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updated: 12/28/2013 7:14 PM

Libya fighters, not al-Qaida, behind Benghazi attack, NYT says

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The deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was led by fighters who benefited from NATO's support in the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, and not al-Qaida, The New York Times reported today.

The Times, citing extensive interviews with Libyans who had direct knowledge of the attack, said it found no evidence that al-Qaida or other terrorist groups had a role in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The newspaper said the Sept. 11 assault was fueled by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam, the argument made by U.S. officials at the time.

On the day of the attack, U.S. envoy David McFarland had sent a cable to Washington under Stevens's name, describing a meeting with militia leaders in eastern Libya two days earlier. The meeting highlighted both "growing problems with security" and the fighters' desire for investment by American companies, according to the Times story.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, declined to comment on the Times' story.

Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in television interviews five days after the 2012 attack, said the assault was a "spontaneous" protest against the anti-Islamic video that was "hijacked" by militants.

Republicans in Congress criticized Rice and the Obama administration's handling of the attack, saying officials "willfully perpetuated a deliberately misleading and incomplete narrative."

In the days after the attack, White House and senior State Department officials "altered accurate talking points drafted by the intelligence community in order to protect the State Department," according to the interim report on the assault issued in April by U.S. House Republicans.

Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who released the report with four other committee heads, didn't respond to requests for comment today.

Benghazi is the largest city in Libya's Cyrenaica region, where crude production has halted almost completely since the end of July on disruptions by militias and former petroleum facility guards demanding self-rule and a share of oil output.

The State Department's Rewards for Justice program has offered up to $10 million since January for the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in the 2012 attack. The program was only disclosed in November amid "security issues and sensitivities surrounding the investigation," the agency said at the time.

Militia Leader

A central figure in the attack was Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Times reported, citing numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed on the U.S. criminal probe into the attack call him a prime suspect, the newspaper said.

The Times said Abu Khattala had "declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Gadhafi on his list of infidel enemies."

Abu Khattal had "no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person CIA station in Benghazi," according to the newspaper.

Libya holds 48 billion barrels of crude reserves, Africa's largest, according to BP PLC. The OPEC-member nation has struggled to restore production to levels reached before the civil war that toppled Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

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