Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before Congress today that there is "no doubt" that the terrorists who attacked a BP facility in eastern Algeria last week were armed with weapons that slipped out of Libya, and that rounding up those weapons was one reason Americans were in Benghazi when American diplomatic facilities there were attacked, with deadly results, last September 11.
"One of the reasons that we and other government agencies were present in Benghazi was exactly that. We had a concerted effort to track down and find and recover as many MANPADS and other very dangerous weapons as possible," she said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referring to man-portable, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. "The Pandora's Box of weapons coming out of these countries in the Middle East and North Africa is the source of one of our biggest threats. There is no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya… So we just have to do a much better job."
As ABC News reported Tuesday, the man who claimed to have planned the Algerian attack last week on behalf of al Qaeda, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, said back in November 2011 that his people "benefitted" from the black market weapons that were looted from Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's warehouses during the Libyan revolution in the fall of 2011. Several major Algerian news outlets, including the state-run Numidia News, reported that the attack had other ties to Libya in addition to the weapons. The terrorists crossed into Algeria from the Libyan border just 50 miles to the east, drove vehicles with Libyan license plates and dressed in Libyan military uniforms for the attack.
In the weeks after Gadhafi's fall, the U.S. State Department set up a mission to go into Libya and round up an estimated 20,000 MANPADS and other dangerous weapons, an effort that was based partly out of Benghazi and continued up to the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack there that claimed the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Though the State Department is at the forefront of the weapons mission, Clinton's reference to the "other government agencies" involved likely referred in part to the CIA, which operated out of an "annex" in Benghazi – a building Clinton today referred to as belonging to then-CIA director David Petraeus. One of the Americans killed on Sept. 11, former Navy SEAL Glen Doherty, told ABC News before his death that he was a contractor involved in the State Department program and was on a team that went into the field to recover or destroy the weapons on site. Doherty has since been identified as a CIA contractor.
Clinton said today that though the Tunisian government has released the only suspect ever detained for alleged involvement in the Benghazi attack, authorities in the North African country are still "keeping an eye" on him.
On Tuesday The New York Times, citing an unnamed senior Algerian official, reported that one of the three terrorists arrested in the Algeria attack said that some of the same militants involved in that attack had also been involved in the attack in Benghazi.
In the aftermath of each attack, U.S. officials linked the perpetrators to al Qaeda's North African affiliate al Qeada in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). But in the case of Benghazi, another sub-group, Ansar al-Sharia, was thought to be involved and in Algeria, Belmokhtar's splinter group, the "Signers With Blood Brigade," took credit for the attack. Complicating matters, in a statement during the Algerian crisis, Belmokhtar claimed the "blessed" operation on behalf of al Qaeda.
At a press conference Tuesday, Pentagon spokesperson George Little said that such divisions between terrorists groups in the region can be more symbolic than practical.
"I would note that al Qaeda in the Maghreb is not necessarily a monolithic group," he said. "There are different elements so it's important to bear that in mind… [AQIM] does what terrorists do: they plan and carry out attacks."