At least two suspects in the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi had worked with senior al-Qaida leaders, Fox News reported Wednesday
Citing two unnamed sources, Fox reported one suspect was believed to be a courier for the al-Qaida network, and the other a bodyguard in Afghanistan prior to the 2001 terror strikes.
The direct ties to the terror group's senior leadership undercut early White House characterizations that attackers in the Libya seige were isolated “extremists" with no organizational structure or affiliation.
“It is accurate that of the group being targeted by the bureau, at this point, there’s strong al-Qaida ties,” Republican Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, head of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News.
"You can still be considered to have strong ties because you are in the ring of operations of al-Qaida core. ... There are individuals that certainly fit that definition."
Counterterrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Fox News investigators are finding "more and more ties -- not just to al-Qaida's branch in North Africa ... but al-Qaida senior leadership in Pakistan."
A year ago, Fox reported a former Guantanamo detainee, Sufian bin Qumu, was suspected of training jihadists in eastern Libya for the attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Fox reported Wednesday that Benghazi suspect Faraj al-Chalabi, also a Libyan national whose ties to Osama bin Laden date back to 1998, is believed to be a former bodyguard who was with the al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan in 2001.
After the Benghazi attack, al-Chalabi fled to Pakistan where reports suggest he was held, then later returned to Libyan custody and eventually released, Fox News said.
“Our sources say al-Chalabi is suspected of bringing materials from the compound to Benghazi to al-Qaida senior leadership in Pakistan," Joscelyn told Fox. "It's not clear what those materials consisted of but he is known to have gone back to Pakistan immediately after the attack."
Separately, and for the first time, Rogers laid out a timeline for the attack that suggests significant advance planning, Fox News reported.
According to the congressman, there was an “aspirational phase” several months out, where the idea of an attack was thrown around, followed by “weeks” of operational planning, and then the ramp up to the assault that lasted up to several days.
“I believe that they had an operational phase that lasted at least a couple of weeks, maybe even longer. And then an initiation phase that lasted a couple or three days prior to the event itself," Rogers told Fox News.
"And so this notion that they just showed up and decided this was a spontaneous act does not comport with the information at least with what we have seen in the intelligence community."
Initial White House statements said the attack was “spontaneous” and achieved with little planning.
The CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center declined to comment; the FBI didn't immediately comment.
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