Benghazi bad guys: Is You Is or Is You Ain’t al-Qaeda?

A Dec. 28 New York Times feature by David D. Kirkpatrick purports to categorically dismiss a role for al-Qaeda in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, sure to win cheers from Democrats and jeers from Republicans. But the notion of any objectivity on this highly politicized question is dubious at best. In the paragraph where he attempts to define terms, Kirkpatrick poses it as an either/or:

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO's extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

The Times' Andrew Rosenthal in his Taking Note blog openly gloats at the fallout from Kirkpatrick's piece:

Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who has made a special crusade out of the attack on the American diplomatic and intelligence compound in Benghazi, was asked on "Meet the Press" to justify Republican claims that Al Qaeda agents planned and executed the operation..

Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC put her finger on the political question when she asked Mr. Issa why Republicans "use the term Al Qaeda." After all, she said, "you and other members of Congress are sophisticated in this and know that when you say Al Qaeda, people think central Al Qaeda. They don't think militias that may be inspired by Bin Laden and his other followers."

"There is a group there involved that is linked to Al Qaeda," Mr. Issa said. "What we never said — and I didn't have the security to look behind the door, that’s for other members of Congress — of what the intelligence were on the exact correspondence with Al Qaeda, that sort of information — those sorts of methods I’ve never claimed."

I'm still trying to parse that sentence.

Yeah, that Issa quote is a beaut of dissembling. But the true beauty of an amorphous entity like al-Qaeda is that it's there when you want it to be and not when you don't. Does lack of marching orders from the core or "central" al-Qaeda in Pakistan necessarily mean that the Benghazi hot-heads weren't "al-Qaeda"? We have pointed out that the group named in the attack, Ansar al-Sharia, has (at least) a Tunisian wing, and that a Yemeni group of the same name is essentially an arm of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Of course the shared name doesn't prove anything, and a link to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) would be more likely. But a supposed al-Qaeda link in the attack has been hyped by rad-left as well as Republican right—precisely to assert that al-Qaeda elements have been among those "who had benefited directly from NATO's extensive air power and logistics support." It's rather like the imbroglio in the 2012 presidential debate about whether the attack was "terrorism" or not. A matter of definition.

What few dare recognize—because it would impose limits on propagandistic use of the label—is that al-Qaeda is now on the franchise model. The Bush Global War on Terror paradoxically gave the name "al-Qaeda" cachet, helping to transform it from a small cell on the run in the mountains of Afghanistan to a global movement with a leaderless structure, affiliates acting autonomously but all too effectively in Iraq, Syria, Arabia, the Maghreb and beyond.