By Barbara Starr, Suzanne Kelly and Tim Lister
Whether he likes it or not, a Libyan by the name of Sufian bin Qumu has suddenly made it into the bloodstream of the international media in connection with the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last week.
Fox News reported late Wednesday that bin Qumu may have been involved in the attack, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed. However, a senior U.S. official told CNN Thursday that so far the United States had no evidence that he was - either in leading or planning the attack.
Qumu is a senior figure in the group Ansar al Shariah, which appeared to condone the attack immediately after it occurred, but later stressed it was not involved.
The U.S. official said Ansar al Shariah had not been positively identified as responsible for the attack, "which is more likely to turn out to be a bunch of various elements and basically AQ militants."
Another senior official told CNN: "Ansar al Sharia is only one of the elements they are looking at. The notion that the intelligence community has zeroed in on either Ansar al Sharia - its leader Sufian bin Qumu in particular is completely untrue."
"The U.S. intelligence community has no intelligence indicating that bin Qumu was on scene or even directly involved in the attack," the official said.
That jibes with congressional testimony Wednesday from Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
"A number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area," Olsen said.
"We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al Qaeda or al Qaeda's affiliates - in particular, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb."
In the words of one U.S. official Thursday: "Any suggestion that a leading suspect or 'mastermind' of the attack has been identified at this point is premature. It is safe to assume that any significant extremist in eastern Libya is going to be under a lot of scrutiny right now."
As for bin Qumu himself, Libyan sources have told CNN within the past week that it's unclear whether he is actively involved in the jihadist cause in Libya. He was transferred from Guantanamo Bay detention center to Libya in 2007, after being recommended for "continued detention" in another country. He was later released from jail in Tripoli as part of a deal by which members and former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were freed in return for renouncing violence against the state. The deal was mediated by Saif al Gadhafi.
In recent interviews with local media, Qumu has said he is not part of any jihadist group. But a Libyan source told CNN in June that he was the only one of five militant leaders in eastern Libya to reject an appeal from Libya's Grand Mufti, Asadiq Gherayli, to pledge not to resort to violence.
Qumu is believed to have at least one compound or camp to the east of the city of Derna, in wooded hills close to Ras al Hilal on the Mediterranean coast. There have been tensions between him and other militant leaders in and around Derna - long an area associated with Islamic extremism.
Local reports linked him to an assassination attempt against another militant leader earlier this year.
He told an interviewer in March on a blog called Arfad al-Tamimi that his "batallion" had not been asked to join the national army, but insisted there were no foreign fighters in it. Asked about his wearing Afghan-style fatigues, he responded: "We are now free, and instead of talking about my outfit, why are they not questioning what women are wearing nowadays," apparently a reference to local women not wearing the full veil.
He is then asked: "On your (batallion's) website, there is a picture of an explosive belt with the words 'How much I miss you.' What does that mean?"
Bin Qumu reportedly answered: "I'd like to know who posted that."
Now 53 years old, Qumu was once a tank driver in the Libyan army, but the Gadhafi regime said he was imprisoned for a variety of offenses including murder.
Qumu escaped from jail in 1993 and made his way to Afghanistan where he trained in Osama bin Laden's Torkham Camp, according to a background summary assessment from the U.S. military, based on Qumu's statements.
He joined the Taliban in 1998, according to the assessment, and was wounded in the leg during fighting near Kabul after the 9/11 attacks. He was captured in Peshawar, Pakistan, and handed to U.S. forces, arriving at Guanatanamo Bay in May 2002.
The detainee "has a non-specific personality disorder," according to the assessment.