By Deb Riechmann, AP
WASHINGTON–The Obama administration for the first time on Friday identified two militant groups in Libya, including one led by a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, as being allegedly involved in the attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The department designated the two branches of the Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, those in the cities of Derna and Benghazi, and a third branch in Tunisia as foreign terrorist organizations.
It also named Sufian bin Qumu, the leader of the Derna branch, and Ahmed Abu Khattala, a senior leader of the Benghazi branch, as specially designated global terrorists.
The Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi is still a political issue in Washington. Republicans in Congress criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the attack and the level of security at the diplomatic outpost.
U.S. officials have said that Khattala and an unspecified number of others have been named in a sealed complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, but it’s unclear what they have been charged with. No one has been arrested in the attack in which a group of militants set fire to the diplomatic mission and killed the four.
Qumu, who was released from Guantanamo Bay in 2007 and later freed in Libya, was described as a “probable member of al-Qaida” in an assessment written by officials at the military prison in Cuba in 2005. The assessment was released by Wikileaks.
The State Department, however, said al-Qaida did not orchestrate the Benghazi attack.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the two Ansar al-Sharia branches are separate groups. “They’re not official affiliates of core al-Qaida so we have no indications … that core al-Qaida directed or planned the Benghazi attack,” she said.
She also said the announcement was not an assertion that Ansar al-Sharia’s branches in Benghazi and Derna were the only two organizations whose members were allegedly involved in the attack in Benghazi, that those groups pre-planned the attack well in advance or that they were somehow more responsible than any others involved.
She said officials were still investigating the Benghazi attack. “We’re not designating them because of any new information to point to in terms of Benghazi and the events there,” she said.
For more than two years, Libya has been held hostage to increasingly powerful militias. Initially they were formed out of rebel brigades that fought Libyan forces in the 2011 uprising. The government has relied on them to carry out security duties because of the weakness of the army, but they have carved out spheres of power of their own, and many are made up of Islamic extremists.