Search for Benghazi Attack Suspects is Puzzling

By: From CNN's Tim Lister, Chris Lawrence and Paul Cruickshank
By: From CNN's Tim Lister, Chris Lawrence and Paul Cruickshank


BENGHAZI, Libya (From CNN) -- Five weeks after terrorists stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, confusion over the nature of the attack, the extent to which it was planned and the identity of the perpetrators seems as pervasive as ever.

The latest in the conflicting reports coming out of the country: the naming of Ahmed Abu Khattala as a suspect in the assault that left four Americans dead.

Abu Khattala was identified in published reports this week as the leader of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist group widely suspected to be involved in the consulate attack. Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported Wednesday that Abu Khattala was at the consulate while the attack was unfolding.

"Witnesses ... have said they saw Mr. Abu Khattala leading the assault," The New York Times reported.

But some sources in Benghazi say they doubt Abu Khattala had such a role, telling CNN that he is neither the leader of Ansar al-Sharia nor currently connected with other jihadist groups.

Two sources in Benghazi contacted by CNN describe Abu Khattala as conservative but not a jihadist. They say they had previously heard nothing about his being a suspect in the attack.

That view was echoed by Hamad Bugrain, a spokesman for the February 17 Brigade, who denied that Abu Khattala led the attack and said he "is no longer active in any military service or in any brigades." February 17th is considered one of the more effective units in Benghazi and intervened to help Americans trapped at the consulate's annex building on the night of the attack.

Bugrain added that Abu Khattala had been connected to Ansar al-Sharia at some point but he now has a "normal lifestyle."

Another source with well-established contacts among Libyan jihadist groups said Abu Khattala had come to prominence during the 2011 Libyan revolution after being freed from Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.

The source said Abu Khattala had a radical reputation as a "takfiri" - a Muslim who accuses other Muslims of being apostates if they don't follow certain aspects of Sharia law. He added that Abu Khattala's former brigade had been suspected in the assassination last year of former Interior Minister Abdelfattah Younis in Benghazi, after he had defected from the Gadhafi regime.

Abu Khattala himself spoke with Reuters in Benghazi on Thursday and said he had heard he was a suspect only through news media.

"These reports say that no one knows where I am and that I am hiding," he told Reuters. "But here I am in the open, sitting in a hotel with you. I'm even going to pick up my sister's kids from school soon."

He denied being a leader of Ansar al-Sharia but said he was friendly with the group and knew its members. He also acknowledged going to the consulate the night of the attack after receiving a phone call about the assault, but told Reuters: "Just because someone is there doesn't mean they were behind it."

"I arrived at the scene just like the others did - to see what was happening," he told Reuters.

Abu Khattala gave the same account to New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick, who told CNN Friday: "He said he was on the scene but arrived after the shooting had already begun and was just basically trying to break up a traffic jam."

But Kirkpatrick said he did not think Abu Khattala's account was particularly convincing. One of the problems investigators face is the lack of central authority in Libya, where security relies upon various militia that co-exist uneasily. Additionally, many senior members of the security services - especially in Benghazi - have been assassinated in recent months.

The rampant insecurity in Benghazi is repeatedly referenced in roughly 160 pages of diplomatic traffic released Friday by the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa.

They include one cable sent from the consulate just a week before the attack that reports: "An hour-long gun battle broke out between local police and militia forces August 28 ... demonstrating the very delicate dynamic among the city's official and unofficial security forces."

Kirkpatrick, who spoke to CNN from Benghazi, said Libya doesn't "have much of an army or police force ... so I think (Abu Khattala) feels a certain amount of impunity walking around the streets of Benghazi."

In several cases of politically motivated violence, suspects have been detained and questioned before being released "for lack of evidence." Few prosecutions have occurred.

When asked by CNN Friday if the United States has a good idea of where the leadership of Ansar al-Shariah is, a U.S. official said the current thinking is that the group is concentrated east of Benghazi.

Libyan officials say that dozens of militants who previously had compounds in and around the eastern town of Derna had recently sought refuge in the forests and ravines behind the coastal town of Susa, which lies between Derna and Benghazi.

Earlier this month, three Libyan policemen were killed in an attack on their checkpoint at Susa that was blamed on Islamist radicals.

Asked about the intelligence-gathering process in Benghazi, the U.S. official said: "We obviously don't have boots on the ground," but he did suggest that U.S. agencies are working with Libyans to gather information. U.S. and Libyan authorities are also investigating whether al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa - al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - had a role in the Benghazi attack.

Several days after the assault, the president of Libya's Parliament, Mohammed al Magarief, asserted that U.S. intelligence had intercepted communications between elements of AQIM and Ansar al-Sharia.
Neither U.S. nor Libyan officials have given further details.

Since the fall of Gadhafi, experts believe AQIM has tried to expand its operations northwards into Libya from its sub-Saharan strongholds. Sources briefed by Western intelligence told CNN that last year two senior AQIM figures made trips to Libya to explore the possibility of cooperation with local Libyan Jihadist groups, secure weapons supplies and scout out possible locations for training facilities.

One of those operatives, Mohktar Belmokhtar, an Algerian founding member of AQIM, spent several months in Libya and traveled up to Libya's northern coast, according to the source.

The other, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid – whose reported execution of Western hostages has cemented a reputation for extreme brutality - made several trips to Libya in 2011, according to the source.

Both men are now believed to be in northern Mali, which has become the epicenter of AQIM operations after jihadist groups took control of much of the region this year.


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