The New York Times’ conclusion that Al-Qaeda was not involved in last year’s attack on Ambassador Stevens in Libya—or even “infiltrated” Libya to begin with—is an example of a misleading game of semantics. The definition of “enemy” and even “Al-Qaeda” is becoming narrower and narrower, moving us closer to a more comforting (but incomplete) picture of the danger the West faces from Islamism.
The Times writes that an Islamist militia leader named Ahmed Abu Khattala is the almost certain culprit behind the Benghazi attacks, even if he denies it. This fact is used to deny Al-Qaeda’s role, along with the premise that there are two distinctly separate groups named Ansar al-Sharia and the one linked to Al-Qaeda cannot be implicated.
Khattala denies that he and his Obeida Ibn Al-Jarra militia are tied to Al-Qaeda. To the Times, the lack of an operational link is equivalent to no link at all, but the two are connected ideologically. Khattala is openly anti-American and approved of the Benghazi attacks. Both agree in violent retribution for mockery of their faith because of their common Sharia doctrine.
According to the Times’ own previous reporting, an Islamist group named Ansar al-Sharia is suspected of involvement. The Times confirms, “Witnesses at the scene of the attack identified many participants associated with Ansar al-Shariah.
Its leader, Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, said he disagrees that Western diplomats in Libya are legitimate targets and, “If it had been our attack on the U.S. Consulate, we would have flattened it.”
There are two groups named Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, one in Benghazi that may share responsibility, and one in Derna, led by Sufian bin Qumu.
Qumu was once a driver for a company owned by Osama Bin Laden. He was captured in Pakistan and spent six years in Guantanamo Bay before returning to Derna. His Al-Qaeda links are solid, but the Times reports that his Ansar al-Sharia was uninvolved in the Benghazi attacks.
Thomas Joscelyn persuasively argues that this is not the case. The two have a common name, branding and propaganda publisher. The Times also fails to answer an important question: If the two groups are truly separate, why wouldn’t one avoid the confusion by changing its name?
Even the use of the name “Ansar al-Sharia” is rooted in Al-Qaeda. The name first appeared in Yemen as a front for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We know from Osama Bin Laden’s records that were captured in Pakistan that he planned to change Al-Qaeda’s name and wanted affiliates to portray themselves as wholly independent.
A study by the American Federation of Scientists in August 2012, one month before the Benghazi attacks, confirmed that Al-Qaeda had a “core network” in Libya “but it remains clandestine and refrains from using the Al-Qaeda name.” It predicts that Al-Qaeda will continue to “mask its presence under the umbrella of the Libyan Salafist movement.”
One strange omission from the Times’ reporting is Muhammad Jamal al-Kashef and his Egyptian network. It is considered a terrorist entity by the U.S. government because of its very close links to Al-Qaeda. Al-Kashef is close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chief of Al-Qaeda. The newspaper reported in October 2012 that members of Al-Kashef’s network were believed to have taken part in the Benghazi attacks.
Another centerpiece of the New York Times series is that Al-Qaeda was not involved in the Benghazi attacks because it simply wasn’t there. Yet, NATO’s commander said in March 2011 that there were “flickers” of Al-Qaeda among the Libyan rebels, more than a year before the Benghazi attacks. A Libyan militia chief even said he had Al-Qaeda-linked fighters among his men.
By November 2011, the Al-Qaeda flag was being raised in Benghazi. At around the same time, Zawahiri was dispatching experienced operatives to Libya. One was previously arrested in the United Kingdom and entered Libya in May of 2011. He reportedly oversaw about 200 fighters.
The Times points to a letter sent by a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb shortly after the Benghazi attacks as proof that the group did not establish a significant presence in Libya.
The letter explained that it had sent four teams to the country, but only two arrived and only began to “lay the first practical bricks.” It also listed attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and no attacks in Libya were mentioned.
Again, Al-Qaeda is misunderstood. Multiple affiliates, some more closely connected to the central leadership than others, simultaneously exploit opportunities. Where one fails, another may succeed.
At the very least, Al-Qaeda had supporters in Libya who would be willing to engage in terrorism. They may not have Al-Qaeda membership cards or communicate with the central leadership, but they are still Al-Qaeda ideologically.
This same kind of thinking was seen in President Obama’s May 2013 speech at the National Defense University where he said, “Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”
The argument about what constitutes “Al-Qaeda” is, to a degree, a distraction. The bottom line is that Khattala, Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sharia and every other Islamist is devoted to implementing Sharia. They are all jihadists. They are all motivated by the same doctrine and they all have the same goals.
The New York Times series gives the impression that some in the West have an exaggerated view of Al-Qaeda and conflate it with other groups that do not pose serious threats. The real misconception is that one jihadist can be considered separate from another jihadist.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy contributed to this article.