Americans.”
Ansar al-Sharia has been suspected of involvement in the Benghazi attacks since the days after the firebombing of a lightly guarded diplomatic compound and an annex that had been used by the CIA as it probed extremist factions in the area.
In announcing the designations, the State Department said the two organizations in Libya are also responsible for terrorist attacks against civilian targets, as well as assassinations and attempted assassinations of security officials and politicians in eastern Libya.
The leaders of the two groups, Ahmed Abu Khattalah and Sufian bin Qumu, are also designated as "global terrorists."
Mr. bin Qumu, head of the Derna branch, is a former detainee at Guantánamo, the US detention camp in Cuba for suspected terrorists. Mr. Khattalah, head of the Benghazi Ansar, has met with a number of Western journalists since the 2012 attacks and maintained his innocence. After proof was offered of his presence at the US compound on the night of the attack, Khattalah acknowledged being there but claimed to be helping Libyan security forces in efforts to repel the attack.
The State Department also designated a third organization, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, as a terrorist organization, and named its leader, Seifallah Ben Hassine, as a “specially designated global terrorist.” Ansar’s Tunisia organization was involved in the Sept. 14, 2012, attacks on the US Embassy and American school in Tunis, the statement said. Mr. Hassine’s group has been named a terrorist organization by the Tunisian government, which accuses it of attacks on Tunisian security forces, political leaders, and tourist sites, the State Department noted.
The US says Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia is “ideologically aligned” with Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. Friday’s announcement does not make similar claims about Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia groups. But according to some recent press reports, US officials have said that bin Qumu’s Guantánamo file indicates that he had trained in Osama bin Laden’s Torkham camp near the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Critics have continued to lament what they see as a lack of US resolve to follow through on President Obama’s pledge in the days after the Benghazi attacks to bring those responsible to justice.
“The Obama administration should be doing all it can to hunt down those responsible for this [Benghazi] terrorist attack,” Representative Royce said in his statement. “I’m gravely concerned that they are not.”
The State Department seemed to respond to such claims in its announcement, saying, “The US government is committed to taking all appropriate actions against the organizations and individuals responsible for the attacks against the US diplomatic facilities in Libya and Tunisia.”
It further announced setting an award of up to $10 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of anyone involved in the Benghazi attacks.