The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames on Sept. 11, 2012. (Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters)The head of the U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center told lawmakers on Wednesday that the deadly attack on Sept. 11 that claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three aides was a "terrorist" strike. But the official, Matt Olsen, said evidence so far suggests it was not planned in advance.
Olsen told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that investigators were "looking at indications" that some of those who carried out the bloody assault on the American consulate in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi had "connections" to al-Qaeda, including a regional offshoot, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Ambassador Chris Stevens and three aides "were killed in the course of a terrorist attack," Olsen told the committee.
But "what we don't have, at this point, is specific intelligence that there was significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack," he said. "The best information we have now, the facts that we have now, indicate that this was an opportunistic attack."
Still, he said, investigators are looking for any sign that the attack was planned.
(On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney had said there was no evidence of a planned attack—but he refused to rule out that possibility as long as the investigation is ongoing. And he noted that armed groups eager to hit Western and specifically American targets may have taken advantage of protests against an anti-Islam film online to strike the compound.)
Olsen echoed that point, saying some of the well-armed attackers "seized on the opportunity" offered by the demonstrations, which rippled from Egypt to Libya, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen.
FBI Associate Deputy Director Kevin Perkins, testifying alongside Olsen, said his agency was conducting interviews and gathering evidence tied to the attack.
Senator Susan Collins, the committee's top Republican, said that after "numerous briefings" on the incident she had reached "the opposite conclusion"—that the attack was planned in advance.
It was "an attack that should have been anticipated based on the previous attacks against Western targets, the proliferation of dangerous weapons in Libya, the presence of al-Qaeda in that country and the overall threat environment," she said.
"This was a premeditated, planned attack that was associated with the date of 9/11, the anniversary of 9/11," she said. "I just don't think that people come to protests equipped with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and other heavy weapons."
"There was no specific intelligence regarding an imminent attack prior to September 11th on our post in Benghazi," Olsen told Collins.