A message on the embassy Web site Thursday told U.S. citizens in Libya to avoid areas of the city where protests are planned and warned that “even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can turn violent and unpredictable. You should avoid them if at all possible.”
After Obama administration officials initially characterized the assault as a protest that turned violent, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday became the highest-ranking official to call the attack an act of terrorism. In remarks at the United Nations, Clinton said that terrorists were “working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was a terrorist attack. Panetta says now the investigation is focused on exactly who was behind the violence that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens.
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Clinton and others had avoided that term until the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, testified before Congress last week that the ambassador and others “died as a result of a terrorist attack.”
At the time, Olsen said that analysts were examining “indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s affiliates.”
U.S analysts have combed through intercepted communications, pictures and video from the scene and information from sources, including suspects taken into custody by the Libyan government.
Describing the militants involved, one U.S. official said: “Those individuals — whoever they may be — who took part in the attack all swim in the same, relatively small, extremist pond. So there could be a number of individual or ad hoc ties with AQIM or other extremist groups. These connections alone do not mean AQIM was behind or planned the attack. This is why there’s an ongoing investigation, to identify the attackers and determine motives and relationships to extremist groups.”
Two other U.S. officials said that intelligence indicates that the AQIM figures may have included one or more from outside Libya but declined to provide more details. AQIM, which grew out of a long-standing insurgency in Algeria, has mainly been a regional menace, but it is a source of growing concern to U.S. counterterrorism officials largely because it has acquired territory and weapons in northern Mali.
Beyond the suspicions of al-Qaeda involvement, the key questions surrounding Benghazi so far have centered on the extent to which the assault was premeditated. The staging of the attack, which targeted two separate U.S. compounds, is seen by analysts as evidence of significant pre-planning. But officials said the fighters needed to rearm and that mortars didn’t appear until seven hours into the fight, indicating impromptu adjustments.
“They had to rally people to get their most lethal weapons,” the administration official said.