The New York Times presented a lengthy report on the Benghazi attack in its Sunday edition (12/29), and one of its central tenants was that the attackers had no connection to al Qaeda.  Specifically, there was “no evidence that al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.”  I was flabbergasted.  No evidence?  And not “any role”?  Seriously?  Pretty strong, quantifiable words.  I could live with “not a preponderance of evidence leading to the conclusion that al Qaeda senior leadership directed the attack.” Or, “little evidence to support that the attack was committed by al Qaeda members from outside of Libya.”  But NO evidence?  And NO role from al Qaeda?  At all?  I wondered how that could be, since even a cursory study of Benghazi would turn up a Library of Congress report written one month before the attack.  The title?  Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile. 

Beyond the fact that the researchers for the Library of Congress report found plenty of evidence that Ansar al Sharia (the group that perpetrated the attack and that the NYT’s calls a “local militia”) had/has ties to Al Qaeda, the report alone is evidence.  In addition, we recently caught a core al Qaeda member in Tripoli (strangely, as reported by the New York Times), who was sent specifically to develop al Qaeda networks throughout the country.  Even the NYT itself has reported on al Qaeda connections in the Benghazi attack in the past.  How then did this reporter miss all of this?  On the surface, it appears because he relied exclusively on “eye-witness accounts” and “people with direct knowledge”.  So if they said they weren’t al Qaeda, then they weren’t al Qaeda.  Simple.  I mean, really, after we ripped the last AQ member off the streets of Tripoli, why on earth would they want to hide an al Qaeda link?  Surely the’d brag about it to a NYT reporter, right?  They wouldn’t want to keep the affiliation secret, like the Library of Congress report found (Understand, this report was written one month before the attack, and thus has no partisan leanings about what ultimately occurred – unlike the NYT story).  Some excerpts:

  • Ansar al-Sharia, led by Sufian Ben Qhumu, a former Guantanamo detainee, has increasingly embodied al-Qaeda’s presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States.
  •  AQSL in Pakistan dispatched trusted senior operatives as emissaries and leaders who could supervise building a network. Al-Qaeda has established a core network in Libya, but it remains clandestine and refrains from using the al-Qaeda name.
  • The al-Qaeda clandestine network is currently in an expansion phase, running training camps and media campaigns on social-media platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube. However, it will likely continue to mask its presence under the umbrella of the Libyan Salafist movement, with which it shares a radical ideology and a general intent to implement sharia in Libya and elsewhere.

When it fit his narrative, the NYT reporter relied exclusively on interviews of those theoretically involved in the attack as proof-positive that what they said was the rock bottom truth – but when the interview was off-narrative, it was “bizarre” to the reporter, as when “Other Benghazi Islamists insist, bizarrely and without evidence, that they suspect the C.I.A. killed the ambassador.”

Bizarrely and without evidence.  Exactly what I would say about the NYT piece given what I know about al Qaeda – and therein lies the rub.  How you define al Qaeda is at the crux of the debate.  The NYT reporter went on Meet the Press to discuss the story, and when pressed, stated that if one meant al Qaeda as “Founded by bin Laden and run by Zawahiri”, then no, there was no AQ involvement.  The problem with this is that the NYT is using a nation-state construct to define a sub-state threat.  In effect, using old analog definitions to describe a digital phenomenon.

In the reporter’s eyes, al Qaeda is restricted to a core group of people who fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan and is currently struggling to survive in the mountains of Pakistan.  Other individuals and groups, no matter how much they wish to become al Qaeda, will never be so without this core bestowing the mantle upon them, much like citizenship.

