The initial coverage of the U.S. Consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens blamed Ansar al-Sharia (AAS), with few reports linking AQIM to the operation.
The New York Times reported that the attack “was led by a brigade of Islamist fighters known as Ansar al-Sharia,” noting that the group claimed it had not acted alone. The article made only one reference to al-Qaeda, indicating that “reports from some terrorism experts” linking the “recent death in drone strikes of senior Qaeda leaders, including Abu Yahya al-Libi, were unsupported.”David D. Kirkpatrick and Steven Lee Myers, “Libya Attack Brings Challenges for U.S.,” New York Times, September 12, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/13/world/middleeast/us-envoy-to-libya-is-reported-killed.html?pagewanted=all.
For its part, CNN reported that a “pro-al Qaeda” group called the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Raham Brigades was the “chief suspect” in the attack, pointing out its involvement in previous attacks against the International Red Cross and the British ambassador’s convoy in Benghazi. The article claimed that AAS “was responsible for organizing the demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate,” but it did not clearly tie the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Raham Brigades to Ansar al-Sharia. Furthermore, the authors only brought AQIM into the story offhandedly, mentioning that a number of fighters from the group were operating in the town of Derna, Libya.Nic Robertson, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister, “Pro-Al Qaeda Group Seen behind Deadly Benghazi Attack,” CNN, September 13, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/12/world/africa/libya-attack-jihadists/.
But outlets were soon questioning whether AQIM played a larger role in the attacks. On September 28, Eli Lake wrote in the Daily Beast that Ansar al-Sharia’s militants had “boasted to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb about the attack,” while also citing one U.S. intelligence official who claimed that “AAS operative[s] were subordinate to the mid-level AQIM members.”Eli Lake, “Intercepts Show Attackers on U.S. Consulate in Benghazi Bragged to Al Qaeda,” Daily Beast, September 28, 2012, ttp://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/28/intercepts-show-attackers-on-u-s-consulate-in-benghazi-bragged-to-al-qaeda.html. In November 2012, Reuters reported comments from General Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, that “very likely that some of the terrorists who participated in the attack in Benghazi have at least some linkages to AQIM… That is not to say that it was AQIM which planned, or organized or led the activity, but clearly some of the individuals had some linkages.”“U.S. Commander Says Benghazi Attacks Linked to Al Qaeda in Maghreb,” Reuters, November 14, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/14/us-mali-usa-idUSBRE8AD0WF20121114.
In addition to Ham’s claims linking AQIM to the attack, CNN reported in March 2013 that a call “was made specifically to [Mokhtar Belmokhtar]” after the attack in which the caller excitedly told the then-AQIM senior leader, “Congratulations!” The network noted, however, that there was “no proof that the call was specifically about the attack,” and likewise said that there was no proof that “[Belmokhtar] directed or was involved in the Benghazi attack.”Paul Cruickshank, Tim Lister and Nic Robertson, “Phone Call Links Benghazi Attack to Al Qaeda Commander,” CNN, March 5, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/05/world/africa/benghazi-al-qaeda/.