The State Department on Friday will slap a terrorist designation on a militant Islamist group it believes played a role in the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, but the move will stop short of naming any individual as responsible for planning or leading the assault.
The designations of Libyan and Tunisian branches of the Ansar al Shariah network will be the first time the Obama administration has made a formal accusation that the group was involved in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
However, U.S. authorities haven’t concluded that the leader of one branch of Ansar al Shariah, Abu Sufian bin Qumu, a former detainee at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was involved in the attack. The investigation is still open and authorities haven’t ruled out Qumu’s involvement, but the matter is not yet decided, a senior U.S. official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because the designation isn’t official until Friday.
Qumu, 54, is the leader of Ansar al Shariah in Derna, Libya, which lies about 180 miles east of Benghazi. The Derna branch of Ansar al Shariah will be designated a terrorist organization, as will branches in Benghazi and in neighboring Tunisia.
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“We’re not saying he wasn’t involved in some way, but we’re not saying that he was,” the official said.
Qumu, who’s alleged to have trained at one of al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden’s training camps and fought against U.S. troops in Afghanistan, was released from Guantanamo in 2007. He was sent to Libya, where he was imprisoned by then-leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime until the next year.
Qumu and two other Ansar al Shariah leaders – Ahmed Abu Khattala and Seif Allah bin Hassine – will be singled out as “specially designated global terrorists,” a label that subjects them to a freeze of financial assets and bars American companies and individuals from doing business with them.
But he designation won’t link the groups to al Qaida, something likely to spark debate, especially from Republicans, who’ve accused the Obama administration of trying to cover up the circumstances of the Benghazi attack.
Ansar al Shariah has been suspected of being involved in the attack from the beginning, but other groups are also thought to have participated. U.S. officials have struggled in the 16 months since to piece together precisely what happened. Singling out Ansar al Shariah “doesn’t mean we’re not concerned about the other groups and it doesn’t mean that the other groups don’t have ties,” the U.S. official said.
The death of Stevens, the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in hostilities since 1979, led to sweeping changes in diplomatic protection, communication and oversight after an independent review board found that security was “grossly inadequate” at the Benghazi facility.
An independent review blamed poor leadership by senior State Department officials for leaving the Benghazi consulate highly vulnerable in a volatile city where other diplomats already had shut down operations or taken precautions.