(CNSNews.com) – Asked directly on Wednesday evening if Tuesday's deadly violence in Libya was "linked to a terror attack" – possibly al-Qaeda – a State Department official demurred:
"Frankly, we are not in a position to speak any further to the perpetrators of this attack. It was clearly a complex attack. We’re going to have to do a full investigation," the unnamed "senior administration official" told a background teleconference briefing.
“We are committed to working with the Libyans both on the investigation and to ensure that we bring the perpetrators to justice. The FBI is already committed to assisting in that, but I just – we’re – it’s just too early to speak to who they were and if they might have been otherwise affiliated beyond Libya."
The State Department also said it was still "operating within the confusion of first reports" from Libya. "Many details of what happened in Benghazi are still unknown or unclear," the official said. "These are first reports, and so the facts could very well change as we get a better understanding."
As the hours passed, however, it became increasingly evident that the worst of Tuesday’s violence in Benghazi had nothing to do with an obscure film insulting Mohammed.
According to briefing administration officials, fighting between “unidentified Libyan extremists” and U.S. and Libyan security personnel lasted for more than four hours – from 10 PM-2.30 AM (4-8.30 PM eastern U.S. time).
“This was a well-armed, well-coordinated event, it had both indirect and direct fire, and it had military maneuvers that were all part of this very organized attack,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told MSNBC. “That’s concerning, so we are going to have to make sure, working with the Libyans hopefully, that these people are brought to justice very swiftly.”
Reports in the independent Libya Herald cited eyewitnesses in Benghazi as saying the attackers were Islamist Salafists, including members of one of the jihadists groups that have emerged in Libya in the aftermath of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Ansar al-Sharia.
A Libyan diplomat in London, Ahmad Jibril, also named Ansar al-Sharia as the perpetrators of the attack, the BBC reported.
The Quilliam Foundation, a British think tank set up by Muslims in 2008 with the declared aim of countering extreme Islamist ideology, also pointed to the sophistication of the assault in Benghazi and the use of weaponry including rocket-propelled grenades.
“The military assault against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi should not be seen as part of a protest against a low budget film which was insulting Islam – there were just a few peaceful protesters present at the event,” it said Wednesday.
Quilliam said it believed the assault “was a well-planned terrorist attack that would have occurred regardless of the demonstration, to serve another purpose. According to information obtained by Quilliam – from foreign sources and from within Benghazi – we have reason to believe that the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi came to avenge the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s second in command killed a few months ago.”
Just one day before the Benghazi attack, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a statement marking the 9/11 anniversary, and urging Libyans to avenge the killing in a U.S. drone strike last June of his Libyan-born deputy.
Zawahiri encouraged Libyans to attack Americans, saying al-Libi’s “blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the Crusaders.”
Rahman rallying cry
In his message, Zawahiri also demanded the release of Omar Abd al-Rahman, the Egyptian cleric serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his involvement in the al-Qaeda-linked 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City.
Among the myriad shadowy jihadist groups that have emerged in Libya in recent months is one invoking Rahman’s name and demanding his release.
Over the summer, after a bomb exploded outside the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi and a convoy carrying the British ambassador to Libya came under fire, a statement from the “Brigades of the Imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman” took responsibility for the attacks.
As CNSNews reported earlier, jihadist groups in Egypt threatened early this week to burn down the U.S. Embassy in Cairo if Rahman was not freed. The threat appeared in Egyptian media one day before the embassy was attacked, during a protest over the Mohammed movie.
Calls for freedom for Rahman, a long-time associate of slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a man revered in jihadist circles, have stepped up since President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, pledging to work for the septuagenarian cleric’s release.