[Correction (September 13, 2012, 11:57am): It has been noted that there are two organizations named Ansar al-Sharia -- one is an arm of Al Qaeda in Yemen and the other is active in Benghazi. The Daily Beast has a thorough post disambiguating the two.]
As more details continue to emerge about the attacks on US embassies, one might wonder that if these strikes were planned, could they have been foreseen? Moreover, until a group takes responsibility, is it possible to identify potential attackers and leading indicators?
Analysis using Recorded Future indicates that attacks on embassies could be direct retaliation for American drone assassinations of Al Qaeda leadership. Although the attackers may not have targeted the US ambassador directly, use of the protests created a chaotic circumstance that lent itself to vulnerabilities and unpredictability in diplomatic protection.
Evaluating Potential Attackers
Some media reports have identified the perpetrators of the attack on the embassy in Benghazi as members of Ansar al-Sharia (جماعة أنصار الشريعة in Arabic), an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), mostly active in Yemen but has been operating in Libya recently. Here is a timeline of the past 12 months of Ansar al-Sharia:
Though much of the discussion about Ansar al-Sharia centers around Yemen, a connection emerges between US actions in Yemen to activity in Libya. On Monday, a US drone strike killed a senior AQAP leader in Yemen, Saad al-Shihri. In digging into this organization a bit more, there are strong linkages in the data between the Al Qaeda offshoot, its presence stretches beyond Yemen.
In using Recorded Future to quickly review the past several months of attacks in Benghazi, one event pops out: three months ago, CNN featured a story about an attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, with another organization, Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rehman Brigades, taking credit:
As mentioned in the story, this group attacked the US embassy on the urging of Ayman al-Zawahiri, in retaliation for the killing of Abu Yahya al Libi, al Qaeda’s deputy commander in Libya. Furthermore, there was a significant political moment expected on September 12, 2012: Libya was holding a runoff election for prime minster. Disrupting this election could be a possible or additional motive of the attackers.
Though it is unclear if the attack on the embassy in Benghazi on September 11th is connected to the previous assault in June, it is difficult not to discern a pattern: both attacks happened after the assassination of an AQAP leader. Instead of retaliating in Yemen, however, where the targets had been hardened, perhaps the perpetrators determined it was easier to access American diplomats at softer targets in an ungoverned space such as Benghazi.
Emergence of An Al Qaeda Leader
Whichever group is responsible — and whether they eventually claim credit or not — it is clear that Al Qaeda had developed a strategy for building a foundation in Libya. In mapping AQ in Libya, a militant commander, Abdulbasit Azuz, appears as a key player:
The timeline of Azuz’s history shows that he was dispatched by al-Zawahiri from Pakistan to Libya in 2011 — and has been active for decades:
While we cannot definitely conclude that the attacks in Benghazi were planned, they were certainly preceded by previous attempts — and with two suspected organizations; it is difficult to ignore the cover provided by coinciding timing of protests in Cairo and political importance of de-stabilizing a nascent Libyan government. Either way, it is reasonable to expect increased drone activity in Yemen and Libya in attempt to thwart Al Qaeda’s operations.
We will continue to track these developments over the coming days and weeks.