U.S. officials confirmed to The New York Times on Wednesday that two Libyan Islamist militant groups and one individual will be given an official "terrorist" designation, because of their suspected involvement in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The designation marks the first time that Washington is formally assigning blame for the tragedy. It will also allow the U.S. to take legal and economic action against the groups, like freezing assets and blocking any business between American citizens and those listed.
Once the decision is formally announced, Ansar al-Shariah of Benghazi and Ansar al-Shariah of Derna, discrete groups despite the shared name, as well as a militant named Ahmed Abu Kattalah will be considered terrorists by the U.S.
The Times explains why these three entities were singled out:
The designation was expected to assert that [Ansar al-Shariah] fighters were also involved in the attack. They may have been identified by witnesses or security camera footage.
Last month, the Times ran a six-part series by David D. Kirkpatrick on the attack which focused, in part, on Khattala's involvement. Though he has denied affiliation with Ansar al-Sharia of Benghazi, the outlet cites witnesses saying not only that he is part of the group, but that he directed the attack itself. Kirkpatrick writes:
Witnesses at the scene of the attack identified many participants associated with Ansar al-Shariah. Mr. Abu Khattala’s presence and leadership were evident. He initially hung back, standing near the crowd at Venezia Road, several witnesses said. But a procession of fighters hurried to him out of the smoke and gunfire, addressed him as “sheikh” and then gave him reports or took his orders before plunging back into the compound. A local Benghazi official named Anwar el-Dos arrived on the scene and identified Mr. Abu Khattala as directing the fighters, people present said. Then Mr. Dos approached Mr. Abu Khattala for help entering the compound.
Others not directly tied to the Benghazi attack will also be added to formal terrorist watchlists, including Sufian bin Qumu, a former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who is the leader of Ansar al-Shariah of Derna. Qumu is not considered to be directly involved in the attack because Derna fighters appeared to be in Benghazi incidentally, though they may have participated in the attack and were likely not specifically commanded to do so by Qumu. However, he is deeply entrenched in the Islamist militant movement in Libya, according to the Washington Post, which first mentioned his affiliation with the attack in a story published earlier this week:
Qumu, 54, a Libyan from Darnah, is well known to U.S. intelligence officials. A former tank driver in the Libyan army, he served 10 years in prison in the country before fleeing to Egypt and then to Afghanistan. According to U.S. military files disclosed by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, Qumu trained in 1993 at one of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan and later worked for a bin Laden company in Sudan, where the al-Qaeda leader lived for three years.Qumu fought alongside the Taliban against the United States in Afghanistan; he then fled to Pakistan and was later arrested in Peshawar. He was turned over to the United States and held at Guantanamo Bay.
Two Tunisian entities, another Ansar al-Shariah and militant leader Seifallah ben Hassine will also be given terrorist designation.
The U.S. has filed criminal complaints against a number of individuals, but Libyan authorities say their judicial system is too weak to make any moves against them at this point. According to the Post, the complaints will expand the scope of Benghazi suspects:
About a dozen criminal complaints have been filed in the Benghazi case, with more expected. U.S. intelligence officials have said that several militias had a hand in the attack. Some of the individuals charged are from Darnah, although it’s not clear if they are tied to Qumu’s group. Khattala has already been named in a criminal complaint.
The terrorist designation puts to rest, in some ways, questions raised by Kirkpatrick's report. He concluded that al Qaeda was not involved in the consulate attack, a claim still contradicted by some members of Congress. But we argued that al-Qaeda's splintering makes it difficult to determine how terrorist organizations are affiliated and makes formal ties largely irrelevant. Now, Benghazi's Ansar al-Shariah will be considered its own distinct terrorist organization, highlighting the fact that our counter-terrorism efforts must expand beyond targeting al-Qaeda leadership.