If a video threat from the leader of al-Qaida played a role in sparking the fatal attack on American installations in the Middle East, intelligence officials may change the way they assess such videos in the future -- since attacks have until now been days or weeks behind the threats.
U.S. intelligence is investigating whether calls to avenge the death of a Libyan-born al-Qaida leader -- which surfaced less than a day before the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi -- provided part of the motivation for the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, sources tell the Washington Guardian.
Late Monday, on the eve of the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, U.S. intelligence learned of a new 42-minute video in which al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri implored Libyans to rise up against Americans and avenge the death in June of Zawahiri’s top deputy, Abu-Yahya al-Libi, in a drone attack.
In the video, Zawahiri asked Libyans, "What is your role in avenging the death" of al-Libi, answering, "fight and kill the crusaders".
As angry crowds gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday, U.S. analysts were trying to decipher the importance of Zawahiri’s threat as other calls for retribution for al-Libi’s death began streaming in.
Officials had not concluded that any new threat assessments were necessary, or recommended any new security countermeasures at U.S. installations in Libya, when an angry crowd -- possibly joined by more organized militants -- began attacking the Benghazi mission with rocket-propelled grenades late Tuesday afternoon, the officials said. Stevens was one of four Americans who died in the attack.
Officials cautioned their investigation is ongoing and the threads of information about a possible tie to vengeance for al-Libi’s death are still being reviewed.
“There’s nothing certain yet, but we are focused on possible connections to the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi,” one person directly familiar with intelligence told the Washington Guardian.
Officials said they have not found a direct operational link to Al-Qaida’s senior leadership, and instead suspect Zawahiri’s call for vengeance may have simply reflected more general fervor in Libya that may have triggered the attacks by militants.
U.S. officials had known since June 4 that al-Libi was killed in a drone strike in the remote tribal regions of Pakistan, but Zawahiri’s recorded message Monday provided one of the first official confirmations to al-Qaida sympathizers around the world.
In his video, the al-Qaida leader summoned the “honorable, free-born people of Libya” to declare “what is your role in avenging the death of your son who revived the approach of your cleric, whose blood shouts to you, calls on you and incites you to fight and kill the crusaders."
"Do not let him down,” Zawahiri implored on the tape.
Officials said they expected the normal rhetoric from al-Qaida on the Sept. 11 anniversary, but the significance of avenging al-Libi’s death as a possible emotional trigger that day was still being analyzed when the Benghazi mission was stormed.
“We were flat-footed, and now what we don’t know is whether we could have done something sooner, whether this is a change in tactic or an unplanned action spurred on by Zawahiri’s message,” said one person briefed on the intelligence community’s thinking.
If Zawahiri’s call for vengeance, coupled with other regional incitements, turn out to be an emotional trigger for the attacks, it may force U.S. intelligence to re-evaluate how it responds to rhetorical threats from the heavily crippled terror organization, experts say.
Threatening messages from al-Qaida leaders have not historically led to imminent attacks. They have generally been regarded as possible triggers for sleeper cells to act days or weeks later, experts say.
“The traditional trajectory has not been for an attack to follow within 24 hours of a threat,” said Ben N. Venzke, the chief executive of the IntelCenter, a terrorist threat tracking company in Washington’s Virginia suburbs. Venzke provided a partial transcript of the Zawahiri video to the Washington Guardian.
“This is definitely a threat, definitely something we would flag, but we would not, nor does the historical data suggest you would, expect something to occur in less than 24 hours,” he added. “That would break from the normal pattern of behavior.”
U.S. intelligence routinely re-evaluates its assumptions and analytics, especially after incidents like the deadly Libyan attack.
Officials said one body of thinking that is emerging is that Tuesday’s tragedy was the outcome of a “perfect storm” in which Muslim anger over an Internet video mocking their faith combined with the fervor of calls to avenge al-Libi’s death. Together, they may have contributed to a combination of spontaneous uprisings and a more calculated but opportunistic militant strike, rather than the execution of a specific al-Qaida plot.
If so, al-Qaida messages in the future may be re-evaluated not only for clues about possible terror operations but also for indications of general sentiments that might result in flash-point attacks in the volatile region, officials and experts say.
State Department officials declined to address specific security arrangements, but said they had evaluated security at all of their missions worldwide prior to the Sept. 11 anniversary and did not know of a specific threat to warrant a change before Tuesday afternoon’s attack.
“We did, as we did in missions around the world, review the security there in the context of preparing for the anniversary of September 11th,” one official said. “And at that point, there was no information and there were no threat streams to indicate that we were insufficiently postured.”
Threat assessments are formal evaluations of the severity and/or likelihood of various national security threats.
Security countermeasures are steps that the military, private contractors and embassy personnel can take to reduce a threat, defend against it, or increase their safety in the face of a threat.
A drone attack is an attack from an unmanned aerial vehicle, controlled remotely.