By Barbara Starr
Within a day or so of the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Libya earlier this month, the U.S. intelligence community began to gather information suggesting it was the work of extremists either affiliated with al Qaeda groups or inspired by them, a senior U.S. official told CNN Thursday.
"We started to get a strong sense of it," the official said. He declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the information.
A law enforcement source told CNN National Security Analyst Fran Townsend that this was the understanding of the intelligence community within 24-hours after the attack on September 11.
"The law enforcement source ... said to me, from day one we had known clearly that this was a terrorist attack," Townsend said on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" Wednesday night.
The efforts by al Qaeda, especially the Mali-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to extend its reach into Libya and elsewhere has been of concern to the United States.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the group's connection to extremists in Benghazi, where the U.S. compound was attacked and four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.
"What is happening inside Mali is augmented by the rising threat from violent extremism across the region. For some time, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups have launched attacks and kidnappings from northern Mali into neighboring countries," Clinton said. "Now, with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions. And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi."
That comment has been interpreted as Clinton tying those behind the Benghazi assault to al Qaeda. But a senior State Department official said late Wednesday night that Clinton was speaking more generally about how AQIM is working to undermine democratic transitions such as the one in Libya.
"But with regard to the specific issue of who was responsible for the Benghazi attack, as everybody in the administration has said, we can't go beyond our preliminary statements until we have the results of the FBI investigation," the State Department official said.
The FBI's probe has been hampered by a lack of access to Benghazi and to suspects who have already been arrested by Libyan authorities.
The Obama administration was criticized after several officials described the attack as being an assault launched to take advantage of a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim film. But others, including National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen and Clinton, have referred to the incident as a terrorist act, as has White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Much of the initial intelligence about the incident came from intercepts of communications. But even at that point, the information was "bits and pieces" and needed to be verified, the senior U.S. official said. Even now inside the national security community, there is no firm consensus on several key points, the official emphasized.
U.S. intelligence analysts are still looking at the question of whether local extremists quickly took advantage of an opportunity to attack the consulate as they saw the initial demonstrations unfold outside the gate. It also may be the case, according to the official, that there was no central "command and control" directing or ordering the attack.
A key analytical question also now being posed is whether this ability to establish a stronghold and then rapidly attack targets of opportunity is potentially a new trend or capability by al Qaeda affiliates, especially in North Africa.