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FBI zeroes in on Benghazi attack suspects, lacks evidence for civilian prosecution

Published time: May 22, 2013 02:38
A vehicle and the surround buildings burn after they were set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012 (AFP PHOTO)

A vehicle and the surround buildings burn after they were set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012 (AFP PHOTO)

Five men have been identified by the US as linked to the September 2012 attack on a diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, though they remain at large as the FBI seeks to gather sufficient evidence for a civilian trial.

According to the Associated Press, the five individuals thought to be responsible for the attack, in which four were killed including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, could be taken into custody by the US military, though sufficient proof seems lacking to try them in court.

The suspects are thought to be members of Ansar al-Shariah, a Libyan militia group whose fighters were seen near the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi just prior to the assault.

At least some of the suspects have been in contact with previously identified regional Jihadists, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

A senior Obama administration official has told the AP that the FBI identified several individuals that may either have information, or may have been directly involved in the attack. However, per that official, a unilateral military mission to extract the suspects without Libya’s cooperation is thought to be potentially damaging to relations.

Photos for three of the five suspects have been released by the FBI in the hopes that the public may provide information, images evidently obtained by security cameras at the US diplomatic post at the time of the attack. Delays due to the security situation meant that the agency took three weeks to obtain the camera and their data, and relay them to American officials in Tripoli.

These images released by the FBI on May 1, 2013, show three unknown suspects sought in the Benghazi, Libya, attack on the US Consulate on September 1, 2012. (AFP PHOTO / FBI)

Mounting criticism of the administration and the State Department under former Secretary Hillary Clinton have added a deep layer of scrutiny, both in the evident lack of security at Benghazi prior to the attack, as well as accusations of a cover-up following the killing of US staff.

Last week, the White House released 99 pages of emails pertaining to talking points used by Susan Rice to describe the attack, which initially pointed to a protest regarding an anti-Islamic film that had spiraled out of control.

According to those emails, subsequent drafts made in conjunction with the US intelligence community omitted any mention of terrorism, including groups such as Ansar al-Shariah or Al-Qaeda, purportedly because their involvement was still unclear.

Several GOP legislators have taken issue with delays in the investigation, evidently caused by infighting between the FBI, and the Departments of Justice and State.

In October Senator John McCain went so far as to allege that President Obama had been dishonest in initial media appearances referring to the attack in Benghazi as a spontaneous demonstration that spun out of control, owing to the existence of recordings at the consulate of the attack. A delay in the investigation would, as CBS News previously reported, explain why the administration would not have been aware of terrorist involvement at that point.

According to information provided by the AP, FBI investigators hope to locate additional evidence, such as a smoking gun video depicting the suspects in the act of setting the fires which killed the ambassador, or firing at a CIA base where surviving US staff took shelter.

But Rep. Howard P. "Buck"  McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he is concerned the Obama administration is treating terrorism as criminal actions instead of acts of war that would elicit a much harsher response from the United States.

"Regardless of what happened previously, we have made very, very, very substantial progress in that investigation," said Attorney General Eric Holder to lawmakers last week.

That assertion seemed to coordinate with statements made by Secretary of State John Kerry to congress last month. "They do have people ID'd," Kerry said of the investigation. "They have made some progress. They have a number of suspects who are persons of interest that they are pursuing in this and building cases on," he added.

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