For a nation-state construct, this definition is correct.  A person in Nigeria cannot wake up tomorrow and say, “I’m a citizen of the United States” and expect to garner any of the privileges that would bestow.  But that isn’t how al Qaeda functions.  It isn’t a nation-state, and a person in Nigeria could very well wake up tomorrow and say, “I’m a member of al Qaeda” – and he would be.  Al Qaeda itself has repeatedly stressed it is the Muslim Ummah’s duty to attack the west, and anyone who did so is welcome in its arms.  There are plenty of examples of terrorist groups that existed before bin Laden entered the world stage, and who now follow the al Qaeda mantle—most notably al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  That group started out as the GSPC, an Islamic group fighting to overthrow the government of Algeria – much like Ansar al Sharia in modern day Libya.  In 2006, the GSPC changed its name and is now known as an al Qaeda affiliate, and would be with or without the core group in Pakistan bestowing any legitimacy upon them.  In fact, the reverse is what usually occurs.  A group calls itself al Qaeda, and if they become effective, the core group then acknowledges them, as is what happened with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Flying an American flag does not make you a U.S. citizen, but flying the black flag of Al Qaeda most certainly bestows affiliation with that group whether the core group acknowledges you or not – and there were a multitude of AQ black flags flying in Benghazi after Qaddafi fell.

And that is where the NYT article falls short.  It neither understands nor explains asymmetric threats, and falls back on what it does understand: an archaic nation-state construct.  To use the reporter’s definition, there is no al Qaeda in Iraq or Syria, despite the massive reporting that proves otherwise.  And where, a year after the Benghazi attack, are these non-al Qaeda fighters getting trained?  In Benghazi, facilitated by Ansar al Sharia.  But that doesn’t indicate any connection between that “local” militia group and any trans-national jihadist organizations because Zawahiri didn’t direct the action.

The NYT would say there was no al Qaeda involvement in the slaughtering of the British soldier by two maniacal Nigerians, and by their definition they would be correct.  The group “founded by bin Laden and lead by Zawahiri” did not order the attack, but one of the murderers stated in open court, “Al-Qaeda, I consider to be mujahideen. I love them, they’re my brothers.”  Does that imply an al Qaeda connection?  Even if he’s never met another al Qaeda member?  Yes, it does.  It’s the digital age, and they are exactly the disciples al Qaeda wants.

Remember Jim Jones?  The cult leader who had his entire merry band drink poisoned Kool-Aid, spawning the saying that anyone who mindlessly believed something despite evidence to the contrary was “drinking the Kool-aid”?  Say we brought him forward to modern day, and instead of being restricted to his sermons, his reach limited by his personal presence, he was now online spreading his vision.  Ultimately, he conducts the same acts as before, and hundreds in Guyana drink his poisoned Kool-Aid, only this time seven people in Detroit are also found dead, having drunk poisoned Kool-Aid.  On their computers the police find a plethora of propaganda from Jones, then the ultimate command to kill themselves.  The seven have never met another member of the cult, have never been to South America, and have never heard Jim Jones’ voice.  Are they members of the cult?  The NYT, using their nation-state construct, would say no, they’re not.

Much like their assertion of no al Qaeda connection in the Benghazi attack, I’d say they’re drinking some purple Kool-Aid.

UPDATE, 10 JAN 2014:

The state department has decided to designate Ansar al Sharia as a Foreign Terrorist Organization – along with the leader, a former GITMO detainee who trained with and fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan.  The State Department press conference was a tortured mess as they tried to tap-dance their way through whether AQ – or other foreign terrorist organizations – were involved in Benghazi.

STATE: “Core AQ did not plan this event,”  and “Ansar al Sharia is not an official affiliate.”

REPORTER: “But Jen, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Bin Qumu, he has ties to bin Ladin, he trained with him in camps in Pakistan in 1993. Doesn’t that give him ties to al-Qaida?”

STATE: “Well again, Lucas, there’s no indication at this point that core al-Qaida was involved or planned these attacks, and these are not official affiliates of al-Qaida.”

REPORTER: “If you’re an alumnus of al-Qaida, doesn’t that give you ties to al-Qaida?  What does it take to have ties to al-Qaida? Is it an email? Is it a certificate of completed training? I’m just curious what it takes to have ties to al-Qaida.”

Room erupts in laughter.  State continues its tortured logic dance.