The U.S. has identified five men who might be responsible for the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year, and has enough evidence to justify seizing them by military force as suspected terrorists, officials say. But there isn’t enough proof to try them in a U.S. civilian court as the Obama administration prefers.
The men remain at large while the FBI gathers evidence. But the investigation has been slowed by the reduced U.S. intelligence presence in the region since the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks, and by the limited ability to assist by Libya’s post-revolutionary law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which are still in their infancy since the overthrow of dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
The Libyan Embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Waiting to prosecute suspects instead of grabbing them now could add to the political weight the Benghazi case already carries. The attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans weeks before President Barack Obama’s re-election. Since then, Republicans in Congress have condemned the administration’s handling of the situation, criticizing the level of embassy security, questioning the talking points provided to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for her public appearances to explain the attack and suggesting the White House tried to play down the incident to minimize its effect on the president’s campaign.
The FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies identified the men through contacts in Libya and by monitoring their communications. They are thought to be members of Ansar al-Shariah, the Libyan militia group whose fighters were seen near the U.S. diplomatic facility prior to the violence.
Republican lawmakers continue to call for the Obama administration to provide more information about the attack. The White House released 99 pages of emails about the talking points drafted by the intelligence community that Rice used to describe the attack, initially suggesting they were part of a series of regional protests about an anti-Islamic film. In those emails, administration officials agreed to remove from the talking points all mentions of terror groups such as Ansar al-Shariah or al-Qaida, because the intelligence pointing to those groups’ involvement was still unclear and because some officials didn’t want to give Congress ammunition to criticize the administration.
The U.S. has decided that the evidence it has now would be enough for a military operation to seize the men for questioning, but not enough for a civilian arrest or a drone strike against them, the officials said. The U.S. has kept them under surveillance, mostly by electronic means. There was a worry that the men could get spooked and hide, but so far, not even the FBI’s release of surveillance video stills has done that.