U.S. counterterrorism officials told lawmakers Thursday that uncooperative or less-than-capable local law enforcement in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia is slowing the search for suspects in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya on Sept. 11.
Authorities in the region have not yet arrested many of the suspects the U.S. wants to question about the violent attack on the American compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11, according to two U.S. officials briefed on a private House Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday, where counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement chiefs disclosed the information to lawmakers.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose the information, said Egypt has arrested Egyptian Islamic Jihad member Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad for possible links to the attack, but key al-Qaida sympathizers remain free. They added that U.S. requests to go after the suspects unilaterally have also been rebuffed. The arrest was initially reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The officials said that Thursday's hearing was intended to re-focus lawmakers' discussions on the status of the investigation into finding those who carried out the attack and holding them accountable. Until now, discussions had largely focused on how the White House described the attack in its aftermath and whether U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice played down al-Qaida's possible role by blaming it on an angry mob.
The hearing comes a week before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton briefs lawmakers on an independent review of the attack by an accountability review board, led by retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering. Officials expect that the review will focus on security assessments done of the consulate before the attack, as well as the actions of the diplomatic security agents during it.
Three U.S. officials say the security team did not fire a single shot, as a crowd of militants and looters overwhelmed the compounds of the local Libyan security team.
The State Department agents lost track of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens during the incident, in the heavy smoke after the militants set fire to the building. Stevens was overcome by smoke and was later carried out of the damaged building by Libyans who took him to a local hospital where he apparently died from smoke inhalation. His exit from the building was filmed on a camera cellphone and posted on YouTube. It later became part of a composite video crafted by the intelligence community to show lawmakers a real-time sequence of the attack, weaving it together with surveillance video from a CIA drone and from the consulate's security cameras.
U.S. intelligence has blamed the attack on militants who are members of a number of different groups, from the local Libyan militia Ansar al-Shariah, whose members were seen at the U.S. consulate during the attack, to militants with links to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — core al-Qaida's leading representative in the African region. The consulate's cameras captured many of the faces of armed men in a mob, and some have been questioned, but most remain free.
U.S. intelligence efforts have been hampered by the evacuation of CIA officers from Benghazi in the aftermath of the attack.
Libyan officials could not be reached for comment.
AP writer Adam Goldman contributed to this report.
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