Since a deadly Sept. 11, 2012 attack by militants who overran America's modest outpost in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the death of a U.S. ambassador, al Qaeda's role has been hotly debated even as a new threat rises.
The arguments have been made mostly without the benefit of knowing what sensitive intelligence, which remained classified until this week, had revealed about the diversity of the terrorist perpetrators, much less the importance of understanding the larger threat they may portend.
What is no longer debatable is the body of evidence in intelligence channels that groups directly linked to core-al Qaeda in Pakistan have been coordinating operations with each other across North Africa and that the Benghazi attack is Exhibit A, according to ABC News intelligence sources and government reports.
"Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP, and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks," an unusual bipartisan report released this week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed for the first time. Two different branches of Ansar al-Sharia, both based in Libya, are accused of being involved in the Benghazi assault.
That intelligence -- known for at least a year by the U.S. counter-terrorism community -- was seen as significant because it meant that these regional al Qaeda affiliates work together better than was believed before Benghazi.
All five groups have been designated over the years as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the United States and by the United Nations, with the Ansar al-Shariah branches in Libya winning their designations most recently -- this year.
Three of those groups, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and the Jamal Network in Egypt, and Ansar al-Sharia of Derna, Libya, are commanded by jihadis with longstanding personal ties to the al Qaeda group in Pakistan now led by Egyptian pediatrician Ayman al-Zawahiri since bin Laden's 2011 killing by American commandos.
More than a year ago U.S. intelligence discovered that Algeria's al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- which has, according to a senior U.S. official, an estimated $60-90 million war chest from ransoms, narcotics smuggling and other illicit operations -- was bankrolling and communicating at unprecedented levels with other African terror groups that follow al Qaeda's Salafist ideology.
Besides AQAP and Ansar, Somalia's al Qaeda-core franchise al-Shabaab and Nigeria's upstart jihadi groups Boko Haram and Ansaru have been in the funding and communications loop too, according to ABC News intelligence sources.
"We have seen clear indications of collaboration among these organizations," Army Gen. Carter Ham, who commanded U.S. Africa Command when Benghazi occurred, said at a Homeland Security Policy Institute forum three months after the U.S. Mission and CIA "annex" attacks in 2012.