Calling the militia group reportedly involved in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya part of the al Qaeda network is a “gross oversimplification” of the group, a State Department spokesman said Monday.
“We don’t recognize them as an affiliate of core al Qaeda,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said regarding Ansar al-Sharia, the group reportedly involved in last year’s Benghazi attack, in which four Americans were killed.
“At this point we have no indication that core al Qaeda... directed or planned what happened in Benghazi,” she added, knocking down what she called “blanket statements that the facts, quite frankly, don’t back up.”
Harf’s remarks to reporters follow a New York Times investigation on Benghazi, which concluded that neither al Qaeda nor any international terrorist groups played a role in the attack. Some congressional Republicans are taking issue with that conclusion. “Al Qaeda is not decimated and there was a group there that was involved that is linked to al Qaeda,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.
On Monday morning, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., said on Fox News, “We thoroughly dispute that story as far as the link to al Qaeda.” Westmoreland charged the New York Times with “laying the groundwork” for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s potential presidential bid. The newspaper, he said, is “trying to absolve her from the lack of security that was sent over there, the number of requests for security that was turned down.”
Harf acknowledged that it is hard to identify the affiliations of the extremist groups involved in incidents like the Benghazi attack.
“These folks don’t carry ID cards, they don’t come out and wear a t-shirt that says, ‘I belong to al Qaeda,’” she said.
“We know some of them may have taken inspiration from al Qaeda ideology,” she added. However, she reasserted there is “no indication” that core al Qaeda directed or planned the attack. Given the adamant calls from Congress for all of the facts about the incident, Harf said that such distinctions matter.
At the same time, she said, “Whether or not they’re an affiliate doesn’t mean we’re any less concerned about them,” adding that the U.S. is “gravely concerned” about Ansar al-Sharia and its activities.