Libya attack: US doubts that Al Qaeda planned ahead

UN Ambassador Susan Rice said Sunday she doubts the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was a pre-planned Al Qaeda operation that could have been detected. As protests to an anti-Islam video continued, some knowledgeable lawmakers aren't so sure.

Hoshang Hashimi/AP
Afghans burn the American flag in Herat, Afghanistan, Sunday during a protest against an Internet video mocking the Prophet Muhammad that many fear could further aggravate Afghan-U.S. relations.

US officials are moving away from the theory that Al Qaeda or some other terrorist group planned and carried out a coordinated attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last week.

The violent protest in the wake of an anti-Islam YouTube video "seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons," UN Ambassador Susan Rice said Sunday, noting that rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons are easily obtained in Libya following the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.

Speaking on "Fox News Sunday,” Ambassador Rice asserted that the US had no “actionable intelligence” that might have alerted officials to the attack in Benghazi, which killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other embassy personnel.

That’s a key point, addressing at least indirectly the question of whether State Department and Defense Department assets could have been deployed to protect or remove US diplomatic personnel in Benghazi before the ultimately deadly protest occurred.

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Forty-eight hours before the protests in Cairo and Benghazi, US intelligence officials sent a cable to the embassy in Egypt warning of the YouTube video and the reaction it might cause, according to a CNN report, but the cable was not sent to the embassy in Tripoli, Libya or the consulate in Benghazi. Like many US diplomatic outposts, the Benghazi consulate relied on local security forces.

Whether or not it was Al Qaeda per se, the organization has cooperated with terrorist groups worldwide including “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” according to GlobalSecurity.org. In a 2008 cable made public by WikiLeaks, Ambassador Stevens described the Libyan port city of Derna (in the eastern part of the country, as is Benghazi) as "a wellspring of Libyan foreign fighters" for Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Rice’s comments put her at odds with Libyan officials, who continue to insist that the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens and the other Americans was planned well in advance of the protests that began on the anniversary of 9/11 and spread around the world.

"It was planned, definitely, it was planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago, and they were planning this criminal act since their arrival," Libyan President Mohammed Magarief said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday.

So far, Libyan authorities have arrested some 50 individuals suspected of being connected to last week’s attack. President Magarief told CBS the suspects are connected to Al Qaeda, or are affiliates and sympathizers.

"We don't know what are the real intentions of these perpetrators," he said. "They entered Libya from different directions. Some of them definitely from Mali and Algeria."

While they do not go that far in detailing their suspicions, some knowledgeable US lawmakers still think Al Qaeda may have been involved.

"There's huge gaps in what we know," US Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent, said on “Fox News Sunday.” "There's other information, classified information we have that just makes you stop for a minute and pause.”

Following days of protest, the Pentagon dispatched elite Marine rapid response teams to Libya and Yemen, but a team deployed to Khartoum was turned back when the Sudanese government objected.

The Navy also moved two warships to positions off the coast of Libya. The two destroyers are largely meant as a show of force, but they carry Tomahawk missiles and can also be available for evacuations or other missions as needed.

"I think our approach right now is to not do anything until we've been requested to do it by the State Department," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Asia. But he noted that, "I think that we have to continue to be very vigilant because I suspect that ... these demonstrations are likely to continue over the next few days, if not longer."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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