The 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya was an "Al Qaeda-led event" according to multiple on-the-record interviews with the head of the House Intelligence Committee who receives regular classified briefings and has access to the raw intelligence to make independent assessments.
"I will tell you this, by witness testimony and a year and a half of interviewing everyone that was in the ground by the way, either by an FBI investigator or the committee: It was very clear to the individuals on the ground that this was an Al Qaeda-led event. And they had pretty fairly descriptive events early on that lead those folks on the ground, doing the fighting, to the conclusion that this was a pre-planned, organized terrorist event," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told Fox News in a November interview.
"Not a video, that whole part was debunked time and time again," Rogers added of the attack which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, Foreign Service officer Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, "which just leads to questions of why the administration hung with that narrative for so long when all the folks who participated on the ground saw something different."
The comments challenged the findings of a New York Times "investigation" which pointed instead to local militias and claimed an anti-Islam video played a role in inciting the attackers.
Asked in November what might explain the initial narrative that an anti-Islam film triggered the attack, Rogers did not answer directly but said all evidence points to the State Department, whose leadership skirted the security requirements for the Benghazi mission. "We think we can fairly sense what was going on here and I will tell you, the answers, I think, are going to lie within the State Department and the decision-making in the State Department," he said. "Lots of questions to be answered there."
In the same interview, Rogers also suggested there were attempts to connect between the assailants and the Al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan. "I can tell you we know the participants of the event were clearly Al Qaeda affiliates, had strong interest and desire to communicate with Al Qaeda core and others, in the process -- we believe before and after the event."
While there was no immediate response from the White House, State Department, National Security Council or Rogers to a New York Times investigation that "turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault," the Republican congressman who leads the House Intelligence Committee has consistently maintained, in on-the-record interviews, that the attack was premeditated terrorism and not linked to the anti-Islam film initially blamed by the Obama White House.
One day after the assault, on September 12, 2012, Rogers was among the first on Capitol Hill to describe the strike as a pre-planned attack. "I have no doubt it was a coordinated, military style commando-type raid that had both direct fire and indirect fire, military movements involved in it. This was a well-planned, well-targeted event. No doubt about it."
Separately, an intelligence source on the ground in Libya told Fox News on September 17, 2012, one day after Susan Rice's controversial claims on the Sunday talk shows that linked the attack to the video, that there was no demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi prior to the attack -- challenging the Obama administration's claims that the assault grew out of a "spontaneous" protest against the film.
"There was no protest and the attacks were not spontaneous," the source said, adding the attack "was planned and had nothing to do with the movie."
The source said the assault came with no warning at about 9:35 p.m. local time, and included fire from more than two locations. The assault included RPG's and mortar fire, the source said, and consisted of two waves.
In subsequent on-the-record interviews, as more has been learned about the attack, Rogers laid out a timeline which further supported the initial assessment of pre-meditated terrorism. "I believe that they had an operational phase that lasted at least a couple of weeks, maybe even longer," Rogers told Fox in an October 2013 interview. "Then an initiation phase that lasted a couple or three days prior to the event itself."
"It is accurate that of the group being targeted by the bureau (FBI) at this point, there’s strong Al Qaeda ties," Rogers said. "You can still be considered to have strong ties because you are in the ring of operations of Al Qaeda core. ... There are individuals that certainly fit that definition."
Separately, Fox News was first to report, based on sources familiar with the investigation who were not authorized to discuss the case with the media, that at least two of the key suspects in the Benghazi terror attack were at one point working with Al Qaeda senior leadership. Fox News was told that one suspect was believed to be a courier for the network, and the other a bodyguard in Afghanistan prior to the 2001 terror attacks.
The direct historic ties to Al Qaeda senior leadership appear to undercut early characterizations by the Obama administration that the attackers in Benghazi were isolated "extremists" with no organizational structure or affiliation. After the attack, Faraj al-Chalabi -- believed to be a former bodyguard for the network -- traveled to Pakistan, where he was detained, returned to Libya and eventually released before the FBI was granted access.
A former Guantanamo detainee, Sufian bin Qumu, who is suspected of training some of the operatives who took part in the assault, was in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, according to a knowledgeable source. Fox News was told last fall that the intelligence community was trying to determine whether he played any role directing the attack and whether he was physically on or near the consulate grounds.
While the New York Times investigation puts significant weight behind the video explanation, an independent analysis of social media traffic in Benghazi found that the first reference to the anti-Islam film was not detected until a day after the assault. The independent review of more than 4,000 postings was conducted by a leading social media monitoring firm in December 2012.
"From the data we have, it’s hard for us to reach the conclusion that the consulate attack was motivated by the movie. Nothing in the immediate picture – surrounding the attack in Libya -- suggests that,” Jeff Chapman, chief executive with Agincourt Solutions told Fox News three months after the assault.
