CAIRO — The attackers who killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last September in Benghazi, Libya, represented a variety of Islamist groups and were motivated by a myriad of factors, the top Libyan official investigating the case has told McClatchy Newspapers.
They almost certainly included members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the North Africa affiliate of al-Qaida, which the French now are confronting in northern Mali, Army Gen. Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. military's Africa Command, said in a separate interview.
"I believe there are individuals who participated in the attacks in Benghazi who had at least some affiliation with AQIM," Ham said. "I don't interpret from that that this was AQIM-directed or even an AQIM-inspired or -supported effort. But the connection is there. And I think that what I am wrestling with is: What is the connection with all these various individuals or groups?"
Col. Abdel Salem Ashour, who heads the Libyan Interior Ministry's criminal investigations department, said he now thinks the attack was hastily planned by smaller groups whose membership comprised different nationalities. He said the attack wasn't well organized but that with the Libyan government essentially without forces in eastern Libya, it didn't need to be.
"Islamist groups have their own agendas, and they have the ability to gather and mobilize. They exploit the lack of security," he said.
Ashour said the case has been turned over to a judge in Tripoli, suggesting that suspects have been identified. But he emphasized that no arrests have been made.
Ham said the fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi played a role in creating space for many Islamist groups to thrive.
"When the Gadhafi regime collapsed, and there was, essentially, for a period of time no governmental control, it was in that environment that extremist organizations and criminal organizations took advantage of that situation to establish themselves and, in some cases, re-establish themselves," Ham said.
He said he is optimistic that the Libyan government will be able to exert control eventually.
"It's probably premature to say the expansion of extremist groups has been arrested," he said. "I think it is a matter of time before Libya is able to reverse the trend. But this is going to be difficult."