The delay is probably only the first of many enormous challenges that U.S. authorities face in fulfilling President Obama’s vow to seek justice for the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi.
Agents will have to help secure a charred crime scene that was left open to the public and looted by militants; sift through the ashes for shell casings, residue from explosives and other physical evidence; and track down people who may have witnessed or were part of the attack, which could mean venturing into unfamiliar, dangerous territory in a country with little security, according to several former and current FBI agents who have been involved in similar investigations in foreign countries.
The central government in the Libyan capital of Tripoli does not exert authority over the many armed militias, some of which are known to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda, further complicating the task.
“The obstacles are huge,” said Don Borelli, an FBI agent for 25 years and the former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York.
“It’s not like you can walk in like in the movies and say, ‘FBI, we’re here,’ ” Borelli said. “The FBI doesn’t mean anything in their country. It’s not like your badge carries any weight.”
The bureau declined to comment. But U.S. intelligence officials said that, despite the delay in getting into Benghazi, agencies have been able to draw intelligence from an array of sources, including news footage of the attack, intercepted phone calls and e-mails, and information from human sources recruited by the CIA.
The officials said they have reached a tentative conclusion that the assault was carried out by a group aligned with al-Qaeda but not directed by the terrorist network’s core leadership. The officials stressed the preliminary nature of the assessments, noting that a massive analytic effort involving every agency in the intelligence community is still in its early stages.
“We still don’t assess that this is core al-Qaeda,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “We assess that this is most likely a group best described as al-Qaeda sympathizers.”
Libyan authorities said they have made four arrests in connection with the attack, but they have provided no other details. Federal agents who have been involved in past investigations overseas cautioned that it was unclear whether the people arrested were involved in the violence.