Chapman said his analysts reviewed postings in Libya, including those from Benghazi, over a three-day period beginning on September 11. After identifying a geographic area and isolating a time frame, analysts "vacuumed" up the social media postings, which were then analyzed and translated.
"We have seen no traffic in Benghazi – in the immediate lead up to the attack - related to the anti-Islam film," Chapman said. "There is a single source reporting on the evening of 9/11 that roads leading to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi were blocked. We also believe we have identified at least one individual who may have been involved - based on our analysis - that he posted a picture of himself attacking the consulate with an RPG."
The first reference to the anti-Islam film, initially blamed by the Obama administration for provoking the violent attack in Benghazi, appears to be a retweet of a Russia Today story that was not posted until September 12 at 9:12 a.m. local time. The translation reads, "U.S. ambassador killed in Libya during his his country's consulate in Benghazi - Russia today http://t.co/SvAV0o7T response to the film abuser."
While the New York Times investigation found "Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests" a State Department classified cable directly conflicts with the claim. A review of an August 2012 classified cable, by Fox News, shows Al Qaeda was active in Benghazi and the fact was known to the CIA and the State department on the ground.
The U.S. Mission in Benghazi convened an "emergency meeting" less than a month before the assault that concluded Al Qaeda had training camps in Benghazi and the consulate could not defend against a "coordinated attack."
The authenticity of the classified cable, addressed to the office of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has never been challenged. And while then Defense Secretary Leon Panettta, and the chairman of the joint chiefs, Martin Dempsey told lawmakers during congressional hearings on Benghazi that they were briefed on the cable, Mrs. Clinton claimed it was not brought to her attention.
The cable marked "SECRET" summarized an August 15, 2012 emergency meeting convened by the U.S. Mission in Benghazi. It states that the State Department’s senior security officer, also known as the RSO, did not believe the consulate could be protected.
"RSO (Regional Security Officer) expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound," the cable said.
According to a review of the cable, the Emergency Action Committee was also briefed "on the location of approximately ten Islamist militias and AQ training camps within Benghazi … these groups ran the spectrum from Islamist militias, such as the QRF Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia, to 'Takfirist thugs.'" Each U.S. mission has a so-called Emergency Action Committee that is responsible for security measures and emergency planning.
In addition to describing the security situation in Benghazi as "trending negatively," the cable said explicitly that the mission would ask for more help. "In light of the uncertain security environment, US Mission Benghazi will submit specific requests to US Embassy Tripoli for additional physical security upgrades and staffing needs by separate cover." The details in the cable seemed to foreshadow the deadly September 11 attack on the U.S. compound.
While the administration’s public statements have suggested that the attack came without warning, the August 16 cable undercuts those claims. It was a direct warning to the State Department that the Benghazi consulate was vulnerable to attack, that it could not be defended and that the presence of anti-U.S. militias and Al Qaeda was well-known to the U.S. intelligence community.
The New York Times investigation also makes passing reference to the second wave of the attack on the CIA base, which included mortar fire, as "improvised that night." The second wave of the assault killed former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty who were defending the CIA annex from its roof top.
CIA personnel who testified on Capitol Hill in early December provided first hand accounts of the attack's premeditation, according to the Republican lawmaker who is leading the subcommittee investigation.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., told Fox News in an on-the-record interview, after the closed, classified session that all of the witnesses (eight total witnesses have now testified) were on the same page about the nature of the mortar attack.
"These were trained people and ... it was an attack. It wasn't over any type of film or propaganda," Westmoreland emphasized, referring to the administration's initial claims that an anti-Islam film triggered protests that led to the attack. "We don't know why the administration would have ever thought any differently," Westmoreland said. "Other than that them and the State Department were trying to make sure that they were covered because of the unpreparedness they were in."
The witnesses also testified that the mortar fire was accurate, professional and likely the work of a trained mortar team, which they believed included a spotter. Sources familiar with the testimony said the first mortar was about 25 meters short of the target, the second was closer and the next three were direct hits.
This is consistent with previous testimony that five mortars were fired in quick succession;previous witnesses testified those mortars were fired in under a minute. The New York Times investigation describes "people lingering in a nearby pasture, stirring fears that they were plotting coordinates for launching a mortar attack."
When the CIA personnel were asked for their reaction to the administration's initial explanation that an anti-Islam video and a demonstration gone awry were to blame for the attack, Fox News is told they were seething with anger because everything on the ground -- from their perspective -- showed it was a premeditated attack.
Some counterterrorism analysts concur with the assessment, describing the mortars used to strike the CIA annex in the second wave of the attack as potentially "smoking gun" evidence -- as mortars require skill and training to fire, and typically must be pre-positioned during daylight hours to ensure accuracy. If the mortar attack in the early morning hours of September 12th was spontaneous, the plates would have been set without a direct line of sight to the target because of the night sky; a scenario described as unlikely by military sources who have worked with mortars.
The opposing analysis is that the mortars were successfully set, and the assailants did not bring significant equipment with them to suggest pre-planning.
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.